I first tried Hennessy at the mature age of 23 (about ten years after I had my first drink of alcohol). When I downed it in a gulp, the taste of the concentrate of a thousand candied apples set on fire didn’t send visions of the club dancing in my head; it didn’t evoke thoughts of Tupac Shakur (an aficionado of the drink who loved to rhyme Hennessy with enemies). Instead, the taste was strangely comforting. It brought my grandparents’ house to mind, with its faded carpets, deflated couches, candlesticks warped and droopy from a long-ago heatwave, and stacks and stacks of old books no one had ever read, nor would, their pages untouched by a book knife and left to grow velvety with age, emitting a faint scent of vanilla as they did.
My maternal grandparents are from the sleepy French town of L’Aigle, nestled in southern Normandy, with 7,983 inhabitants who could fit handily inside about six New York City blocks. When it was carpet-bombed by the Allies in 1944, the shells spared the house where my grandfather grew up and would go on to raise his own children, a house in whose perilously low-ceilinged cellar—among troves of jewel-colored jams my grandmother has diligently maintained for half a century—a few prewar bottles of wine and Calvados survived.
Calvados is the official liquor of this region rich in apple orchards, an apple brandy produced in the Calvados department, the lush, rainy coastal area just an hour north of L’Aigle. From the Dutch brandewijn, meaning “burnt wine,” brandy is any liquor distilled from wine or fruit mash; cognac, of which Hennessy is the world’s most popular brand, is a distillate of wine specifically from the southwestern subprefecture of Cognac.
I had to google the technical classifications to understand why drinking Hennessy felt like meeting a long-lost relative. But what I’d always known was that Calvados (calva for short) was a gemstone-colored liquid, both elegant and salt-of-the-earth, that it was made from apples from nearby, and that it was harsh and sweet and forbidden. My mom once told me about an old traditional treat called a canard, a lump of sugar doused in calva, that in the old days was given to Norman children as early as age seven or eight (though I never enjoyed any such treat). The times have changed: in 1956, wine was banned from school cafeterias for children under 14 before even high schools went completely dry in 1981. While my parents allowed me to drink wine at home (in moderation) as early as 12, they drew the line at hard liquor.
As Americans once learned, however, prohibition stokes the thirst for alcohol. At a restaurant on the coast where my grandparents were regulars—a place that might well have been around for 150 years, with its stiff white tablecloths secured with metal clips against the English Channel breezes and its ceiling painted with seagulls—the jovial, snarky waiter would always close out our meals with a trou normand for the whole table, a round of shots of Calvados to aid digestion. My parents never touched theirs; I was supposed to leave mine alone too. But once, I saw my grandfather tip the contents of his shot glass into his post-meal coffee and I excitedly followed suit—however old I was, I remember the rebelliousness of a teenager with the joyful clumsiness of a child, and took a big sip before anyone could stop me. As the chalky, chocolaty café serré mixed in my mouth with the oaky bitterness of the calva, I gulped too fast and my throat was ablaze, like a wound.
Despite my mom’s rueful dressing-down (and the taste), I wanted another sip; maybe I wanted the tradition and the hard-won knowledge that came with being an old Norman who poured calva in his coffee, who could walk confidently through any stretch of forest and tell you what all the trees and shrubs were; maybe I just wanted to be a cool adult who drank booze without even flinching.
Wine never had the same allure. Always red unless otherwise specified, wine was the unquestionable, mandatory lifeblood of family dinners, as tannic and dusty as the midnight mass my little atheist soul had to sit through every Christmas Eve. As an adult I would learn more about wine beyond le gros rouge qui tache, table wine, literally “a coarse red that stains.” I would scan the inscrutable labels on liquor store shelves to pick out an $11 bottle of Rioja or malbec (I don’t fucking know what those words really signify but they’re supposed to bode well), the sort of thing you bring to a housewarming in the East Village or a dinner party in Park Slope. But for most of my life wine wasn’t a rarefied gastronomic experience that you painstakingly paired with the exact right meal or used to telegraph your highbrow tastes; it was an everyday experience I didn’t even think about because it felt so unremarkable. Wine was simply what my grandfather and great-uncles drank a lot of while expounding on forestry and how much they loved Sarkozy.
(The female elders, not so much. Traditionally, if not always in practice, the rules of propriety didn’t allow women to personally pour wine—especially not into their own glass.)
On a few momentous occasions, we’d uncork one of those precious prewar bottles of wine that would shine so lustrous and black under all the cobwebs. But those attempts at resurrecting history never went as planned. The ancient cork might collapse at the touch of the corkscrew, crumbling into the wine, which would in any case have long since turned to vinegar; if I’d force a sip, I was never sure if it was too strong for my palate or just bad.
Time was kinder to the old calva, though; I still remember how it tasted, so smooth it needed no sugar, water, or ice, nothing. I had hoped opening it would prompt my grandfather to talk about the time when it was bottled, about the war and the occupation; I wanted to hear about when his father took out all the floorboards of this very house, so it would be uninhabitable for German occupiers. It didn’t bring up anything in particular; we talked about nothing more significant than the weather and the big-box Leclerc store that had come to town and was menacing the small businesses. But I was content with just the calva, its softness and depth, like the sun-warmed wood of an apple tree.
My grandfather died in the winter of my senior year of college. Over a year would pass before I returned to L’Aigle, to that house, and walked again in the study where his body had been laid out in the days after his death for visitors to contemplate. I remembered curling up in the sagging chair in that study, scrounging around for stationery and fountain pens to write poems. But the sunbeams that shone through the window didn’t warm me anymore. And my family hasn’t yet returned to any of the restaurants where we used to be regulars; it still feels too soon.
On the way back to the US, I spent my last 13 euros on some Calvados at the CDG duty-free. It came in a thick plastic bottle, a burnt-orange color that screamed “caustic sulfite caramel coloring.” The next time I threw a party, I offered my friends shots of the liquor and everyone who accepted ended up spluttering from its incandescent burn. In that moment, it didn’t taste good to me either, swilled from a Solo cup, surrounded by loud music. And I couldn’t really explain why I’d pressed the calva upon them, why I myself liked it. I guess you had to be there.