Good Things Come to Those Who Wait
Let’s face it; some things are just better with time. More importantly, they get better with the perfect amount of time. This is undoubtedly true with curating an ideal wine cellar, but it’s imperative when creating a perfect Armagnac.
Armagnac is a French Brandy from the Gascony region. It’s produced from grapes that include Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Bacco 22A, (the only AOC hybrid varietal allowed in France). The Armagnac region is comprised of three Crus including Bas, Haut, and Tennareze. The area is home to the Musketeers, and the birthplace of the culinary delight, Fois Gras. Neighbors to Bordeaux, this place is no stranger to fine food and drink. One could not ask for a better representation of the rustic and passionate people of Gascony than the rich Mahogany glow of France’s greatest treasure.
In many cases, Armagnac is simply a distillate made from excess wines from the many local estates. Once distilled and barreled, this eau-de-vie may lay in wait and be bequeathed to generations of that estate. It is not uncommon for Armagnacs to be aged for upwards of 30 to 50 years in cask before being transferred to glass demijohns where oak influence ends, but yet the eau de vie continues to wait. Due to the limited quantities, a cottage industry has arisen, a niche business wherein négociants buy these lone casks from neighboring estates in the area and either release them immediately or wait even further.
One of the most well-known of these négociants is F. Darroze, known worldwide for selecting some of the finest casks available. Buying from many suppliers allows Darroze to bring select casks that are too small in production to justify any sort of sustainable business but combined as an offer will enable the majesty of Armagnac to be shared globally. Therefore each bottle shows the estate name, the year of distillation, and lastly, the number of years in cask. With Darroze Armagnacs, it truly does take a village.
Another titan of Armagnac, albeit with a different approach, is Laubade. They batch together eau- de -vie from various estates, but put their sole focus on the year of production. The alcohol is reduced to 40%, which is not always usual. Many négociants offer their selections at natural cask strength. Laubade has vintage Armagnacs going back over a century. Tasting something from your birth year and gaining a complete understanding of what a chronological history of beverage tastes like is a once in a lifetime experience and one that I cannot promote enough.
Armagnac is steeped in tradition and history but that does not mean it is opposed to innovation. A newcomer to the market is from the founder of WhistlePig, Raj Bhakta. Raj has launched Bhakta Armagnac, after purchasing a generation's worth of aged Armagnac stock, and he’s releasing it to us all with a twist. His 50 year old Bjakta Armagnac has been finished in an Islay whisky cask and offers something new by adding just a touch of peat smoke to the final product. I have tasted a couple of experiments with the finishing that he has in the works and all I can say is, the man who innovated Rye is onto something, so keep an eye out.
Armagnac delivers extraordinary rich flavors and aromas, including dark chocolate, prune, leather, and warming baking spice. As Armagnac ages, the aroma molecules break down over time and release yet another layer of flavors that we call Rancio, and they deliver sultry flavors of butter, mushroom, and aged tobacco. Armagnac is a masterful combination of rich complexities, and almost always delivers a warm bracing finish that is a decidedly perfect accompaniment to a fine cigar, and good company.
Unlike Darroze, other négociants do a very similar purchasing style, but rather than releasing single estate variations, they blend from various estates and release by single vintage. Laubade has established themselves as the leaders in blending in this style.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ethan Kelley is Acker’s Spirits Director and resident expert on all things distilled. Born in Michigan and raised in New Jersey, Ethan Kelley started his career in Spirits early. Beginning an exhaustive journey through the world of beverage alcohol, he got his start behind the bar. Eventually, interests piqued and liver primed, he made the switch from shots to sips and began a lifelong love affair with learning and tasting. Soon, he teamed with Flavien Desoblin at Brandy Library, and a career was launched.
Traditionally educated at Elon University, Ethan found his real learning came from visiting distilleries, cooperages, coppersmiths, and farms; along the way, he tasted and acquired new interests, including a passionate relationship with the outdoors and the influence of the natural world. An educator at heart, Ethan is committed to sharing his love of spirits with anyone who will listen. He has been a judge for both the NY Spirits Awards Competition and judged alongside industry legends in Paul Pacult's Ultimate Spirits Challenge. Ethan has also been featured as an industry expert on The History Channel, MSNBC, FOX News, and multiple NY Times appearances.