Amber treasure

good old liquor

Amber treasure

The year was 1945. Europe was on the verge of peace and Stalin was trying to woo Churchill at the Yalta conference, where important post-war decisions were being made.

Knowing the British prime minister’s love for the good things in life, he handed him a glass of Ararat brandy. After quaffing the rich honey-coloured liquor, Churchill immediately ordered 400 bottles to be delivered per year, for the rest of his life. Once when he was drinking from a bottle, Churchill declared that something was wrong and complained to Stalin. Stalin immediately investigated the situation and learnt that the head technologist of Ararat’s brandy production had been sent into political exile in Siberia. Within days of this discovery, the technologist was brought back to Armenia and reinstated in his role; Churchill was happy and all was well in the world!

Favourite indeed
I’m in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, and visiting the famous Ararat brandy factory. The history of the brandy goes back to 1887, when an industrialist named Nerses Tairiants opened a factory for the production of wine and spirits in Yerevan. He relied on French expertise to create high-quality brandy, and used a distillation technique developed in France. In 1899, his factory was acquired by a large Russian alcohol distributor, Shustov.

Shustov marketed Armenian brandy throughout the Russian Empire. The result was a love affair between the Russian people and Armenian brandy that has lasted for more than a century. Even today, some 85% of Ararat brandy is exported to Russia.

In 1900, the brandy won the Grand-Prix at the International Exhibition in Paris and gained the legal right to use the term ‘cognac’. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the conflict with Azerbaijan sent the industry on a downward spiral, until Pernod Ricard purchased the Yerevan Brandy Company in 1998. Pernod replaced its ageing equipment, launched an aggressive marketing campaign, and introduced measures to discourage piracy.

I take a guided tour of the brandy factory, which also includes a brandy-tasting session at the end. It’s housed in an imposing-looking brick building on a hill overlooking the city. The guide explains that all stages of producing the brandy take place in Armenia, starting from picking up the grapes and ending with bottling. The stages are: grapes, grape juice, fermentation, white wine, brandy spirits, ageing, blending, and bottling.

“The Ararat Valley is the most fertile valley in all of Caucasus — where Noah planted the first grapes,” says our guide. Armenia’s topography and climate make it favourable for its production since the country sees an abundance of sunshine. Using Armenian white grapes and Armenian spring water, the Ararat factory makes its brandy the French way, with double distillation. Each batch is separated into three parts. The head, heart and tail — the heart is aged in Krasnodar barrels for nine months, and later transferred to old barrels. The head and tail are collected separately and re-distilled.

We visit the barrel rooms where all the brandy kegs are kept. The guide explains how the brandy is aged and blended, and tells us that all the barrels are made out of Russian oak. The barrel imparts unique aromas to the liquor, which helps to create flavours capturing chocolate, vanilla and dried fruits.

There is a heady alcoholic smell in the barrel room caused by the alcohol evaporating through the barrels. This smell is called ‘Angels’ share’, and it makes us feel drunk just wandering around the room! The guide says it’s responsible for making Ararat’s workers happy all the time and keeping them free of sickness!

Rich resources
In the French brandy-making production, distilled water is used; however, because of the mountainous terrain in Armenia, spring water is used, which is an added benefit to the traditional brandy production. Most Armenian brandy is made in the agricultural heart of the Republic of Armenia, the Arax Valley, which Armenia shares with its neighbours Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan.

Displayed in a glass case is the oldest brandy, which dates from 1902 — we are not offered a taste, but unlike wine, brandy does not improve with age, in the bottle.

The museum shows how the barrels are made and also houses various historical artefacts and old bottles. It also has a ‘Peace Barrel’ of brandy that will be opened when the contentious Azerbaijan issue is resolved. Visitors are invited to add their own calls for peace to the barrel and the surrounding walls. “Usually, it is better for the brandy to be aged. But this barrel is the only one we would like to open early,” quips our guide.

We walk down Charles Aznavour Alley, stocked with ‘President’s Barrels’ that had been dedicated to presidents of various countries who had visited the factory, and that were being aged until the president called for them.

Finally, we sit down at the tables that are laid out neatly, with brandy glasses and chocolates for our degustation. We are given glasses of a three-year-old and a 10-year-old brandy, along with small chocolates and a glass of water. “Armenian tradition says you should hold the glass in your left hand as it is nearer to your heart,” says our guide with a smile. “Warm it slightly in your hand and then examine it, considering the viscosity, transparency and clarity.”

Our guide explains how to pour a measure, and tells us about the ‘legs’ of the brandy, used to determine its age and quality. ‘Legs’ (‘tears’ or ‘church windows’) is the name given to that part of the brandy that clings to the glass after a sip. It’s a test of quality: the longer the legs hold, the higher the quality.

When asked what he attributed his longevity to, Churchill is said to have replied: “Cigars, Armenian brandy, and no sports.” Maybe he had a point there!

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