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Few spirits can hold a candle to the depth, beauty, and character of a fine Armenian brandy. These drinks have been made with great pride in the shadow of Mount Ararat for over a century, and connect contemporary drinkers to a history of grape growing and vinification which stretches back to the very dawn of human civilisation itself. With such heritage, such history, and such a richness of culture and flavour, it should come as no surprise that these brandies are regularly heralded as among the finest to be found anywhere on earth. As the global popularity and interest in Armenian brandy (known as kanyak to the locals) continues to grow, it’s only natural that fans of this unique grape distillate start seeking out ways of taking their enjoyment further.
We hear plenty about wine and food pairing, and matching dishes and ingredients with other drinks – namely craft beer and whisky – is also becoming more and more commonplace. Indeed, there are an increasing number of books on the subject, and a quick internet search will reveal tens of thousands of pages, packed full of flavourful advice and top tips for perfect pairings. Despite this, the amount of information out there on matching brandy and food (and especially Armenian brandy and food) is surprisingly low… which is nothing short of a travesty when you consider just how wonderful certain food and brandy pairings can be.
As such, we’ve decided to play our part in righting this wrong, and have picked out some food pairings for fine Armenian brandies which simply cannot be missed. This is all about catching those harmonious moments on the palate – those taste sensations which slightly dull the alcoholic burn of the brandy, and truly allow the smoothness and subtleties of the flavour to come forward – which make both the spirit and the food combined far more than the sum of their parts. Read on to find out more, and get ready to impress your guests or delight your taste buds with a real voyage of delicious discovery!
It isn’t difficult to understand why brandy and food pairing is an underrated art, and something which many people simply wouldn’t consider exploring. After all, Armenian brandy has plenty to say for itself on the palate; those deep fruit and caramel flavours certainly have their own intensity, and careless pairings could end up taking away from the depth and character the brandy has to offer.
However, get it right, and you’re in for a sensory treat like no other. What’s more, Armenian brandy really isn’t as difficult to pair with as you might at first assume. The top Armenian brandy producers pride themselves on their ability to strike the perfect balance between fruit, sweetness, acidity, and alcohol… and as such, the secret to a perfect brandy pairing comes down to harmonising with the key flavours, and tempering the boldness as you soften the sensation of alcohol. Achieve this, and your kanyak will play beautifully with other flavours on the palate, and allow you to explore hidden depths and those elusive secondary and tertiary notes.
Who doesn’t love the bittersweet sensation of a quality chocolate on their tongue? In many ways, chocolate can be the perfect pairing for Armenian brandy… so long as you’re pretty selective in the type of chocolate you opt for. It really goes without saying that cheap white and milk chocolate bars aren’t quite going to cut it when it comes to this uniquely wonderful spirit – that top note of sickly sweetness is going to be far too powerful, and is going to lead to a whole load of sugary overkill on the palate.
Instead, opt for pairing your aged, darker Armenian brandies with bitter dark chocolate (anything over 75% cocoa solids should do the trick), and if you can find very dark chocolates which boast a touch of spice of citrus to them, this should be really very delightful indeed. Many brandy experts would suggest pairing your Armenian Cognac with dark chocolate truffles (which are filled with a fattier, creamier chocolate ganache), as these coat the palate in a way which works better at softening the harder edges of the alcohol, and lead to a more luxurious match. Fruits such as strawberries or dried fruits coated in dark chocolate are also, naturally, a real winner in this regard, as are chocolate-dipped hazelnuts.
Armenian cheeses tend to be made from sheep or goat milk, and are usually mild and creamy – a bit like a matured mozzarella. Despite being relatively light in flavour and soft in texture, the traditional cheeses of Armenia (which include the fascinating Yeghegnadzor cheese, matured in clay pots buried in the mountains for six months, as well as Armenian string cheese that is matured, dried, and then tied into beautiful rope-like formations) pair really very nicely with younger brandies which have a lighter, fresher flavour. Naturally, such cheeses are hard to find outside of Armenia, and even international Armenian stores are unlikely to get their hands on the real deal. However, if you’re looking to pair your young kanyak with a delicious cheese, you can opt for a mild Gouda or Edam, or even something a little stronger like a Gorgonzola or Brie de Maux for great results.
The chances are, however, that you’ll be seeking out brandy and cheese pairings for an aged, caramel-like Armenian brandy, which exudes beautiful nutty and deep fruit aromas and flavours. For your 10+ year aged brandies, you’ll need a cheese of real depth and character, in order to delve deeper into the realms of rich and mouth-watering taste sensations. In these cases, we’d recommend pairing with a quality mature Camembert (there’s something about the mushroom flavours of a top level Camembert which works amazingly well with the forest-floor notes of a wonderful aged Armenian brandy), or a Manchego, Mimolette, or even a very mature Parmesan. Add some nuts, grapes, and dried figs to your cheese board, and you’ll be well on your way to food and brandy pairing heaven.
If you were to head to the tasting rooms of top Armenian brandy distilleries, such as that at the legendary ArArAt, it’s likely your tasting session will be accompanied by a local charcuterie platter. The oily, nutty, and deeply flavourful cured and dried meats of Armenia work beautifully when contrasted with the sweetness and aromatic notes of the brandy, and this is something you can easily replicate in your own home or at your own tasting sessions. Charcuterie (especially French charcuterie) which makes use of green peppercorns or truffles works especially well, as do dried sausages made from game meat such as wild boar or venison.
The other key meat pairing for Armenian Cognac is duck. Rich, deeply flavourful, and fatty, duck is an ideal meat to serve alongside your brandy. The fatty mouthfeel of this meat ensures a smoother drinking experience, and hits those spots which allow for the hidden notes of the brandy to come forward in all their glory. Foie Gras or other goose and duck liver pates also work wonders in this regard, and smoked meats also bring about brilliant results, too.
In this article, we’ve taken you through the more traditional pairings for Armenian brandy, such as those you’d be likely to come across at a tasting session in situ, or which you might find recommended at a high-end brandy bar staffed by seasoned sommeliers. However, this really is only half the story… and as with all food and spirit or wine pairings, there’s always plenty of scope for experimentation and seeking out pairings which you might not naturally expect to go together.
For example, Armenian brandy is one of the few spirits which pairs very well indeed with sushi. The blend of acidity and juicy, unctuous fruit in kanyak works brilliantly with the complex flavours found in classic sushi dishes – the oily fish, the fiery wasabi, the acidity of the pickled rice – and makes for an exciting and sophisticated alternative to the traditional boxes of Sake. We’d also add to this list fatty pork dishes, especially barbecued ribs or grilled pork belly (especially when cooked with a honey glaze), due to the fact that Armenian brandy loves being paired with dishes which produce that fatty mouthfeel, and which combine sweet and salt flavours on the palate.
As we’ve seen, Armenian brandy is by no means a spirit which needs to be served on its own. The traditional pairing of brandy and a cigar might be all well and good for those who like to stick to the classics… but for modern fans of this fascinating drink (and for non-smokers, for that matter), there is plenty of room for truly delicious and involving combinations, sure to take your enjoyment of kanyak to new and exciting heights. Կենացը!