Understanding Armagnac

The key to increasing armagnac sales is to educate both the trade and consumers, producers tell Henry Jeffreys


WHILE I WAS IN THE Armagnac region in March, a producer (who shall remain nameless) told me: “You British, you used to buy our armagnac, but now not so much.” He shrugged his shoulders as if it was one of life’s great imponderables. This attitude was remarked on by Jerome Delord from the eponymous house: “We have been sleeping on our laurels for too long. We had a great product but didn’t sell it.” Armagnac used to rely on a home market and a few traditional markets, such as Belgium and Britain. Domestic consumption is now in decline so producers need to find new customers. They currently export about half of their annual production of 6m bottles. Compare this with Cognac, which exports 98% of production of 180m bottles a year.

Whereas most cognac sales are in the hands of the big four – Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin and Courvoisier – armagnac production is split between more than 40 commercial houses, not including farmers who distill a little mainly for home consumption.

Sukhinder Singh from the Whisky Exchange, a great champion of armagnac, told me: “There are too many small brands who don’t understand the first thing about selling, packaging or promotion.” Most houses are still family businesses. The nearest thing to a global brand is Janneau, which is owned by Spirit France. There simply isn’t the money for a big advertising push, nor is there the volume. Almost all marketing therefore works at a personal level.

Jerome Delord is constantly travelling to promote his product. Delord is particularly successful in the US where its distinctive bottles with wax seals are now synonymous with armagnac.

Florence Casterede from Château de Maniban is another who is often on the road. This year she’s been to New York, Taiwan, Israel and travelled all over Europe with stints at the big wines fairs – Prowein, VinExpo and ViniSud. She told me the only way to sell is through “education, tasting, and then hope that they don’t forget you”. She has just hired an agency to promote the product in the US, a market that is growing rapidly though Britain is currently the number one export market by volume.

China and Russia, both big markets, are down. But Marc Darroze, whose family firm has a stellar reputation, is optimistic. He says the Russians are “educated consumers” who appreciate good brandy and in China there is a “big opportunity for a craft spirit that is not so sweet”. Darroze has been able to capitalise on the lack of commercial expertise. He buys brandies from small domaines then ages, bottles and markets them. The Darroze business model is about embracing the complexity of armagnac under a trusted brand name.

And it is complex. There are three regions – Bas Armagnac, Armagnac Tenareze and Haut Armagnac. There are 10 permitted grape varieties, the main three being Ugni Blanc (the same as cognac), Folle Blanche and Baco. There’s also Colombard and six other rare varieties. Producers are beginning to put the grape variety on the bottle. It’s all about providing information.


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.


There are some armagnacs that ape the luxury cognac look, complete with heavy glass, glitzy labels and rich, sweeter spirit, such as Delord XO Premium. These are aimed squarely at the eastern luxury goods market.

This is a big dilemma for armagnac. To what extent should it imitate cognac? The Whisky Exchange’s Singh thinks it’s a mistake, as does Marc Darroze: “Packaging must be the way to explain rapidly what an armagnac is. Luxury is not so appropriate for armagnac because we are a bit wild and close to soil. Our packaging must reflect that.” Whereas Whitehead at Berry Bros is more measured: “Cognac is yin, armagnac is yang – two sides of the same coin. They should not try to wholly imitate or outright ignore each other with regards to production/marketing/branding etc.”

Even the rarest armagnac is cheap compared with the equivalent cognac or whisky. For example, a bottle of Casterede 1981 will set you back about €100 (roughly £83) whereas a Macallan 1981 is £1,500. Both are single cask spirits. Is armagnac too cheap? Darroze thinks so: “Ageing brandies is a big investment and long investment. A few brands are not expensive enough. I would push some brands to increase prices.”

Of course for drinkers in the know, armagnac’s affordability is a boon. What armagnac has is a great story and an unforced authenticity. Unlike in Cognac, most producers offer the complete journey from grape to bottle. Many producers also make wine, grow tobacco or raise cattle. Armagnac is rooted in the landscape, in seasonality and local gastronomy. All these notions are the sort of things that educated consumers are interested in today. Especially with the current boom in craft spirits and cocktails, it does feel like this should be armagnac’s moment. Yet it’s not fashionable in the way whisky or rum is.

What makes armagnac unique is also what’s holding it back – its small scale and lack of commerciality. The region needs to “create an identity to help producers, I think it’ll take years. They have a very strong product,” says Singh. He thinks they could be doing more to engage consumers, such as tastings at wine fairs and perhaps even the BBC Ideal Home Show. Producers just have to keep at it. It’s not easy. You need energy.

Florence Castarede adds: “Some days it is very discouraging, very hard. The only way to succeed is to be on the road. When people discover the taste and the magic, then they understand.”