Cult Armagnac – L'Encantada Lous Pibous
I don't think I've ever seen an Armagnac develop a cult following in the US, but that seems to be happening with the L'Encantada bottlings – and particularly the L’Encantada Lous Pibous. Perhaps you've seen the bottles with the orange wax pop up here and there – K&L has brought in a few barrels as have a few other retailers. Since I was involved with bringing the first casks to the US, I thought I'd tell the story of how it happened.
Like most American drinkers, I dutifully ignored brandy for years. I'd dipped into it now and then, but with a few exceptions, I found it bland and overly sweet. That changed for me in 2011 when Nicolas Palazzi brought in a cask strength, single barrel, additive free Cognac. The syrupy sweetness I was used to in brandies was replaced with complex spiced fruit. A few years later, K&L's Davids headed to France with importer Charles Neal and brought back their first shipment of Armagnacs; that was when I had my first brandies from Baraillon, Pellehaut and D'Ognoas. These were what really got me hooked – spicy, earthy spirits that rivaled the complexity of the best whiskeys and were ridiculously affordable at a time when whiskey inflation was ramping up. I was elated; the Golden Age of Brandy was upon us, and I wanted to spread the word. I even started a Facebook group (Serious Brandy – feel free to join).
In 2015, as part of my effort to spread the love for great brandy, I did an Armagnac tasting for a bourbon club. One of the members, Paul Schurman, who lives in Europe, got really into it and started perusing on-line brandy reviews. He became intrigued when he saw a Whiskyfun review of a bottling of Lous Pibous Armagnac from L'Encantada, a new, small company that was bottling cask strength Armagnac for the European market. (Whiskyfun, of course, is Serge Valentin's legendary whisky review site – it turns out he was getting into Armagnac as well).
To understand what makes this stuff special, you have to understand a little bit about Armagnac. French brandy production, especially in Armagnac, is much different than the American distilled spirits industry. There are a few large producers, but by in large, Armagnac is made by farmers and wine makers who distill some of their extra grapes in a travelling still that comes around to the farms. Many of them just stick the casks in their barns and basements, a little bit here, a little bit there. Eventually they will bottle them, maybe for family and friends, maybe for small markets, or sell them to a larger company that bottles brandy or even makes liqueur; it's sort of a Gascon retirement fund.
L'Encantada was essentially knocking on farm doors and asking to buy these casks. They have casks from around seven small producers – one of which was Lous Pibous, which produced Folle Blanche Armagnac for about 20 years from the late '80s to 2005. Pibous did things a bit differently than some of the other producers. They age entirely in new oak. Most Armagnac is aged in used oak or put into new oak for a few years and then transferred to used oak. And instead of sticking their casks in a damp basement or barn, PIbous had a separate building they used for aging which kept the casks dry.
Anyway, Paul sent me a bottle of the L'Encantada 1994 Lous Pibous and it knocked my socks off. It tasted for all the world like one of those old, wheated bourbons from the Bernheim distillery that Willett was bottling in the mid-2000s but with an earthy brandy style finish. I'd never had such a bourbony Armagnac (they tend to taste closer to rye because of the spice); clearly all that time in new oak had an impact. After tasting this, I had one thought- we have to get more.
Paul and I recruited a couple of other friends, Dan Walbrun and Steve Neese, and formed the Brandy Brothers, a group whose sole mission was to buy a few casks of this stuff. It took time; buying a cask from a small French company and getting it to the US is no small feat. We did a tasting of around 10 samples and picked two casks, a 1993 (Cask 124) and a 1996 vintage (Casks 187), later adding a third 1996 (Cask 188). We split up the bottles with our bourbon friends; K&L agreed to act as importer/retailer and they sold whatever bottles we didn't claim on the open market.
Now, we loved this stuff, but we had no idea it would take off the way it did. Most of our friends bought a few bottles as a novelty, trusting our recommendation without tasting it. We figured that at worst, we would buy some of them back since we liked it so much. It turns out that we had no reason to worry; in fact, people liked it much more than we could have ever predicted. We knew these were special, but they were still Armagnac, a spirit which I love but which has limited appeal in the US.
Those Lous Pibous casks are probably among my favorite spirits ever. Even though there are very few of these bottles out there, everyone who has tasted them seems to become entranced with them. Gradually, word of these special brandies began to spread.
As I said, I've never seen a brandy reach cult status in the US, but these are as close at it's come. Certainly, this is due in part to the bourbon like character of these particular brandies. When K&L later brought in two of its own casks (Cask 13-1993 and Cask 145-1999), they sold out almost immediately.
Since then, the Brandy Brothers and our bourbon friends have brought in three more casks (Cask 16-1993, Cask 189-1996 and Cask 196-2004) and more retailers and private individuals have followed suit. And Lous Pibous is just one of the producers bottled by L'Encantada. They bottle a number of other domains, many of which are excellent, though different in profile from the Pibous.
Keep your eyes on this space because K&L just brought in some L’Encantadas that I’m tasting through now. I’ll have reviews up soon, and everyone will have a chance to join the brandy cult.