It's only been a year since my last trip to Armagnac, but it seems that every time I'm away I forget just what an incredible place this is for passionate spirits drinkers. It's honestly a giant Disneyland of booze, full of ancient, brandy-maturing barrels around every corner, colorful characters, and farmhouses that look like movie sets or theme park installations with their quintessential rustic charm. There are endless casks of brandy, vintages from the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties just sitting around in old barns and cellars. Bonbons with spirits distilled in 1900, 1919, 1923, and 1939 just above them, still filled with plenty of Armagnac from a century ago or more. You can taste whatever you want, buy whatever is there, and bottle it however you like. Everything is on the table. To the locals, Armagnac is really just a commodity, no different than the olive oil or pistachios you might buy at a roadside stand in the California countryside. Some are better than others, but in the end it's really just one of many things these people do. You won't find many producers talking about the "art" of their distillation, or their "craft" as a "master distiller."
The only real roadblock to Armagnac's breakthrough with the greater public in my opinion is the language barrier. It's not unlike mezcal in that sense. For example, when agave fans head off to Oaxaca for a spirited vacation, they're typically not driving out into the sticks to visit the actual palenques unless they speak fluent Spanish or are with someone else who does. It's not like the distillers of Santa Ana del Rio wouldn't welcome any friendly and passionate mezcal tourist with smiles and open hearts into their tiny village (because they would). Rather, they simply wouldn't be able to communicate in English and they might find it a bit awkward after a few uncomfortable minutes without any sort of connection or mutual understanding. When I was at Domaine de Barailllon earlier today, I spoke with the Claverie family about some American tourists who came by for a visit this past year. Laurence told me she was somewhat shocked by their arrival, but more than happy to show them around. However, she felt a bit weird continually telling them things in French when it was clear they didn't understand anything she was saying.
You can see why over the last decade or so the major distillers of the world have hired multi-lingual tourism directors to help promote their facilities as potential destinations of interest. It's completely normal these days to see a huge group of Japanese tourists walking through Maker's Mark in Kentucky with a Japanese-speaking guide. The same goes for the major distillers in Scotland. Armagnac, however, is not quite ready for the spotlight, which is part of what makes it so wonderful for those seeking something less manipulated by money. But if you can speak French, or dedicate yourself to learning it like I have, then you can really start to peel back the layers and get into what is easily the most exciting place in the world right now for distilled spirits. On my first trip to Gascony in 2012, I didn't speak a work of French. Today, while I'm far from fluent, I can follow every conversation and participate in any sort of dialogue. I make mistakes and sometimes I use the wrong words here and there, but the difference is night and day and that effort went a very long way towards ingratiating me here. These people went from knowing me as the quiet American guy who travels with Charles Neal and buys a lot of stuff, to knowing me as a person—understanding my sense of humor, my intentions as their American representative, and my own personal interest in their products.
I had an hour long conversation with Christelle Lasseignou (pictured above) from Domaine de Maouhum yesterday about the perils of modern technology and its troubling effect on today's society. Compare that with the last time I saw her where I pretty much just stared at the ground and nodded my head now and again like an idiot. If you're interested in Armagnac and you'd like to visit the region, the adventure doesn't begin with a book about Gascony and its many brandy producers; it begins with a French dictionary and a guide to grammar. This is a region completely oblivious to the current spirits culture and what's happening with connoisseurship in places like New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco. They have no concept of whiskey's current rise in popularity, or how the spirits market has exploded in America, nor would they understand why some foreigner might knock on their door and want to meet them or take a few photos of their chai. They will, however, want to know why you're there. What is it exactly that you want? How did you hear about them? Would you like to buy a bottle?
You'll need to be able to explain those things to them. Once you break the ice, it's all gravy. Just understand that no one in Armagnac will give a flying you-know-what about your extensive personal collection of bottles, or the fact that you think their brandy rates highly on a scale of 1 to 100 points. They will, however, want to know about you, so you'd better be ready to talk. If there's one thing I've learned over the last six years of traveling in the region, it's that there are no short appointments. Taste a few things, then head off to the next producer? HA! Yeah right. This isn't Napa. If you show up, be prepared to commit. They might invite you to eat lunch with them and talk about your life in America. If you're unable to do so, it's going to get weird quickly.