La Boutique Des Vins in Toulouse’s historic Carmes neighborhood is one of the more popular spots for local residents to browse for just the right wine or spirit, maybe even a craft beer. On a quiet Friday evening when store traffic was still sparse, Noémie Cassou-Lalanne arrived in the hopes of convincing customers to reconsider a traditional spirit that might only rarely be on their shopping list.
Surrounded by a nook of shelves filled with wine bottles, teas, and chocolate bars, Cassou-Lalanne set up a small table and a silver tray with three bottles of Armagnac from the Pellehaut domaine in the Gascony region where she’s in charge of marketing. She then improvised a small bartending station, complete with cutting board, mint leaves, a pestle, tiny umbrellas, ice cubs, and simple syrup to make Armagnac Mojitos.
This reimagined cocktail used two types of Armagnac that this artisanal industry hopes will revitalize the image of France’s oldest eau de vie. The first, L’Age de Glace Château de Pellehaut, is a light-brown blend of Armagnacs that have spent little time aging a barrel. The other is Blanche Armagnac, a clear white spirit that has not been aged.
As Cassou-Lalanne prepared a Mojito, a young couple entered the store and passed by the table. She explained the cocktail, the ingredients, and asked if they would like to sample it. The couple nodded, and then the woman simply replied, “Ah, yes. Armagnac. My grandfather used to drink that.”
This is Armagnac’s dilemma in a nutshell. According to industry association Le Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac, about 3 million bottles of Armagnac are sold annually, compared to 216.5 million bottles of Cognac. Armagnac sales are falling in France where it retains an image as a stuffy product consumed mainly by old people. Overall, the industry is stable thanks to rising shipments to China, Russia, and the United States.
On paper, Armagnac would seem to be the perfect spirit at a moment when consumers and bartenders around the world are constantly searching for artisanal alcohols and new tastes. Armagnac is made from grapes and distilled by small, family-owned operations in the southwestern region of Gascony, estates that in some cases have been around for hundreds of years. Yet the emphasis on tradition as a selling point has also made Armagnac producers slow to adapt and embrace concepts like branding and marketing.
While Armagnac may not exactly be experiencing a revolution, the growing promotion of cocktails is a sign of how many producers are shaking off the dust and rethinking their approach. This has been helped in some corners by newcomers and younger generations taking over estates. Meanwhile, the BNIA and several producers are working with brand ambassadors in France and overseas to spread the gospel of Armagnac.
The good news is that bartenders seem intrigued and persuaded by the cocktail potential of young Armagnacs and Blanche. It’s this kind of word-of-mouth the industry will need to generate the buzz required to reach a new generation of consumers.
“Bartenders love its rich and strong aromatics and know that they can create great cocktails with it,” said Emmanuel Brandelet, an independent barman who runs Les Artisans Du Cocktail. “But they know that the word ‘Armagnac’ can sometimes deter the customers because in most people’s minds it still carries the image of an old and too strong spirit.”
The Gascon Spirit
On a cool November afternoon, the rolling hills and vineyards of Domaine de Pellehaut were bathed in warm sunlight and a big sky. Just downhill, cows grazed in a field and further out various cereals were growing. It was classic setting in Gascony, one of the most rural and sparsely populated corners of France.
Situated just outside of Montréal in the Gers Department, Pellehaut is run by brothers Martin and Mathieu Béraut. While the land had been in their family for hundreds of years, it was their father who decided to take charge of running the estate that had been maintained for decades by tenant farmers. The estate’s primary revenue comes from its wines, part of the underrated Côtes de Gascogne that only gained official appellation recognition in 1982.
After recounting the estate’s history, Cassou-Lalanne led me out to a courtyard and then a nearby barn where a still, known here as an alambic, was transforming recently harvested grapes into Armagnac. The copper alambic for Armagnac has a very specific design, with two columns. In the first, the grape juice is heated and rises to the top before passing into the second column and descending through coils that naturally cool it.
The early autumn in the Gers is known as La Flamme, which is when the grapes are harvested and the Armagnac is made. Armagnac is only produced through early March. Like many estates, Pellehaut uses a mobile, or ambulant alambic that moves from estate to estate throughout the season. The alambic operates around the clock and a father and sone team split 12 hours shifts.
