Armagnac branches out

“People were up in arms to begin with, particularly about the finish he was doing to the armagnacs,” says Garnham. “Even I was sceptical, but they are lovely, and I understand his thinking, bridging the gap between armagnac and whisky and bourbon drinkers is quite difficult, so this can be something familiar and, in many ways, armagnac can be closer to a single malt whisky than to a cognac.”

And the arrival of a character like Raj Bhakta, although greeted with twitching of curtains and sideways glances, could be a shot in the arm for the region.

“Already we have something like 40% of the American market, but it is very niche over there even now. But whatever Bhakta is doing in America now is great for the whole category because it’s putting the name of armagnac on people’s lips,” says Garnham.

“Tiny producers who may only have a couple of barrels are now coming to us with particular vintages that might otherwise go to a cooperative for peanuts and instead we’re paying proper money. It’s supporting small producers, we’re employing people, we are going to a tonnellerie and buying 40 barrels whereas they’d normally get one or two barrels from each different producer. We’re trying to ensure that everybody benefits.”

Bhakta Spirits has tapped into something unique to armagnac. The access the category can give to extremely old and rare vintages is unrivalled. The brand’s stock includes 350 bottles from the 1868 vintage alongside bottlings from 1878, 1888, 1893, 1898, and 1900.

“These are extremely rare, extremely valuable. It’s an amazing thing to contemplate for a minute how old they are, what an armagnac from 1868 has seen while it has sat quietly in the chez somewhere,” says Garnham.

The extreme age statements can be an attention-grabbing hook for armagnac, but it’s in the category’s variety that many of the brandy’s enthusiasts find what they’re looking for.

“Spirits connoisseurs are not necessarily looking for old armagnacs,” says Tariquet’s Bouchard. “They often appreciate young or mid-aged armagnacs – old doesn’t mean always better quality.”

And regardless of preference, there’s an inherent lack of scalability to selling your wider category on the promise of 19th-century stock.

“There is an important demand for very old and rare bottlings, however, every year there are fewer stocks of these armagnacs in our cellar and in the region overall so it would be difficult to sustain this market,” explains Jean-Noël Dollet, executive manager at Janneau.

Armagnac’s strength is in its variety. Producers can use a broad palette of grape varieties, the four most common being Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Colombard, and Baco, which is unique to the region, but producers can choose from 10 authorised varieties. And, while the category is notable for the age of some vintages, it goes both ways, with producers authorised to release an unmatured Blanche that spends just three months in stainless steel.

“Depending on the market we are in we can offer something different,” says Dollet. “If the market is whisky-driven, we can focus more on our Single Distillery range, which is made using a double distillation process with Ugni Blanc from Ténarèze. In more traditional markets we go for our Janneau Blend range, which is made of a blend of single and double distillation eaux-de-vie from Ugni Blanc and Baco from both Bas-Armagnac and Ténarèze. And then you have markets like China that like to focus on vintages.”

Therein lies an explanation as to why people love armagnac and why it remains a relatively obscure spirit. For a growing region that is just 15,000ha, the range of expressions on offer is astounding, but for an uninitiated consumer, the amount of choice itself could make it difficult to know where to begin.

Armagnac has all the tools to grow in scale, and the arrival of brands like Bhakta and continued plaudits from tastemakers will ensure its introduction to fresh audiences. But for a spirits category that is so loved for its idiosyncrasies and vagaries it wouldn’t want to welcome too much change.

“Fashion is short term, and armagnac is long term,” says Bouchard. “We don’t aim to create a fashion, we just want more consumers to discover armagnac.”

Armagnac is never going to be the global giant that other categories are, but it will continue to attract an audience of hardcore supporters, and anyway, sometimes it’s more interesting to be the Velvet Underground than the Backstreet Boys.