Armagnac is arguably the closest spirit to wine in terms of provenance, raw materials and the outlook of the growers, producers and brand owners. Christian Davis reports

ARMAGNAC has so much going for it that it’s difficult to know where to start. The fact that it begins with the first letter of the alphabet can only help when novices are seeking out the runners and riders of the spirits world.

At more than 700 years, the spirit of Gascony in south west France can claim to be one of the world’s oldest. Yet it is overshadowed by the big brown spirits from Scotland and neighbouring Cognac, let alone rum and bourbon. Armagnac has struggled to get its share of voice and throat. It is so small scale and the producers and their generic body, the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac, have made its scale a positive.

Amanda Garnham, attachée de presse for the BNIA says: “Armagnac’s strength lies in its rarity, its diversity, its traditional methods of production and the handcrafted family nature of its production with very few big companies.”

The UK was traditionally the important market for armagnac. Its rustic nature, vintages and ‘small scale-ness’ still attract spirits drinkers who wish to show off their discernment.

But there is a new kid on the block now. The Chinese have discovered armagnac and last year alone sales multiplied tenfold, reaching 320,000 bottles. China has gone from 10th to number one and the association has also been targeting Japan and Australia. Armagnac has done well in Japan despite the country’s economic doldrums and natural catastrophes, thanks in no small way to French chef Alain Ducasse and his restaurants.

Events for the Japanese trade professionals, such as tastings and food matchings, took place in Tokyo and Osaka. As for Australia, Melbourne and Sydney are good places to find armagnac cocktails, according to the BNIA (see list below). If armagnac has an Achilles or d’Artagnan (Alexandre Dumas’ famous musketeer was a Gascon) heel, it is cocktails (see May Matta-Allah in New York, page 38).

James Rackham, head of UK importer Emporia, has probably done more than most to further sales of armagnac in the UK, through the Comte de Lauvia and Marquis de Montesquiou brands, the former through multiple retailer Sainsbury’s. He sees it being drunk in the traditional way as a one-shot digestif.

Rackham says: “Cocktails are not really happening. There are so many other things, what with vodka, gin and tequila. Brandy is not really doing it. There is blanche armagnac but I do not really buy into that and I don’t think you need to make armagnac ‘contemporary’.

“With the history, tradition, the grapes, cepages (varieties) and the diverse appellations, I think there is a whole playground for someone interested in distillates,” says Rackham.

Rackham positioned Comte de Lauvia XO 12 Year Old at the same price point as The Glenlivet single malt scotch whisky, whereas he sees Marquis de Montesquiou as more “über-premium” and positions that more alongside the Hennessy cognacs.