On the Trail

On Holy Ground at Camut

David Driscoll

For those who understand its quality and importance, traveling to the Domaine de Semainville in Calvados’s Pay d’Auge region can be almost a religious experience.  Whereas most tourists might simply pass by the Norman farm, its orchards and fields of brown cows seemingly no different from the next, serious fans of serious spirits know what lies beyond the greenery. Since Gustave Camut first built the estate in 1900 there has been apple brandy distilled on the property. It was Gustave’s son, however—Adrien Camut—who built the reputation of his namesake into what we know it as today: simply put, the best apple brandy in the world.

Adrien Camut not only improved the quality of Calvados being made at the domaine, but also the region itself. He invested in better equipment, took an interest in distillation practices, and strived to move beyond what was previously just called calvas—a rather course apple spirit you might add to your coffee. He began his career by making not just any drinkable cider, but the best possible cider. He branded it Le Père Camut and it quickly became popular for its unparalleled deliciousness.  With cider helping to pay the bills, Adrien had time to craft his Calvados distillate and as time went on (and the brandy matured longer) his talents and recognition began to grow. He became an outspoken advocate for higher standards in Calvados distillation, encouraging others around him to take better care of their conditions and challenging them to compete with Cognac and Armagnac as the country’s great spirits. He was also a salesman, and as the reputation for his Calvados spread across France, Adrien traveled to meet with top restaurants and retailers who were interested in tasting the very best. He eventually stopped making cider completely to focus 100% on distillation. Before he passed away in 1989 he handed the reigns of his small empire over to his son Claude, who would eventually hand it down to his children: Emmanuel, Jean-Michel, and Jean-Gabriel Camut, who run the domaine today. While much has changed in the world since Adrien first began making Calvados at Semainville, little has changed here at his estate.

The orchards at Camut are still the same—100% hautes-tiges, meaning all of their trees are tall and mature. The higher branches allow for animals like horses and cows to share the space (without eating the apples!), who help keep the trees healthy by eating weeds and leaving manure. It’s a symbiotic relationship that supports top-quality fruit for cider and Calvados. Not only are basse-tiges apple trees younger and less potent, they’re also less resistant to disease.

The alembic pot still is also the same one that Adrien originally built in 1950. It still runs like a dream.

All of the fruit is still used solely for Calvados production, which continues to be a huge distinction between Camut and other producers who make most of their profit from cider. Jean-Gabriel still manages quality by hand, sorting through each new batch so that only the best apples are pressed.

The brandies are still aged in the same gigantic wooden barrels, many of which were coopered before the first World War.

It’s an easy answer to a complicated question. Why are the Camut apple brandies so delicious? Because Adrien Camut figured out how to make the best Calvados possible and never changed the recipe once he discovered it. The quality was the simple product of hard work, time, and dedication—three things that cannot be engineered in this modern world. This being my third visit to the Domaine de Semainville in the last five years, I’ve found that very little has changed with the brothers as well.

Jean-Michel continues to work diligently and quietly with a soft smile. Jean-Gabriel is the same gentle giant he was before. Emmanuel maintains the same fire in his belly he has always carried—working on a few new additions to the family business like beekeeping and vinegar production (his Calvados balsamic, like his apple brandy, might be the best on the planet). It’s a romantically rustic existence here in Normandy. As I sat typing this post at the kitchen table, the brothers came and went from their duties, stopping from time to time to have a cup of tea or a quick snack, before leisurely leaving once again. There is always time to visit and talk. Nothing is rushed.

I had my own religious experience at Camut back in 2012. We stayed up all night eating steak cooked over an open fireplace, cutting pieces of Camembert, tromping through the darkened warehouses in the cold winter weather, and drinking Calvados from the 1940s. It’s a treasured memory I’ll hold with me until the day I die. This time around it’s still as enjoyable. We had steak again. We had plenty of cheese. The brandies are as good as ever; the experience just as intoxicating. But this time it’s more of a reminder than a revelation. It’s a glimpse at how easy and wonderful life’s little things can be if you can remember to slow down, take your time, and do things the right way from the start. It's also a reflection back towards a time when things were still built to last.

-David Driscoll