Armenian Brandy: Is It Cognac?

On November 28, 2018

Stop what you’re doing for a moment, and take a moment to think which countries in the world we most closely associated with the finest alcoholic beverages. If ‘France’ was the first thing to pop into your mind, you’d be far from alone; for centuries, this country has dominated the wine and spirits world, and from Bordeaux to Champagne, from Armagnac to Cognac, and from the iconic wine bars of Paris to the cocktail bars of the Cote d’Azur, it remains a force to be reckoned with on the global drinks scene.

However, what if we told you that actually, for vast swathes of the world’s population, the finest brandies come not from the central regions of France, but from the valleys of Armenia? Head to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, and you’ll come across more brandy producers per capita than anywhere else on earth… and these aren’t the typical backyard distilleries making eye-wateringly strong fruit brandies, such as those you’ll find in neighbouring post USSR countries. Instead, these are seriously quality operations, churning out bottles of extremely high-end spirits regarded as the greatest examples of alcohol craftsmanship, and which are snapped up by collectors and connoisseurs alike.

All along the banks of the slow-moving Hrazdan river, the local grape distillate takes pride of place in small bars, exclusive factories, cellar doors and more. It’s clear that - just like in those hallowed parts of France mentioned previously - the local brandy (known as kanyak) is a key part of the culture, and a significant factor in the pride, identity, and day-to-day action of everyday life. What’s more, it tastes utterly divine.

While Armenian brandy is undoubtedly growing once more from strength to strength (following some wilderness years following the fall of the Soviet Union in the early ‘90s), there remains one key argument at its heart, which doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon. It’s an ongoing fight between the French overlords of the world’s wine and spirits scene, and the plucky Armenian underdogs, whose production of grape-based drinks outstrips the French by several thousand years. Within this fight lies the very essence of Armenian brandy’s greatest claim to fame, and a key part of the identity of this wonderful drink. Let’s lift the lid on this decades-old row, and take a closer look at kanyak and its finest points.

The Judgement of Paris

The argument surrounding the identity of Armenian brandy dates back to 1900, when the spirit was experiencing its first real flush of success and popularity. The leading brandy producer at the time, the legendary Nikolay Shustov of Shustov & Sons (a company which remains at the epicentre of the Armenian brandy scene to this day) had been in operation for 20 or so years, and were pioneering new ways of eking out the most incredible flavours, smooth textures, and layers of complexity from the native grapes of Mount Ararat. Their brandy was already a hit with local drinkers, and was beginning to find its way out of Armenia, and into the bars of European capitals where it was relished with real enthusiasm.

Being a highly ambitious and something of a raconteur, Shustov decided he needed to aim as high as possible in order to get his spirit the recognition he believed it deserved. As such, he entered his best bottle into a blind tasting at the 1900 International Exhibition in Paris, where it would be tested and judged against the leading producers of French Cognac (which at that time, including some of the most popular and highly-revered alcohol companies in the world). Needless to say, the French judges - completely unaware that they were tasting an Armenian product and not a home-grown one - award the Grand Prix to Shustov. Rather than being ashamed or embarrassed (which sets this event apart from the other famous ‘judgement of Paris’ in the 1960s), the judges agreed that Shustov’s brandy was so fine, so deep, and so utterly delicious, he had earned the right to use the name ‘Cognac’ on his bottles from that day forth.

Fighting Their Corner

From the moment of that judging, Armenian brandy exploded in popularity. It became the preferred drink of the House of Romanov, the aristocracy of Eastern Europe and Russia, and was even bought up by the crateload by the fashionable bars of London and Paris. By the mid-20th century, it accounted for 25% of the brandy enjoyed across the vast entirety of the USSR. Winston Churchill himself drank it every single day, and even attributed his longevity to the drink. However, the rumblings of discontent among the French Cognac producers was growing louder by the day.

As the 20th century rolled on, and the European Union started addressing the importance of European products being protected from imitation, the fate of Armenian brandy began to change. While previously, the brandy was bottled with ‘Cognac’ written proudly on the label, the appellation d’origine controlee rules of the EU forbid this from continuing… much to the delight of the French. An unsuccessful attempt by the Armenian government to get this rule overturned took place as late as 2013, with the Armenians quoting the judgement of Paris, and claiming their strongest export was being damaged by them not being allowed to call their produce Cognac. However, the case was closed definitively: Armenian brandy is - as far as officialdom and exports are concerned - not Cognac, and cannot be sold under that title.

The Big Questions

This ruling isn’t particularly surprising, and nor is it necessarily wrong. After all, the appellation rules of the EU do serve a specific purpose, and the name ‘Cognac’ refers pretty definitively to the sub-region of Champagne in France, where strict rules are in place to ensure only particular grape varietals and production methods are used in order to make the drink. Not only is Yerevan a long way from Champagne, but the grape varietals used are radically different (although some oenologists will claim that most French grapes are actually distant descendents of Armenian ones), as are some of the production methods are rules regarding barrel aging and bottling.

The big question really is not whether the ruling regarding the name of the drink is right or wrong, but rather whether it really matters at all. The modern spirits market is filled with a new generation of connoisseurs and enthusiasts, who take a considerably more globalised and open-minded approach to their drinks than their forebears did. We’re now accustomed to drinking wines from Uruguay and Bulgaria, whiskies from Sweden and Taiwan, and gins from pretty much every alcohol-producing country on earth. So strong is Armenian brandy’s reputation for excellence, it manages to reach the palates of Cognac and brandy fans regardless of what is printed on the label.

What’s more, most people are increasingly interested in spirits with their own distinguishing features and a story to tell… and these are factors which Armenian brandy has by the bucketload. Richer, earthier, and more fascinating to drink than French Cognac, the best stuff from Armenian is one of those drinks which comes with a revelation - once tasted, it’s not going to be forgotten. The fact that they continue to carve their own path and identity (and cheekily refer to the drink as kanyak - a clear derivation of Cognac) gives this spirit real character and personality. As more and more people discover the charms of authentic Armenian product, the more people realise that Armenian brandy doesn’t challenge the domineering force which is French Cognac. In fact, it surpasses it.