Guillaume Drouin on making Calvados
Author: Issariya Morgan
Guillaume Drouin is the third generation of his family to head up the business at Christian Drouin, a Normandy distillery specialising in making Calvados. We speak to him about Calvados’ local roots and sustainability in the orchard.
The picturesque orchards of Christian Drouin Calvados lie not far from the Normandy coast. The Drouin family have been based here since 1960, when Christian Drouin Senior acquired a swathe of land already planted with apple trees.
“At the time, my grandfather had a fertiliser business,” says Guillaume Drouin, who represents the third generation of his family to head up the distillery. “He used to really like the Pays d’Auge region in Normandy, so he decided to buy a farm there. The farm was planted with apple trees, and at first, he thought he’d sell the fruits. But then, the idea struck him that it would be more interesting to produce a good Calvados from the apples.”
Christian Drouin Senior began to make Calvados alongside his fertiliser business, “selling a few bottles on the weekend from the farm.” But his stock grew with each year, until the family had amassed the largest inventory of Calvados vintages in the region.
It wouldn’t be until the ’80s that the distillery was turned into an official company, in an effort driven by Christian’s son, Christian Drouin Junior. His time spent living in Canada had given him an international focus, which married with his vision of introducing a historical, local spirit to a wider audience.
Guillaume himself joined the company in 2004, with a background in winemaking as well as experience in the rum industry in Haiti. “When I arrived in the business, I thought I knew a lot of things from my winemaking experience. But I quickly realised that making cider is very different.”
A land of apples and milk
“I’d like to tell you a short story, which I like a lot,” he begins. “Farmers in Normandy produce apples, but they also produce a lot of milk, which is used to make good butter, cream and cheese. A few centuries ago, farmers started asking themselves, “how can I produce my milk and cider from the same field?” The idea they came up with was to graft an apple tree on a trunk high enough for cows to go underneath them.
“In August, they seek shade in the branches, with their heads up because they love the apples. They catch a branch and shake it, and the apples fall down. The apples that fall first are always the diseased ones – so they help us keep the orchard healthy by eating the bad apples. They also keep the grass short by eating it, so by 10th September, we’re ready for a good crop.”
It’s sustainable farming in the most classical sense of the word: the product of centuries of knowledge and wisdom preserved in traditions. “When it comes to sustainability, we’re very lucky because we don’t need to incorporate anything new – it’s already been there for centuries,” says Guillaume.
The sharing of intergenerational knowledge is often spoken of as a custom that comes naturally to family-run businesses, with their focus on long-term, truly sustainable goals.
“It’s a privilege to work in a family business,” he reflects, “You inherit the work of your parents and grandparents, so there is also pressure and a sense of duty. But you don’t have any investors telling you what to do, so you can take any decision you like. We have a lot of freedom in the way we work.”
Tradition and innovation
Coupled with that freedom is a respect for tradition. “I have a lot of respect for the 500 years of history which has brought Calvados to the point it is now. I’m convinced time is a very good teacher,” he says.
“At the same time, I like to think that we can always improve by making small changes year by year. We have experimented a lot with ageing, using different casks – Cognac casks, Sherry casks, traditional wine casks which we toast beforehand. We like to have fun, but always with the same idea that if we do something, it has to be perfect.
“But we also like the idea of doing something that has never been done before. Six years ago, we started to produce a gin made out of apples, which was very innovative for a traditional Calvados producer. And we did it in our style: a classic gin made with a very technical approach. And all with local fruits that grow here.”
Another area of interest – one that offers further scope for innovation – lies in cocktails. “In the ’90s, my father wrote the first Calvados cocktail book with the help of a barman from Normandy,” says Guillaume. “It was probably 20 years too early – interest only picked up around 10 years ago.
“Now, in many countries, we see a real interest in Calvados from bartenders because it’s a very fruity drink, and it’s also versatile in spirits. It has the image of a traditional, noble product with historical roots, which bartenders appreciate.”
The pleasures of Calvados
Calvados’ popularity amongst bartenders may be a relatively recent phenomenon, but its connection to the world of hospitality is nothing new; it has traditionally been a mainstay in local bistros, restaurants and hotels.
“In the ’80s, Calvados was mostly drunk in a cup of coffee – and very locally, in Normandy,” Guillaume recalls. “People would go to the bistro and have a glass of Calvados in the morning to wake up, then go to work.
“My father’s thinking was that Calvados deserved a brighter future than a cup of coffee, so the first thing he did was visit all the Michelin-starred restaurants. In these places, you’ll usually find someone who is prepared to taste a new product and make their own judgement about it. And because we had a high-quality Calvados, it worked.”
How would Guillaume enjoy a glass of his own spirit?
“When you drink a good Calvados, you need time,” he says. “The flavours in the glass are going to change a lot. I always say, if you want to take a Calvados, what you need are two hours and a good friend. Just take your time, enjoy it and appreciate life – that’s my advice.”
Browse our selection of Christian Drouin Calvados here.