Of Alcohol and Devious Merchants – a brief history of Armagnac
The other day, I went into the local liquor store and bought a bottle of Armagnac. It was time, I’d decided, for me to acquire a sophisticated adult vice, and I quite liked the mental image of me curled in the sofa, book in hand and with a glass of Armagnac within reach. Now, buying Armagnac – well, any kind of alcoholic beverage – in Sweden, requires a visit to the state owned Systembolaget, which has a monopoly on all such sales. They earn a mint, are among the world’s largest purchasers of wine and spirits, and never spend as much as a penny on promoting their wares. No, Systembolaget spends a considerable budget on trying to convince Swedish people NOT to drink – or at least not as much. (Swedes have a conflicted relationship with alcohol, let’s leave it at that)
Anyway, obviously this anti-spirits propaganda had not had much effect on me. There I was, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (Umm…) and asking one of the knowledgeable staff where they kept the Armagnac. He laughed when I explained why I wanted to buy it – and it’s not only the pretty colour, but also the name. I mean, say Armagnac, really slow, and it conjures up men lounging in the shade of a giant beech, legs extended before them, polo-mallets littering the ground…Ahem: back to order.
The guy in Systembolaget tried to get me to go for something else instead.
“A nice aged Tequila,” he suggested, and I shook my head, no matter just how much I love The Eagles and Tequila Sunrise. So, fifteen minutes later, I was back outside, now the proud owner of a liquor that as per the guy was “rough on the palate and hot in the belly”. Sounded promising. Sounded ADULT. Sounded sinful – a nice little vice to cultivate.
So why all this hang-up on vices? Well, I have recently come to the conclusion that I need to cultivate an edgier profile. Maybe dye my hair henna red, and start wearing only black. Or start drinking Armagnac – seemed easier. You see, I worry that I am too proper. Outside my books – where adventures, high drama and romantic moments occur recurrently – I am a tad boring. “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee,” I could almost croon, what with preferring water to wine, books to wild parties and nice comfy pants to sexy stockings. Okay, so I do now and then put on those sexy stockings, and yes, I have a collection of lacy bits, but it’s not really me. Me is a day-dreamer who can sit for hours on the meadow at our summer house, surrounded by flowering lupines and the drone of happy bees, while I pretend I’m elsewhere, preferably somewhere that involves horses instead of cars and long, swishing skirts instead of yoga pants.
Being a to-do-list person, I therefore added a couple of items to my (interminable) list:
1. Do something wild and crazy
2. Develop an adult vice
Hubby laughed at me when I shared this with him, winking as he told me that there were some adult vices in my life. Yes, yes, of course there are, but we were talking sophistication here, something to be combined with a husky voice and slinky evening wear. I conveniently forgot I rarely wear slinky evening wear, and my voice is relatively dark anyway.
So there I was with my newly acquired bottle of Armagnac. A beautiful colour, like bottled carnelians. It smelled like the devil though, but as per the guy in the liquor store this was good stuff, however rough on the palate, single-distilled as all good Armagnacs have been since the 15th century. Okay, so now it wasn’t only the colour. Now I had a spirit in my glass that came with history. Anna was a happy camper…
It comes as no surprise that Armagnac comes from the Armagnac region. This, in turn, is part of Gascony, famous for important (however fictional) people like d’Artagnan, and for having been under English control for a number of centuries before the French got their act together and ousted the English once and for all in the 15th century.
I’ve never been to this region of France, but from what I understand we are talking countryside – even more so back in the 15th century. Situated to the west of Toulouse and south of Bordeaux, Armagnac nestles into the foothills of the Pyrenees, a region that does not invite easy travelling. Historically, Armagnac used to have its own count, and through an elegant balancing act between English and French demands, the region managed to retain a high level of autonomy – until the Black Prince decided to bring Armagnac to heel. Didn’t work all that well, as the Count of Armagnac appealed to the King of France to come to his help, and from this point on, the rulers of Armagnac held to La France.
This far south in France, the cultural influence from Spain and the ancient Moorish kingdoms was substantial. The University of Montpellier – one of the oldest universities in the world, with a medical school that goes back to the early 12th century – had extensive intellectual exchange with Islamic institutions, which is why the Arab invention of alcohol distilling reached the Languedoc – and Armagnac – as early as the 1410s. Now, the Arabs distilled alcohol for medicinal purposes. The Armagnacs – and others – quickly cottoned on to the other effects of distilled spirits, namely that they could “relieve pain and bring joy”.
The reason why the winemakers of Armagnac eventually took to distilling their precious wine is one of geography and controlled trade. Bordeaux was the wine-trading capital of the Gascon region, and the merchants of Bordeaux had a tendency to protect their own local vine-yards by refusing to sell the wine from the Haut-Pays (the Highlands, eg an area which, among others, encompassed Armagnac). By the mid-15th century, the refusal became a prohibition, whereby Haut-Pays wines could not be traded in Bordeaux prior to December.
This was more or less a catastrophe for the Haut-Pays winemakers. At the time, wine was a fragile product, bottling and preservation techniques far from modern standards. Come December, there was a major risk the wine had gone sour, so the beleaguered Armagnac winemakers had to look elsewhere for the distribution and trading of their product. Enter Bayonne, a smaller city right at the south of France’s Atlantic coast. Problem was, to get the wines there, they had to be transported in barrels on carts, thereby risking the quality. This is when some bright young thing suggested they distill the wines before they sent them off.
“I don’t know,” one of the older wine-makers said. “Does anyone want to drink something as…as…fiery as that?”
“You bet,” Mr eager-for-change said. “Our distilled product – our burned wine – will take the world by storm.”
“Hmm.” The older wine-maker sipped at his mug. Sipped some more. “It does grow on you doesn’t it?”
The other assembled wine-makers agreed it did – most definitely, it did. In a corner, one of the men was slumped on a bench, too drunk to button his cotehardie. One of the more senior wine-makers, a dour man name Jacques, was beaming at the smoky room at large, the cup of brandy in his hand already empty.
And so the beleaguered Armagnac wine-makers decided to embrace change, and soon enough they were all doing their own little distilling – the wine-makers of the region were per definition more prone to experiment than to standardise, which is why to this day there are as many methods of making Armagnac as there are Armagnac brands. Hmm. To me, that seems to overcomplicate things. To the true fans of Armagnac, this means the variety is huge.
Whatever the case, to this day the people of Armagnac proudly insist their brandy is the oldest in the world. There are people who mutter and grumble that being first is not always best – notably the gentlemen of the Cognac region – but in recent years there’s been an explosion in demand for Armagnac, that demand now augmented by my desire to explore the world of adult vices.
In the event, I am sad to report that I remain of the opinion that nothing beats water or tea. That single glass of Armagnac was the equivalent of swallowing fire, and I must say I’m with the ancient Arabs in this: as a medicinal device, designed to revive the almost-dead, distilled wine is a great and magnificent thing. For me, I’m thinking I’m more like Ferdinand the Bull – I prefer to sit among the flowers. And as to what I did that was wild and crazy, well, some things are best left unshared 🙂