There is an excellent substack by a food writer named John Birdsall that I subscribe to. He writes about food culture and history, rather than food itself, which is part of its appeal to me. As the old joke goes, I love food and rarely eat anything else, but I’m just not that into it. Not enough to read food blogs, or magazines, or books, and most of the cookbooks proudly displayed in my kitchen fall open to the single recipe I like in each (Rachel Allen’s Blondies in Bake being the most frequent flyer, as my cardiologist can attest). I dislike the word foodie as it implies that anyone who considers food as something other than fuel is an elitist berk – maybe there is a booze-enthusiast equivalent that doesn’t sound like a euphemism for pisshead (drinkie? liquorie? massive bore?), and maybe I am that – but a foodie I am not.
One recent post of Birdsall’s that stuck in my head was about epiphanies in food writing – how it seemed almost compulsory that people had a lightbulb moment when they knew food and/or food culture was for them. I think we are all guilty of dreaming those moments into existence, of thinking about our paths to whiskey as ‘firsts’ rather than a long slow journey with no discernable start. Your memory of your first sip of Whiskey X that made you fall for the entire category is probably a distillation of various other, less romantic factors you edit from the showreel – I know I got into whiskey by sheer force of will and it was less about a sip sparking passion and more about the grim determination of thinking, right, this is going to be my thing.
Birdsall’s post made me realise that my own subconcious need for epiphanies in my work had left me feeling completely overwhelmed. It started to feel like everything I write should come with some oven-ready divine moment, and as a result I have written less and less. In 2015 I published 169 posts on the blog, in 2021 that figure had dwindled to eight. I started to look back at older posts and realised that not only were there no epiphanies of any kind, a lot of what I wrote was repetitive; I was like a bitter drunk at the bar, mumbling about the same five or six topics. Only writing about one specific drink was always going to be tough and can feel like you are treading water, which is why so many drinks blogs eventually fizzle out. But if you expect to find a revelation every time you write, you will never write at all.
Armagnac has provided me with neither revelation nor epiphany. I slouched into it after being steered towards Spanish brandy by Whisky Apocalypse (who sadly stepped back from blogging earlier this year). If, in years to come, this blog morphs into an armagnac-exclusive zone, I may try to reframe ‘my journey’ and cite my first taste of armagnac as an epiphany, but for now armagnac is merely something about which I am quietly enthusiastic. I have only had two bottles, both excellent, and both from the same source, Domaine Tariquet. There are a few fantastic posts on Camper English’s brilliant Alcademics about the drink, but this one includes photos of some of the Tariquet armagnac alembics in action.
An incredibly short synopsis – Amragnac, like Cognac, is a region and all armagnac must come from there; there are three sub regions/categories, and all are bound to a set list of grape varietals. Some wineries use pot stills to make armagnac but wood-fired (and often mobile) columns are more common; some wineries buy in the wine, some grow the grapes and produce the armagnac themselves. So basically, it’s a brandy. Big glass, roaring fire, good food, etc etc.
I shall confess, the Frenchness of it all appeals to me; I will never be a wine guy, but there is something about those vineyards, and battered stills fuelled by log fires fed by moustachioed chaps in braces, that fills me with joy. Does it suggest that I have a tedious stereotype of the French countryside stuck in my head, that I think they all reside in a rural idyll, crushing grapes by foot, living in thick-set farmhouses and eating duck confit? Why yes, it does, but I am also down with the fact that the fastest growing Irish whiskey brand in the world is fronted by someone who looks like an angry leprechaun, and that Irish whiskey’s success as a whole in America is quite possibly linked to a stereotype of Irishness; that we, like Jameson, are approachable and easy going. Stereotypes are lazy, but sometimes handy.
Think of armagnac as being to cognac what Irish whiskey is to scotch – a less celebrated, older sibling. But whereas Irish whiskey continues to demand excruciating prices, this French underdog offers affordable luxury.
I find myself reading about armagnac and thinking, well now, that’s interesting, or marvelling that you can buy a 20-year-old armagnac for eighty euro. My first foray into armagnac was the eight-year-old cask-strength (50.5%ABV) bas-armagnac from Domaine Tariquet bought from Fine Drams for less than fifty euro. The next was the 15-year-old, at a cask strength of 47.2%, priced at €69. Both are excellent, but the latter won the ISC Supreme Champion Spirit of 2022 award – the first time in the 27-year history of the challenge that the award went to an armagnac. I won’t bore you with my tasting notes – another weakness in my attempts to write about spirits – but the IWSC nailed it with this: A beguiling nose of candied citrus, dark chocolate, assorted cake, tropical fruit, and dry violet. There is a wealth of complexity from the oak and spice, with prunes and raisins. The length is enduring, with perfect alcohol.
Both brandy and armagnac hold great counterpoints to other dark spirits (don’t call them brown, it sounds weird); after a decade of drinking whisky it’s good to step away, recalibrate, ponder the sources of flavour, and come back with a slightly broader mind. Or maybe I’ll stay a while. We shall see.
There are some great factoids on Alcademics about Tariquet and their armagnac production which are well worth a read. Similarly there is a great intro to the spirit here.