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Is This The Year We Finally Fall In Love With Brandy?
Is Armagnac really the "next mezcal"? Will Calvados ever find love? Among other hopeful questions from Bar Convent Brooklyn.
So I’m just home from a chaotic week at Bar Convent Brooklyn. I haven’t attended a big spirits industry event in several years, and I forgot about how easily one gets sucked into a swirling vortex. One moment you’re sitting calmly in a seminar, blending some pot-still batches of Chairman’s Reserve St. Lucia rum, and seemingly the next moment you’re at a bar where a guy in a panda costume is pouring shots straight into people’s mouths. One moment you’re pairing Osetra caviar with Fortaleza tequila, or sipping a new gin from Vietnam, and then suddenly it’s 2 a.m. and you’re in Bushwick watching a drag performance that’s sponsored by Jägermeister.
In any case, it’s going to take me a few days to process all the tasting, the chats with industry friends old and new, and all my cool new swag—including my sweet chore jacket from the people who import Suze. (I would like to say this merch is well earned: Those who’ve read me since my Washington Post days know that I was writing about Suze, the pleasantly bitter gentian liqueur, years before it was ever imported here. In the late aughts I even made a direct appeal in print to Pernod Ricard to stop hoarding it in France.)
Anyway, over the weekend I’ll be drawing whatever conclusions there are to draw from Bar Convent Brooklyn about “the state of spirits in 2023” and those will be forthcoming early next week.
For now (coming as a surprise to no one) I want to talk briefly about brandy. I’m not ready yet to declare 2023 as the year that brandy finally has its moment. But there seems to be a lot of people betting on it.
Is Armagnac the new mezcal?
Brandy appeared prominently in the education sessions at Bar Convent Brooklyn (BCB), with panels on “Rediscovering Brandy,” “Bringing Brandy Into the Guest's World Through Cocktails,” and “Which Cognac for Which Cocktails,” as well as a guided tasting of XO Cognac.
I attended a panel, “Terroirs de France,” put on by the importing company BCI, which focused on Armagnac and Calvados (as well as rhum agricole). The tasting was led BCI’s president, Jean-Francois Bonnete, who raised the big question: Is Armagnac the next mezcal? Within the context of brandy, Bonnete suggested that Armagnac is to Cognac what mezcal is to tequila. He is not the first person to make this comparison.
The Armagnac at this particular tasting was rather pedestrian—a VS from Marquis de Montesquiou, one of the region’s largest producers. But Marquis de Montesquiou could play an interesting role in the emergence of Armagnac. In late 2021, the brand was bought from Pernod Ricard by Alexander Stein, the entrepreneur who created Monkey 47 Gin—which Stein had previously sold to Pernod Ricard. “He thinks Armagnac is the new mezcal,” Bonnete said of Stein. I’m curious to see how the quality of Marquis de Montesquiou improves. But Marquis de Montesquiou was hardly the only Armagnac on offer at BCB.
The big question for Armagnac in the U.S. is whether or not American whiskey drinkers—tired of ridiculous bourbon prices—will finally embrace brandies they likely can’t pronounce. I found several highlights that would appeal to whiskey drinkers. For instance, importer Heavenly Spirits was pouring a 1985 vintage of Château de Hontambère, an exceptional cask-strength (56.6% abv) 36-year-old Ténarèze (actually pretty reasonably priced at $168). Hontambère’s cask-strength XO (53.2% abv) is also very good at a lower price under $120.
Over at importer Baron François, they were tasting Château de Laubade’s 21-year-old (45.3% abv). Also at under $120, this is the kind of Armagnac that could convince bourbon drinkers to leave Kentucky for Gascony.
All of these, of course, are following what importer PM Spirits has been doing with Armagnac for a number of years now. But it’s great to see how the category is quickly and dynamically evolving.
Is Calvados finally ready for love?
At BCI’s “Terroirs de France” tasting, the most exciting pours were the Calvados from Domaine du Coquerel. Third-generation distiller Pierre Martin Neuhaus, who took over Coquerel in 2014, poured a 24-year-old single cask that was simply magical. I’ll admit to having a blind spot for Coquerel over the years, but after tasting through their lineup this week, I want to explore deeper.
But even as good as this was, it was just the tip of the Calvados iceberg at BCB. The apple brandy from Normandy has been attempting to rebrand for a while now. The new Drink Calvados campaign finally starts to undo the spirit’s somewhat dowdy image. Sponsored by the official appellation, Calvados had a very prominent presence in Brooklyn this week, pouring a handful of producers alongside Coquerel, including Domaine Dupont and Château du Breuil (whose 15-year-old is still a solid entry point to the category at under $100).
But the image is only part of it. There also has to be a new generation of bottlings, including single cask, cask-strengh. Besides Coquerel’s single-cask offerings, I really like the new Claque-Pepin XO Single Cask #077 selection from Heavenly Spirits, made from organic apples, finished in a Cognac barrel, and bottled at cask strength (61% abv).
Finally, I loved Christian Drouin’s small-batch Trés Pomme, a rambuncitous young Calvados bottled at 53% abv. At $52, this is a great way to snag whiskey drinkers looking to explore at a value price point.
Again, PM Spirits has been doing Calvados barrel selections for several years with Domaine du Tertre and Roger Groult. And soon, there will be a very major new player releasing single-cask Calvados from smaller producers (more on that later).
Is Calvados about to have a moment? I’m not holding my breath. But certainly this apple brandy has always been near and dear to me.