If I had the option of bringing K&L customers to visit one spirits producer in the world, one place where I thought the entire package experience would truly astound them, that place would be Michel Huard in France’s Calvados region. Why there and not some tiny distillery in the Scottish Highlands, or some rustic moonshiner out in the backwoods of Kentucky? Because you truly get a perspective on a way of life when you visit Huard, not just a simple lesson in apple brandy production, or a quaint little side-stop on a drive through nearby Caligny. Huard is a fully-functioning Norman farm that happens to distill a little apple brandy from time to time. They have cows, they make cider, they enjoy the country air, and they eat wonderful, wonderful food. I can’t think of another producer where the full French experience is as pure and joyous as it is here. But that has as much to do with the people who run the place, as it does the quality and beauty of their operation.
Jean-François Guillouet is the man running the show these days at Michel Huard. He’s not only well-dressed and good-looking, he’s making some of the best Calvados in the region today. His attention to detail is truly admirable and the efforts are palpable when you taste his brandies. They have richness and depth, but never at the expense of the fruit. There’s a refined balance in the Huard Calvados that is the result of sheer dedication to proven, traditional methods of production. When you like the person making the product as much as the product itself, everything seems to taste that much better.
It can surprise customers when I tell them that many of their favorite French "distillers" don't actually own a still or a distillery per se. Many Armagnac and Calvados producers are simply farmers who grow a number of different crops, fruit being one of them. When it's time to actually distill the fermented cider at Huard, Jean-François calls up Pierre who drives his still over on a flatbed and feeds the wood-burning fire himself while monitoring the process, a cigarette dangling from his lower lip as he fuels the oven. It's exactly the type of idyllic scene that larger industrial distillers today are attempting to present in order to appear more down-home traditional to visitors, but at Huard it's simply the way things are. We were lucky enough to be there on a day when distillation was occurring.
Pierre also does distillation for a number of other Calvados producers, cutting the heads and tails manually when the spirit became too course for taste. We were able to dip a glass directly into the heart and sample some fresh spirit right off the still. I was there with my long-time friend Charles Neal (pictured in blue), who works as the importer for Huard and helps us with a number of our other directly-purchased French spirits.
Jean-François's mother was also at the estate today to give us a hand, as was Camille Rabache who helps run things around the production center. We were prepping some red potatoes to throw on the barbecue for lunch when Camille realized one was oddly shaped just like a heart. There's nothing but love going into those brandies!
While the ladies helped prep the food, Charles, Jean-François and I headed into the barrel room to try our hand at a little blending. Huard has a number of fantastic single vintage expressions on hand and we carry them at K&L whenever they're available. Our goal, however, was to see if we could combine some of them into a custom blend that we could offer as an entry level expression for newcomers to the genre. I think we got close to a winner.
After a full-scale Calvados experience we sat down for le petit dejeuner, complete with Huard pommeau—somewhat like a Norman pineau des charentes that combines fresh apple juice with Calvados to create something slightly sweet that's a bit lower in proof at 17% ABV. Served cold it makes a fantastic aperitif.
We dined on terrine, pâté, and sausage before moving into grilled steak with roasted potatoes. Dessert was a divine apple tart with a glass of Calvados. "Ça va?" Camille asked me as I finished my last bite. "C'est comme une reve," I answered. Eating and drinking at Huard really is like a dream for spirited fans of food and drink. It's the bucolic French countryside, the picturesque petit producteur, and the dusty old warehouse full of delicious barrel-aged spirits that you've always dreamed of, hosted by a wonderful group of people that are every bit as nice as their Calvados is delicious. I'm not sure it gets any better than this.