The Case for Armagnac
Before you make any assumptions concerning what I'm about to write, this is not a column about how Bourbon drinkers should crossover to Armagnac. This is not a piece about how Armagnac is under-appreciated. This is certainly not an article addressing the many ways in which one should train themself to like something they do not. When I typed in the title, "The Case for Armagnac," I was thinking solely about the way things work in the booze business today. I was thinking about what it takes to start a distillery and the motivations behind doing so. I was imagining the endless parade of sales reps, ad men, business cards, and financial advisers who take up most of my work day. And then I thought about Armagnac and Gascony, a spirit with hardly any marketing from a place where booze is simply something else you do on the side. If you want to understand what drinking is like without the pretense, the competition, the collectability, and the pedantry, I think this is pretty much the last place on earth you can do it.
Diageo owns half of Scotland and the other half is divided between Beam, Pernod-Ricard, and LVMH. Kentucky becomes more profit-oriented by the minute, especially with the current shortage and the demand for more barrels creating a hoarding frenzy among collectors. Cognac has always been about money and image and it remains so today. Even rum is becoming more corporate with recent buyouts in Barbados and Jamaica. Of course, you can always go radical and embrace the craft spirits industry, but more and more producers I meet now are simply counting the days until someone buys them out. Very few are in it for the long haul. Now none of this profiteering, presented in a rather negative light by me, I know, means the booze doesn't taste good. We know it does. I'm merely pointing out that there is a place, with over a century's worth of booze in barrel, where you can taste serious, complex, mature spirit without a bunch of guys stepping over you to get the last bottle. A place free of guides, points, experts, and bloggers. This is a place where no one really thinks they're all that special simply because they have fifty year old brandy on the table. In fact, the people of Gascony are rather puzzled as to why we place so much value on something this basic.
You can geek out on Gascogne culture just as much as you can with any other spirits genre. In fact, doing so with Armagnac isn't even a charicature. You see guys at tastings, wearing kilts, playing bagpipes, trying to prove that they're more Scottish (and therefore more knowledgeable) than the rest of the bunch, but no one at Springbank or Glenfarclas is wearing a kilt. No one at Mount Gay is wearing a straw hat with a linen shirt decorated with palm trees, sipping rum out of a coconut. Still, these cartoonish images are what many feel embody a true love affair with booze. You have to go one step further than the average drinker to prove yourself an expert, moving that gigantic chip a bit further up the shoulder. You've got to "get into" Bourbon. You've got to read every Michael Jackson book, and quote the various experts of the moment. Yet, what does one do to show they love Armagnac? What does a true Gasconite even look like? Which romantic Armagnac ideal can we exploit to sell more bottles? I'm not sure. And that's a good thing!
If you dressed in overalls, work boots, put a plate of terrine and bread out on the table, and poured a small glass of Armagnac for your guests, it might seem like you're trying a bit too hard, but at least you wouldn't be exaggerating the reality of Gascony. This is honestly what Armagnac producers wear (because they are actual farmers doing other things besides distillation) and it's actually what they eat. We like to imagine our Scotsmen in kilts, but really they're just Diageo employees in khaki pants carrying a clipboard while they check the automated still. We like to picture our old friend Pappy smoking a cigar on the porch, decked out in a linen suit, but really it's just some Buffalo Trace guys wearing denim shirts, checking the fill levels before heading back to the office. In Gascony, the romantic imagery actually matches up with reality and we know this because no one is out there trying to sell us on it (except me right now, obviously). There are no billboards of Tariquet on our freeways, no color ads of rustic French farms within the pages of the Whisky Advocate. There are no corporations in Armagnac, buying up land and marking their territory, while gearing up for the next booze explosion. There are only people. Quiet, humble people with little to say and little to prove.
Now I'm not saying that authenticity makes for a better spirit. I'm not saying that farmers make better spirits than corporations. I'm merely saying that no one in Armagnac is acting like they're a small company when they're really a big one. No one in Armagnac is acting like anything. There is no marketing because no one has the time, money, or desire to do it. No one's trying to get rich, or become the next Tariquet (one of the largest producers in the region, yet still smaller than Kilchoman). If you don't like Armagnac, then you don't like Armagnac. This isn't a ploy to get you to embrace something that simply doesn't speak to you. It is, however, a notice that it's quite refreshing to leave all the bullshit behind every now and again and simply drink. Your mind can't be swayed by the latest Armagnac review because no one reviews Armagnac. You can't be baited into bulking up on the latest limited edition release because there's no shortage of supply. You won't have to prove your Armagnac knowledge at the office or on the golf course because no one will have any idea what you're talking about, and they definitely won't be impressed.
No one cares if you've got Darroze 20 open at home. Except maybe for Marc Darroze.
Armagnac is free from advertising. Free from marketing. Free of corporate suits. Free of 90 point reviews. Free of hustling and bustling. Free from forums, message boards, and blogs. Free of must-have-it limited edition releases that sell out in thirty seconds. Free of Diageo. Free of pundits and pedants. Free of caramel coloring and additives. Free! If you want to release yourself from the shackles of your own preconceived notions regarding booze, you need to take a trip to Gascony. You can start over there. Make a new life for yourself. Get back to basics. However, you've got to accept the fact that there's nothing cool about doing so. Drinking Armagnac is definitely not cool. It's not even ironically cool. Not even the hipsters will touch Armagnac.
Armagnac is the last bastion of pure spirit. It's there if you need it.