Marion Sauvebois sneaks a peek at the shiny new Calvados Experience, the first centre dedicated to Normandy’s tipple of choice
“Not what you imagined?” grins Marie-Anne Saloux, one of the masterminds behind the Calvados Experience, as she ushers me through what can only be described as a movie set. Goggle-eyed I follow her along a cobbled lane, past a bafflingly lifelike orchard to the ‘village square’ and its cluster of half-timbered Norman cottages. No, not what I had pictured. Not even close. The handy work of Spirit France, the global Calvados producer behind such labels as Père Magloire, Boulard and Lecompte, the 3,000m2 centre in Pont-l’Évêque is something else altogether.
The heady scent of ripe apple wafts through the air as we inch towards the ‘country inn’. Within seconds, motion-sensors kick into action, and clips of punters indulging in a cheeky tipple dance across the façade.
Halfway between whimsical theme park (teetering just on the right on the side of gimmicky), film studio and tasting rooms, Calvados Experience is one heck of a hi-tech romp through the apple brandy’s  rich history and production. After an introductory lm charting the genesis of the region’s beloved drink, I am spirited to the ‘Orchard room’, a greeting party of workmen tipping their helmets as we walk past. With barely three weeks until the grand opening of Normandy’s, nay France’s, very first centre dedicated to the luscious brandy, it’s all hands on deck as we edge our way into the warehouse – until recently Père Magloire’s sprawling headquarters in the heart of Calvados . “Some teething problems still need to be worked out,” explains Marie-Anne. Catching sight of her contractor, she waves him over to discuss a (truly minor) syncing issue. “It’s a perfect homage to Calva,” I play down the niggle – immediately regretting my mindless use of Calvados’s colloquial nickname (one that has become, to many, synonymous with cheap plonk). Marie-Anne stops dead in her tracks. “Not Calva, it’s Calvados!” she corrects (firmly but not unkindly). My uncouth remark has for better or worse brought us to the crux of the matter and Calvados Experience’s raison d’être. “We created the centre to educate people about Calvados. Foreigners see Calvados as a noble drink, but a lot of French people are stuck on this image of ‘Calva’ as a cheaply-made, strong eau de vie drunk by farmhands.”
It’s true that this unfair (and outdated) rap as a mouth-puckering, hangover-inducing firewater has been hard to shake, no thanks to Parisians’ enduring fondness for ‘café-Calva’. Though there’s no denying the newfound thirst for premium apple brandy. If the flurry of Calvados-based cocktails cropping up in swanky bars is anything to go by, the fine spirit is having something of a moment. Feeling the winds of change blowing two years ago and spying an opportunity to restore the tipple’s, and indeed the industry’s, good name, Spirit France dreamt up Calvados Experience.
Far from a self-serving marketing exercise, Marie-Anne insists, the hub was envisaged as a one-stop shop for amateurs and connoisseurs alike, flying the flag not only for its own brands but a flurry of independent labels, local producers and one-man-bands plying their ancestral trade. (In fact the centre will give out a distilleries map should punters choose to hop on the region’s Calvados trail). And the well-stocked bar and tasting rooms – the final stop and undeniable highlight on visitors’ journey of discovery – promise to be an Ali Baba’s Cave of every variety around.
“It’s time people recognised Calvados for what it is. We want to celebrate this age-old savoir-faire and rich tradition,” booms Marie-Anne before spotting a workman and bolting once more. As if on cue, a jaunty 1950s ditty crinkles through the speakers. “Calvados, c’est le meilleur...” croons the songster. “Le meilleur…” Message received.
For more information about the Calvados Experience, visit www.calvados-experience.com 
From France Today magazine