In the Gers region of southwestern France there is a small town named Condom. Home to about six thousand people, there is not a huge amount that is notable about it – there are some castles, a nice church, and it is on the Way Of St James. In 1995, the town’s mayor decided to cash in on the name of the town by opening a museum about contraception. It closed in 2005. The fact it had a decade in existence is remarkable, given that the French word for condom is préservatif, so this quirky, novel museum in a rural French town was really only aimed at English speaking tourists.
Condom is also known as Condom-en-Armagnac, for it nestles in the heartland of armagnac production (for the sake of clarity I try to use a lower case A on the drink as opposed to the region). There is a great piece by drinks writer Jason Wilson about the danger posed by armagnac trying to become something it is not – that in pursuit of greater sales, this very old, quiet drink will contort itself and lose part of its soul as a result. Wilson, who has been drinking armagnac for some time (compared to the wet week I have had my toe dipped in the category), says that it doesn’t want nor does it need to become the next whiskey. Whiskey fans are often on the lookout for new categories to feast on, like a cloud of locusts, but to me, it feels like armagnac has never really been the next big thing. Rum – perennial next big thing since I started getting into spirits a decade ago – is still waiting for its moment, so armagnac is unlikely to get dragged onto the stage before it. But I can still see Wilson’s point – that I am, subconsciously, trying to make armagnac into a whiskey counterpoint, as opposed to a unique, individual drink.
Wilson makes the point that there are changes in the category – armagnacs are being released under age statements rather than the traditional age classifications (VS, XO et al), and steering away from blends towards more single grape varietal releases. Domaine du Tariquet – the producer of most of the armagnacs I have had thus far in my relatively short time drinking it – is a good example. They have eight, 12, 15, 18, 20, and 25 year old releases and look to be primed to appeal to whiskey drinkers, with many bottles released with natural colour and at cask strength.
Wilson’s piece made me pause and ask – am I the baddie? Am I part of the problem? I am bringing a huge amount of baggage to armagnac and virtually all the bottles I have bought thus far are more in the mould of whiskey – age statements, high strengths, not blends. But when you have attached value to those things, and then you see how you can get this non-whiskey dark spirit with a great age statement, at 49%abv, natural colour, and exceptional quality for a low price, then it is hard to instead seek out the traditional blends further down the retailer’s webpage that might adhere to the more natural shape of the category. In my defence, part of it is because I know so little about the category, and while I was able to read reams about Irish whiskey when I started getting into it, there are far fewer sources of information about armagnac, at least in the language I speak. Although I’m not sure my own simple ignorance is such a great defence.
Beyond the structural hierarchies I had dragged over from my love for whiskey I had also managed to bring a lot of plain old snobbery – I wrinkled my nose when I read on Diffords Guide about how both sugar and the colourant boise, ‘a dark goo made by boiling wood and reducing the resulting liquid’, are used in armagnac. I did this without actually knowing whether or not the excellent armagnacs I had consumed used either, and never considered that these things might actually be tradition – at the bottom of the page on Diffords about the practise it makes the point that many of the producers who use boise create it using a secret recipe and carefully age their sugar blended with distillate for at least a year prior to adding to the spirit. So, horror of horrors, this might be part of the craft of making armagnac.
Armagnac also taught me that a column still can create incredible flavour. I had a whiskey snob’s notion that it can only churn out neutral grain spirit but it can do anything, when tasked with it. Although I would add that seeing those battered armagnac alembics trundling around the countryside behind a tractor or in a basement somewhere with their furnaces being stuffed with logs made me realise that it is also how you design and then run them that matters.
For now, I am trying to consume without prejudice – to buy more blends, from more producers, and to get a broader sense of what armagnac is, to understand it rather than try and manipulate it into some sort of Whiskey V2.0. It was precisely because of my mild boredom with scotch whisky (and complete disillusionment with Irish whiskey, over any number of things) that brought me to this not-especially-well-known product of southwest France, so why try then to recreate it in whiskey’s image? I wanted difference, and then, upon finding it, decided it was just too different. Armagnac shouldn’t have to change for me, and Condom should never have opened a condom museum that had literally nothing to do with the town. However, should you ever find yourself down that way they apparently have a cracking armagnac museum.