Ever since I’ve been writing about spirits, people have been predicting big things for Armagnac. Now, with prices of the most in-demand single-malt Scotch whisky and bourbon soaring, are people finally waking up to the extraordinary value to be found in France’s other grape-based brandy?
My wife and I were fortunate enough to visit Armagnac a few years back as a guest of the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac (BNIA). Our guide was press officer and Armagnac evangelist Amanda Garnham who packed a gruelling schedule into two days, visiting seven producers. What stood out was how generous everyone was with their rare vintages. At Castarède, one of the oldest and most prestigious producers, we tried Armagnacs from our birth years, 1977 and 1981 – something quite unthinkable at, say, Bowmore. Best of all, a bottle of that superb 1981 will set you back just £150.
David Baker, who sells Castarède through Brandyclassics, thinks that ‘whisky prices have become ridiculous’. He is amazed that people will pay ten or even a hundred times what they would pay for a fine Cognac or Armagnac for whiskies that are ‘just not that spectacular’. If you love the taste of a well-aged single malt, especially a meaty Sherry-cask whisky like Glenfarclas, then Armagnac offers similar flavours for much less money. Some malt fans are making the cross-Channel leap as a result. Irish whiskey writer Bill Linnane told me recently, ‘I’ve found myself buying less whisky and more Armagnac, and I have yet to try one that is anything less than excellent.’ According to French whisky writer Christine Lambert, the increasing number of Armagnac brands at Whisky Live in Paris is a sign of this awakening.
Most retailers in Britain agree that it’s still a slow burn getting through to single-malt Scotch whisky fans. But over in the United States, it’s a very different story. ‘The spirit has more power and intensity than a classic Cognac, which suits the aged bourbon drinker,’ says Dawn Davies MW, head buyer for The Whisky Exchange. ‘These spirits are complex beasts with loads of character.’
Ben Murray, head spirits buyer at Hedonism Wines, a London shop that specialises in collectable wine and spirits, says he has also noticed that bourbon drinkers are getting into Armagnac in a big way.
Whether they’re Scotch or bourbon drinkers, interest from whisky lovers is beginning to change the face of Armagnac
Whether they’re Scotch or bourbon drinkers, interest from whisky lovers is beginning to change the face of Armagnac. American whiskey writer Jason Wilson wrote on his Substack about the ‘whiskey-fication’ of the category. For example, the packaging of producers such as Domaine du Tariquet apes the look of whisky, with cardboard tubes, age statements and cask strength. Château de Lacquy now bottles its XO with a 17-year- old age statement to appeal to whisky drinkers.
Meanwhile, the liquid itself is changing, too. This includes Armagnac finished in Islay whisky casks, which can’t legally be called Armagnac so instead it is sold simply as brandy. There are quite a few on the market now, including offerings from producers such as Gensac. But the producer who has caused the biggest splash with his Islay ‘Armagnac’ is Raj Peter Bhakta, one of the founders of the American rye whiskey brand WhistlePig. He launched his eponymous Armagnac house in 2021.
Bhakta’s new venture is based on a large stash of old brandies, including some 19th-century vintages that he acquired. He describes it as ‘the largest ultra-aged spirits collection on earth’. One of the reasons for Armagnac’s relative obscurity is that it lacks a brand like The Macallan or Pappy Van Winkle with any marketing power. Production is too small, around six million bottles annually compared with 180 million in Cognac, and split between many producers and négociants. Bhakta aims to change that by bringing a little American whiskey nous to Armagnac. I didn’t find his 50-year-old Armagnac finished in Islay casks altogether harmonious, but the 1990 Bas-Armagnac bottled at more than 60% abv was superb. He’s got a nose for talent, as well as spirits, and he employs none other than Amanda Garnham, formerly of the BNIA, and her son Giles who is in charge of production.
According to Lambert, whisky lovers are after specific things with their Armagnac. It’s not the VSOPs or the XOs that attract the attention but ‘the cask-strength or high-abv ones, the unsweetened ones, the old vintages,’ she says. Florence Castarède agrees: ‘I have more and more requests from my customers in all countries who would like to develop a new market with the single cask. This trend is coming from the whisky lovers.’ Castarède now releases an annual single-cask 100% Folle Blanche cask-strength bottling with very single-malt- like packaging. Other popular names with collectors include Château de Lacquy, Dartigalongue – the Macallan of Armagnac, says Lambert – and Laberdolive. The latter is described by some aficionados as the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti of the region, yet you can pick up 1980s vintages for around £200 a bottle. From my experience, the Armagnacs from Marc Darroze, who functions as a négociant and independent bottler, are quite exceptional, as are the vintage offerings from Delord, Château de Bordeneuve and Janneau.
There is a finite amount of in-demand vintages to go around, though. David Baker, who specialises in finding and bottling rare brandy, says there just isn’t enough out there compared with Cognac. Jason Wilson writes of how barrels are being gobbled up by bourbon clubs around the US. He thinks this is not necessarily good for the region, because these whiskey drinkers are only interested in rare casks, sometimes from producers that are no longer distilling. There is the worry that whiskey lovers will vacuum up the treasures of a tiny region – vineyard area has decreased dramatically over the past 50 years – leaving the cupboard bare before moving on to something else.
The good news for fine spirits lovers, however, is that this seems to be happening very slowly. For the time being, you can still pick up rare vintages at what are, by whisky standards, ridiculously good prices. Now is the time to buy; those prices are only going one way.