On this day, the son, Thomas was continuously feeding wood into the alambic’s chimney on one side and carefully monitoring the temperature which has to be maintained precisely or the Armagnac is ruined. At the far side, a small fountain of clear liquid exited the alambic into a circular basin where a hose at the bottom carried it to a barrel across the floor. The distillation takes about 4 hours. Cassou-Lalanne held a small glass under the fountain to capture the clear Armagnac and then handed it to me for a taste. This pure Armagnac can be up to 60% alcohol, and it certainly stung my throat and cleared my lungs. But it also retained a floral hint and the taste of the grapes.
Pellehaut makes all of its annual Armagnac batch in just 4 days, about 25 casks. It remains central to the culture and identity of Pellehaut. But when I ask Cassou-Lalanne to describe the Armagnac business, she replies, “Difficile.”
There doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus as to why Armagnac never conquered the world like its brandy cousin to the north, Cognac. Locals like to sneer that Cognac is twice distilled and therefore it has less of the taste of its terroir compared to Armaganc, which is only distilled once (with some exceptions). Today, the vast majority of Cognac is produced and sold by a handful of large brand names such as Hennessy, which is in turn owned by luxury conglomerate LVMH. That gives Cognac massive distribution and marketing muscle.
In sharp contrast, rare is the Armagnac house that has any kind of marketing team. Much of its identity is built on its aging. Bottles across estates can be fairly uniform with labels that primarily highlight its age. People who do buy a bottle often look for one that matches a special year, like their birth or marriage.
Jean Cavé, an Armagnac producer in Lannepax, has formed a partnership with 4 other estates to pool marketing, sales, and distribution resources. During a recent visit, Administrator Jérôme Lassus took me inside the cave where hundreds of barrels of Armagnac were aging. As he described the 130-year history of the estate, he led us upstairs to a second-floor known as the “paradise.” This is where prospective buyers can taste vintage Armagnacs by year, including the oldest from 1888.
The problem is that these bottles can be quite expensive, and people only pull them out for special occasions, which means they don’t get consumed quickly, making turnover even among loyal buyers fairly limited. That’s one of the reasons Jean Cavé has been investing in cocktail promotions focused on its 2 Blanches (40% and 64%) and its young classic Armagnac. “It would be nice to have an Armaganc that sells more often,” Lassus said.
A New Look
Denis Lesgourgues is among those charting a new path between Armagnac’s traditions and a more dynamic future. He oversees Château de Laubade, a 260-acre estate in the Bas Armagnac sub-region. (Ténarèze and Haut Armagnac are the other 2 subregions). While the estate was established in 1870, his grandfather took it over in 1974 and management passed through his father and eventually to Lesgourgues and his brother, Arnaud.
In a nod to the estate’s heritage, the family continues to build its vintage Armagnac collection, with more than 80 vintage Armagnacs aging, including the oldest from 1888. These must reach a minimum age of 15 years before they are sold. “It’s very important to maintain this point of differentiation,” Lesgourgues said. “Armagnac is a spirit that is very unique.”
But the brothers have also been finding ways to modernize. They experiment with the kind of wood used for the aging casks. They’ve embraced different bottle shapes to make the product more eye-catching. And for several years now, they’ve been promoting the use of their younger Armagnacs for cocktails. Lesgourgues has participated in cocktail competitions in the Phillipines, London, Peking, and New York.
“We think innovation is very important in the context of respecting the traditions,” he said.
Part of that innovation is Blanche Armagnac. Blanche has existed forever but wasn’t really taken seriously as a potential product by Armagnac purists. But in 2006, Laubade helped lead the lobbying effort on behalf of Blanche to win France’s official appellation label, which recognizes the distinct production and geography of a product. Rather than aging in a barrel, Blanche goes directly into a still container for three months as water is gradually added to reduce its alcohol percentage from the 60s to the mid-40s.
