A Visit To Armagnac Country

NOTE: You may have noticed a bit of an Armagnac theme happening over the past few days at Food Republic. We started with an intro to this unsung French spirit, explored the more rustic Blanche Armagnacs, and offered up some cocktails. Today writer Nora Maynard takes us on a trip to where our new favorite spirit comes from.

Sopranos fans might well recall these fateful words: "Armagnac's the next vodka." Back in 2002, the venerable but not-quite-famous on this side of the Atlantic French brandy got its 15-minute pop culture moment courtesy of the HBO series, when the ambitious but ineffectual restaurateur, Artie Bucco, sank a borrowed 40 grand into the spirit's U.S. distribution. Predictably, the enterprise turned out to be a complete bust. "The problem... it seems, is people cannot figure out how to market Armagnac," the slick Gallic wheeler-dealer who took Artie's fortune shrugged. "The hip approach... it does not work."

But hip or not, back on its home turf, the 700-year-old brandy has enough fiercely loyal grassroots supporters to beat vodka in a street fight any day. Whether sipped as a digestif, used in cooking to glaze or flambé, or mixed in cocktails, Armagnac is an essential part of daily life in the small, rural area of Gascony in the Southwest France where it originates.

The feisty, most often amber spirit often draws comparisons to its close cousin, Cognac. And for good reason — both are grape-based brandies hailing from neighboring regions in France. But Armagnac distinguishes itself from its younger, more famous compatriot in several important ways. According to AOC guidelines, it can be distilled from several grape varieties as opposed to Cognac's one; it's available in vintages, not just blends; the majority of houses distill it in continuous alembic stills instead of pot stills; and, perhaps most significantly, Armagnac is produced in limited batches by hundreds of small, independent houses rather than by a few key players owned and distributed by large multinationals.

I witnessed and enjoyed the spirit's depth and astonishing diversity first-hand when I traveled to the region for a brief, spirits-soaked stay during distillation time.

My companions and I set up a home base at an inn nestled in the small village of Manciet. Simply and aptly named la Bonne Auberge, the place boasted an unlikely display of homey, if faded, 1960s-era decor that seemed to be at saucy odds with its centuries-old architectural shell of rough-hewn timber and chiseled stone. Presiding over the establishment were the longtime owners, a charmingly named husband and wife team: Pepita, who worked the desk and saw to the needs of guests, and Pepito, who manned the extensive kitchen operations from behind a glass partition in the dining room. The pair are local legends.

Upon check-in, the ebullient Pepita welcomed us with a round of Pousse-Rapière, a traditional regional aperitif consisting of a measure of Armagnac-based orange liqueur, a generous pour of local sparkling wine, and a small slice of fresh orange. "Poose-Rappy-Air," I repeated tentatively, not quite sure I had it right. "Oui. Pousse," Madame reiterated by way of explanation, at the same time making a dramatic, lunging stab in my direction with an imaginary blade. She then pointed to a real (and rather sharp-looking) decorative specimen mounted on the dining room wall in front of us: "Rapier." "Ah, oui," I nodded. It all made sense now. Gascony is the home of the rapier-wielding d'Artagnan of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers fame. I took a sip of the sweet, effervescent mixture. For a tired and thirsty traveler, this swashbuckling cocktail really hit the mark.

In the three days that followed, and many sips and swigs of Armagnac later, time seemed to compress and contract. We visited several more producers, each with its own distinctly memorable style. At Château du Busca-Maniban and Castarède we strolled among elegant stone buildings on ancient properties with well-groomed vineyards. At Delord, we sipped Armagnac near the still and watch the distillery's bat circle overhead — he was apparently as enchanted by the fumes as we were. At Laubade, we saw a family estate that employed one of the oldest organic farming practices: itinerant, soil-fertilizing sheep. At Dartigalongue, we pored over the houses' collection of vintage —and often eyebrow-raisingly racy — advertising posters. At Tariquet. we observed a wood-powered still that drew its near-endless supply of fuel from the vast vineyard's spent vine stakes. And at De Montal, we were introduced to three hardworking stills named Athos, Aramis, and Porthos after the Three Musketeers. We sipped some raw spirits from the two that were in use that day — Athos and Aramis (Porthos was getting a cleaning)—and were amazed to discover how different each sample tasted, even though both were made from the same grapes from the same harvest and had been distilled at exactly the same time.

It occurred to me that individual alembic stills are a lot like musical instruments. Meticulously hand-crafted and assembled from copper sheets, tubing, and plates, no two produce exactly the same tone. True to the individualistic spirit of Armagnac itself, each has a richly complex and distinctive personality of its own.