Understanding Armagnac


To help explain the product, the Whisky Exchange puts on tastings with Marc Darroze for private customers. Florence Castarede helps with staff training at Berry Bros & Rudd wine merchant. Amathus, which owns four shops in London and supplies the Château de Laubade brand does some staff training. But I get the impression that, for most merchants, armagnac is such a small part of the business that it’s not worth putting that much time into. “We find it more difficult to sell armagnac than cognac. Brandy as a whole is currently relatively unfashionable, so the whole category is a slightly harder sell than it might otherwise be,” Rob Whitehead from Berry Bros says.

Most producers focus on educating on-trade. There’s a generic organisation, the BNIA (Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac), to help. Amanda Garnham, an English PR who fell in love with the region, runs an Armagnac Academy with the BNIA to educate the trade. She has put on tastings in New York and in London at 67 Pall Mall and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental.

The Connaught Hotel in London is a great champion, which might have something to do with its star chef, Helene Darroze, sister of Marc, who has just been elected president of the BNIA.

Her restaurant showcases the fine cuisine and, of course, drink of Gascony. Agostino Perrone, the head barman says: “We have a trolley of armagnac in the restaurant. It needs attention from staff members in order to get guests to try something new.”

It’s not just a digestif though – barmen now make a wide variety of cocktails with armagnac. “The cocktail market is a new one that is now really important,” says Florence Castarede.

Alex Kratena, formerly of the Artesian at the Langham Hotel in London, says: “We make special cocktails for armagnac. Each is so different. Light and aromatic brandies go well with citrus, whereas Baron de Sigognac, for example, works best in deep spirit-led drinks.”

There are now new expressions to capitalise on this market, such as unaged armagnac blanche. I have an example from Domaine du Tariquet at home which makes the most amazing Martini. There’s so much character, it’s almost like gin. Domaine Pellehaut makes an armagnac called L’Age de Glace, designed to be drunk with ice, that’s not dissimilar to a lowland malt whisky.

It’s a good comparison because, in its diversity, armagnac has more than a little in common with malt whisky. “No matter what kind of drinker you are there is an armagnac for you,” Kratena says.

Producers are beginning to aim their products at whisky buyers. Janneau produces a Single Distillery range that comes in cardboard tubes. Rather than opaque names such as XO, VS etc, increasingly bottles come with age statements. Many armagnacs are bottled directly from the cask without dilution. Previously producers didn’t make much of this but now realise this is a selling point so you are starting to see the words ‘cask strength’ on labels.

Domaine du Tariquet produces a powerfully smoky 15-year-old that tastes a bit like Lagavulin. It’s packaged in a very whisky-like way with the 15 prominent and ‘cask strength’ written on it. Castarede has just launched a limited-edition single cask range called Brut de Fut. Most innovatively of all, Gelas has launched a range of cask finishes such as Sauternes or sherry, just as Glenmorangie does.