This is just the kind of fresh thinking that Patrick de Montal has been advocating for decades. Owner of Château Arton, de Montal is a bit of a renegade in the Armagnac world. While he believes strongly that the vintages make Armagnac distinct among eau de vies, he argues that the labeling system based on designations like “Napoléon” and “VSOP” and “XO” are meaningless to most consumers, and just misguided attempts to mimic Cognac categories. He’s getting ready to take another radical step this month by releasing La Flamme, an Armagnac that will blend different casks from the same year. He acknowledged his colleagues view him with a wary eye.
When it comes to Blanche Armagnac, de Montal was the pioneer. In 1985, he began selling Fine Blanche, though he was not allowed to include the Armagnac name on the label.
“Vodka and gin are boiled and then aroma is added,” he said. “With Armagnac, we don’t add anything at all. The distillation allows it to express the quality of the wine. It’s naturally aromatic. And that means each year is different. It’s not a product that is standard and stands still. It’s a living product. It’s incomparable.”
Several years ago, de Montal began working with U.S. distributor Altamar Brands to reach bartenders in the U.S. Altamar director of education Brandon Cummins said his first experience with Armagnac was working in a bar in Manhattan, KS when Bill Murray came in and ordered a glass.
But Armagnac fit perfectly with Altamar’s mission, which Cummins described as “hunting the globe for unique spirits that in general we feel could not be made anywhere else and are made by deeply passionate people who strictly abide to a standard of no adulteration.”
Which describes Armagnac. After a visit to Arton and getting his first taste of Blanche, Cummins was instantly won over.
“This is one of the most interesting and unique white spirits I’ve had in the last 10 to 15 years,” he said. “I was really deep in the craft cocktail world and I thought that this was transformative. It works in place of almost any other white spirit. And Patrick’s passion and pedigree and history were directly in line with everything else we already looking at.”
Altamar now imports Fine Blanche as well as Arton’s younger classic Armagnac La Réserve. Cummins said prior to the pandemic, his tours and workshops around Armagnac had been drawing growing interest from bartenders. One bartender at a Kansas City bar called The Westside Local substituted Fine Blanche in his Cosmopolitan cocktail and saw a rise in sales.
“He started having guests come up and say, ‘This is one of the best Cosmos I’ve ever had. Why is this so different?’” Cummins said. “And he’d say, ‘Well, it’s because we’re using Blanche Armagnac. Then they say, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but what the heck is Blanche Armagnac?’ So, a lot of work is centered around educating bartenders, so they know what they’re talking about.”
Behind The Bar
Brandelet, the independent barman, fell in love with Blanche from the moment he first heard about it. He echoed what many fans say about it: The lack of aging means the spirit retains a fresh, floral taste that’s closer to the grapes. “I was immediately obvious to me that it had to be used in cocktails and promoted to bartenders,” he said.
Younger Armagnac can potentially be used as a substitute for any classic cocktail with a brown spirit while Blanche can replace clear alcohols like gin or vodka. While working with an Armagnac house, he developed several cocktails such as a Tiki drink which blends the Blanche and a young Armagnac from Maison Dartigalongue. The estate has developed a Blanche it calls “Un-Oaked” and a young Armagnac called “Dry-Cellar” that it sells specifically for cocktails.
Brandelet said Blanche is just starting to get a reputation. “It’s happening slowly,” he said. “It’s a bit more famous in Toulouse, Pau, and now Paris. It will take a little more time for it to be a commonly used spirit.”
The word is spreading, in part thanks to enthusiastic brand ambassadors like Selin Tanetvitayavet of Exquisite Elixir in Thailand. An Australian friend originally introduced her to Armagnac, and when she finally visited Gascony for a tour of producers, she was hooked. “The aroma, the fragrance was like ripened fruit,” she said. “I’ve visited twice but it’s never enough. I’m always pining to go back.”
For now, Blanche remains a niche. “When I first started to introduce it to my clients in Bangkok, I got some resistance from people who are used to clear spirits that are tasteless. But it’s different, and now they’re curious.”
