Armagnac branches out

Oli Dodd finds foreign investment is helping to increase awareness of a pretty niche spirit.

Armagnac often arrives with taglines of ‘France’s best-kept secret’ and ‘Gascony’s hidden gem’. As descriptions they’re somewhat appropriate – the region’s list of independent producers doesn’t contain a globe-conquering household name and a Google search of armagnac’s industry body, the BNIA, first returns results for the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance – but despite its reputation as the spirit for those in the know, France’s oldest brandy is enjoying a share of the spotlight.

Volumes are still small and, while the BNIA isn’t entirely forthcoming about exact figures, armagnac sells around four or five million bottles a year, barely a dent on the 222.3 million bottles of cognac that were sold in 2021, according to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac.

But culturally, it’s a category that punches above its weight. In 2022, Domaine Tariquet Pure Folle Blanche 15 Year Old became the first armagnac to be named Supreme Champion in International Spirits Challenge history, and the category found new fans during the Covid lockdowns as curious drinkers and bartenders searched for a point of difference.

“More and more professionals such as bartenders, mixologists, sommeliers, wine shops and importers are curious and interested in discovering armagnac,” says Ithier Bouchard, commercial director at Domaine Tariquet.

“[The growth] has not been a question of geography but a question of people, of profile. In big markets, there are potentially more people interested, but you can find some everywhere. Armagnac has always been a question of people first, and that’s what makes it so exciting – it’s human and it’s real.”

As it tends to be with the world’s precious, underappreciated things, the converts are often fanatical. So unsurprisingly, as word spreads it has attracted interest beyond Gascony.

At the end of 2021, Pernod Ricard completed the sale of a majority stake in Société des Produits d’Armagnac, the owner of armagnac brands Marquis de Montesquiou and Comte de Lauvia, to the German-based Cloudsweeper owned by Alexander Stein, and 2020 saw the launch of US-based Bhakta Spirits. These developments mark an interesting turning point for the region – not only is the category receiving foreign investment but an influx of international attitudes.

The arrival in Gascony of Bhakta Spirits founder Raj Bhakta must’ve surprised a few of the locals. The founder of American whiskey brand Whistle Pig at one point ran for congress and appeared in the Donald Trump-hosted reality TV show The Apprentice. He was drawn to the region with the vision that there was an untapped consumer base among whisky and bourbon fans.

“It’s a very historical, rural area, and people aren’t used to this larger-than-life character who rolls up singing Be Our Guest,” says Amanda Garnham, who stepped down from the BNIA after 18 years in 2021 and has since joined Bhakta Spirits in a consulting capacity.

Bridging the gap

The brand’s flagship collection, Bhakta 50, blends armagnacs – the youngest being 50 and the oldest more than 150 years old – before the liquid undergoes a finish in Islay Scotch whisky casks.