With all the excitement we're feeling towards Armagnac, Cognac, and Calvados, I thought I would temper that enthusiasm with a few clear cut statements. One -- I cannot promise you that you are going to love French spirits as much as you love single malt whisky or Bourbon. Two -- I cannot promise you that they will scratch the same itch or satisfy the same cultural craze, fulfilling a life-long desire to taste something you'd previously only read about online. But I can promise you one thing: K&L will have the best selection of French distilled spirits in the United States (and maybe the world!) before 2014 is over. So if you want to geek out about French spirits, we’ll have you covered. If you remember our French harvests of 2012 and 2013, then picture in your mind how many new products we imported in those years. Now quadruple that number. And now quadruple the new number. Once again, quadruple your most recent total. That should give you an idea of how many new products we plan on bringing in this year. We're serious about this. There's a lot of value and a lot of variety within the Cognac and Armagnac game, and the best part is: we buy our spirits directly from the producer. There are no middlemen, no corporations involved, and no fancy marketing fees attached to each bottle price; it's just them, us, and you.
While most of what we featured on the blog won't be available until later this summer, don't think we didn't get this ball rolling last year. Some of the products we were previously interested in didn't make themselves available until recently and they've finally arrived, just in time to quench your recent thirst.
Marquis De Montesquiou is like the Sauza Tequila of Armagnac -- a brand that was sold to a corporate portfolio, allowing the family members to strike out on their own and create more serious, small-production spirits. Much like Guillermo Sauza created Fortaleza Tequila and continued on with the family business, Claire de Montesquiou and her husband decided to purchase a small estate named Domaine d’Esperance and follow tradition. In 1990, the couple began planting grapes in the sand-based soil of their Bas-Armagnac estate (a lovely terrain mixed with clay and iron -- perfect for Baco and Folle Blanche) and get the ball rolling. By 1995, they were distilling again Armagnac again.
Much like an American craft distiller might sell vodka or gin while waiting for their whisky to age, the Montesquious sold wine while their brandy sat in waiting. They planted Ugni Blanc and Colombard along with their distilling varietals to allow for white production on the side. Even with the wine, however, we're not talking about a large production at Domaine d'Esperance. On two small stills -- one over a hundred years old, the other from a traveling-distiller -- the Armagnacs are distilled at an extremely slow speed. They only make enough to fill about four barrels each day. Couple that with the fact that they only distill for one week per year after the wines are ready. You can do the math from there: 4 x 7 = 28 barrels filled per year.
Immediately after distillation, the spirit goes into medium-charred new oak made by a local cooper named Gilles Bartholomo. He's a third generation casker who uses local Gascon oak from the Allier and Limousin forests. Domaine d'Esperance is only filling the choicest of spirit into the best possible wood they can buy. The result is an incredbile brandy that at times can mimic the finest American Bourbons, and at others the richest and darkest of Cognacs. While there are a number of incredible values coming from larger producers in the region, the Armagnacs from Esperance are focused 100% on quality over price. They are more expensive because of what it takes to produce them.
Domaine d'Esperance 5 Year Old Bas Armagnac $54.99 - Distilled from Baco, the five year old is a soft and more gentle distillate, despite its young age. The wood is integrated and the flavors are smoother and more rounded. It's a lovely foray into the world of French spirits, beginning with flavors that are easy to understand, yet absolutely high in quality.
Domaine d'Esperance XO Bas Armagnac $79.99 - The XO is a marriage of four different Baco distillates, the youngest being ten years of age. The flavors are rich and full of spice with a lengthy finish of round fruits and salted caramel. Having seen no additional coloring or sweetening agents, this is what XO Cognac drinkers often think they're drinking, but aren't. This is real XO brandy for people who appreciate nuance.
1998 Domaine d'Esperance 14 Year Old Bas Armagnac $99.99 - Bottled at full proof, the 1998 14 year old Armagnac is distilled from Baco and bottled at cask strength. It resembles a solid cask of 14 year old Four Roses Bourbon, more than it does French brandy. With big toasted wood flavors, bold spice, and a solid backbone of charred oak, this is high-level Armagnac of the highest quality. As much for American whiskey fans as it is for Frenchophiles.
1995 Domaine d'Esperance 17 Year Old Bas Armagnac $109.99 – The 1995 is the richest and most brandy-like of the line-up -- it's dark, dense, loaded with concentrated vanilla and barrel spices, and decadent on the finish. Bottled at full proof and with no additional sweetners or coloring, this is high-quality French brandy at its finest.