Those converts include Konstantyn Wulf, a bartender at J Borowski and Shades of Retro in Bangkok. He’s been experimenting with Blanche for a couple of years now and is impressed by its range. “When I compare it to vodka, I like the fruitiness of the Blanche,” he said. “You can tell when the vinification has been good. You really feel that it’s been made out of grapes and not grains. Blanche has a lot of flavor.”
Armagnac in general still struggles with a lack of familiarity. But for Wulf, that’s also part of its charm. When customers ask Wulf to suggest a drink, he’ll take them through some questions to try to discern their tastes. If he suggests a cocktail with Armagnac, he often gets a puzzled look which offers him the chance to launch into storytelling mode.
“It’s a matter of explaining it to people,” Wulf said. “That’s where a product like this shines. They like to try something new and they see it’s from France. They associate that with good products. And I find that people like the story behind it. You are able to tell them about the vineyard and how a family tends the vines and they control the process. So, the product they are getting is very artisanal.”
Still, the odds are tough for Armagnac. Big spirit brands can offer lots of bulk discounts and freebies to entice bartenders and customers. “Armagnac is probably not for every bar,” Wulf said. “It comes at a certain price point but not the same promotions as with Cognac brands.”
Despite the challenges, the cocktail scene has injected new optimism into the Armagnac world. The BNIA notes that estates have slowly been expanding the size of vineyards dedicated to Armagnac. In Lannepax, Delord Armagnac is preparing to re-launch its Blanche in a new bottle with a designer label.
And fresh faces are being drawn into this historically closed world. Three years ago, Jan Schuermann, 47 and his wife Kim, took over the Château De Gensac from his godfather. Schuermann was a Swiss businessman who was up for a new challenge and found it in a more rural life surrounded by horses and vineyards.
“The romance loses itself quite fast when you have a business to run,” Schuermann said. “You have to be realistic. You need the business in order to live the romance.”
Schuermann’s goal is to build an international boutique brand. The Gensac’s Armagnacs are all aged in new French oak barrels. “We remain a small player and we don’t want to change that,” he said.
Still, he’s also ramping up marketing around his Blanche and young Armagnacs for cocktails. His favorites include a Moscow Mule with the vodka replaced by Armagnac. One of the benefits of these younger Armagnacs is their price. A Blanche, for instance, can be found for under €30, while classic bottles are often €50 more. And vintage ones can run well past €100.
“This gets it to a better price point,” he said. “As a product category, Armagnac is one of the most crafted spirits. But it’s not benefiting from the craft spirit trend as it should be. We don’t want Armagnac to be something people buy and then it just sits on a shelf.”
Claire de Montesquiou plunged into Armagnac 30 years ago with her husband after living in England. They bought Domaine D’Espérance and began to restore its vineyards. They believed the clay soil on the far western part of the official Armagnac region would yield high-quality grapes. Three decades later, they’ve developed a strong international reputation while also staying small. “I make small quantities of high quality,” she said. “It’s like if you wanted to compare haute couture to ready-to-wear.”
She’s also brought a willingness to experiment. Several years ago, she connected with Nicolas Palazzi, a Bordeaux native who had moved to New York City where he worked as an importer and brand ambassador. Palazzi was passionate about Armagnac, but he felt it was too complicated to explain to bartenders and potential customers. “The fact that it’s called Blanche Armagnac makes it really hard to sell in my world,” he said.
He worked with de Montesquiou to create a product called Cobrafire. Rather than sitting in a still container for 3 months and having water added, the Armagnac is distilled at a lower alcohol rate, bottled after one month, and then sold as an “eau-de-vie raisin.”
“I’m a big proponent of putting stuff in a bottle at its natural proof,” Palazzi said. “If you try it and you like it, and then you need to add water to it, then you can do it. But it’s not someone in a lab deciding for you.”
It’s a sharp break with tradition. But Palazzi said Armagnac makers need to take some chances if their product is going to reach a wider audience.
“What we’re trying to do with Cobrafire is to reframe things so that people are interested,” Palazzi said. “We’re trying to sell something really good. I want to let people discover the work of distillers who really care about their stuff.”
The Région Occitanie offers a wealth of tips and resources for learning more about Armagnac (and wine!). More information about organizing tours and tastings can be found here.