Ask someone why Kentucky whiskey is referred to as Bourbon and they’ll likely tell you “because it comes from Bourbon County.” Not everyone agrees with that explanation, however. Some historians believe that the corn-based spirit was named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans where many a glass of American whiskey has been consumed over the years. Regardless of why it's the case, there’s no denying that the county, the street, and the beverage were all derive their origin from the name of the French royal family—the House of Bourbon—which began its reign on the French throne with King Henry IV in 1589. Henry IV was born in the town of Pau, formerly part of the kingdom of Navarre and currently part of southwest France near Armagnac country. His mother Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre, commissioned a hunting lodge in 1540 to be built in nearby Mauvezin on behalf of her future child. The property was called Château de Briat and Henry inherited the manor when he took the throne of Navarre in 1572. That's where I spent a few days this past December while traveling through Armagnac region.
Twelve years later his ascendance, Henry of Navarre found himself in a bit of a pickle. You see, the son of Jeanne d’Aubret was baptized as a Catholic, but raised as a Huguenot by his mother. Henry III was a Catholic monarch sitting on the French throne, but upon the death of his brother, the Duke of Anjou, the next in line was the now-Protestant Henry of Navarre. This little quandary caused all kinds of crowning chaos culminating in numerous wars of religion, perhaps the most significant of which was the Battle of Coutras in 1587. Henry emerged victorious from the fight thanks to the help of a man named Arnaud de Mâtines, a fellow officer in the Huguenot army who saved Henry’s life during the clash. Henry of Navarre would succeed to the French throne as Henry IV two years later upon the death of Henry III.
As a thank you gift for his efforts, Henry IV gifted the hunting lodge of Château de Briat to Arnaud de Mâtines. Almost three hundred years later, it was purchased by another famous name in the booze business: the Baron de Pichon-Longueville. Known for his world-famous wine château in the Pauillac region of Bordeaux, Baron Raoul added the Armagnac-producing estate to his portfolio, eventually passing the property down to his daughter Jeanne, who would pass it down to her children thereafter. Today Château de Briat is operated by Jeanne’s great-grandson, Stêphane de Luze, who represents the fifth generation of the family to make Armagnac at the former hunting lodge of Henry IV. While he may look aristocratic with his tall, thin frame, his flowing hair, and his perfectly-tailored country couture, Stéphane is truly a dude's dude. We had an absolute blast drinking Armagnac in his historic estate, cracking jokes as boys do, wandering the property as we talked history and drank brandy.
The sun was going down behind the forested hills as we arrived at the château. You could hear the gunshots in the distance from nearby hunters likely taking aim at a few pheasants or perhaps a wild boar. Château de Briat was strategically constructed in a wilderness populated by game of various types. As if hanging out with the descendent of Baron de Pichon-Longueville wasn't cool enough, we were going to do so on royal ground. I don't think it gets any more romantic than that. A historic country manor, a roaring fire, a few glasses of Armagnac. Voila!
Of course we weren't just visiting Château de Briat for the sake of atmosphere and hard drink. No, we were there to taste some of the newer casks he had recently moved into nearby storage and potentially work out a deal. The brandies being made by Stéphane and his wife Julie are truly fantastic, full of rich oak flavor with plenty of spice and lift on the finish. We were joined in the chai by his young son Balthazar who was fully ready for la chasse—a toy bow and arrow in his hand, and a plastic sword in his scabbard. We tasted through more than twenty different vintages in search of something we might be able to use for K&L, as Stéphane dropped the hose into barrel after barrel. There were two vintages that struck me as both very distinct and very different from one another in style, which is great for budding new Armagnac drinkers who are interested in exploring a variety of different styles. One was incredibly rich, dense, and thick on the palate. The other was more lean, fruity and easy to drink—almost like a wheated Bourbon.
Six months after my visit to Château de Briat, the two expressions have arrived and our currently making their way to each of our retail locations. There are two single vintage expressions: a 2001 fourteen year old edition and a 2005 ten year old release. They could not be more different from one another. Most of the Briat distillations are blends of baco, folle blanche, and colombard, so I don't think it's the çepage that ultimately makes the difference. Rather it's the extra time in wood and the character of the vintage at play. The 2005 is very Weller 107-esque with light oak and vanilla at first, but a fruity and soft palate thereafter and plenty of youthful vigor. It's very much like a Bourbon (coincidentally made at the former Bourbon hunting lodge). The 2001, on the other hand, is dark, dense, concentrated, and rich, full of stewed fruits and brandied cherries, finishing with dark chocolate and caramel. Both are delicious. Both are distinct. Both are welcome additions to our shelves. If you're got the brandy bug as of late, you might want to try one of each so you can see just how different Armagnac can be.