The Next Brandy...
Who can predict the next big cocktail thing? If you're a producer of spirits anywhere in the world, you're hoping that the trend wheel keeps turning until it finally lands on you. After all, even mezcal is now having its moment in the sun, a possibility few old hands could have predicted. If that rambunctious and traditionally-produced spirit can succeed, then there's hope for all.
Those thoughts might be occurring to producers of Armagnac, that venerable Gascony-produced brandy that can legitimately make its case to be considered for cocktail creation to any bartender who manages to sample a flight or two. In the US, Armagnac once was a sommelier favorite, primarily because the vintage production system allowed a house to create a great range of styles, allowing the variations in flavor and aromas to provide a singular taste experience, hard to duplicate. Even beyond that, Armagnac was also considered the counterpoint to Cognac: edgy and assertive rather than rounded and composed. For aged grape spirit fans, Armagnac was a well-kept secret, the speakeasy rather than the nightclub, the bottle pulled from the cabinet when it was time for the final taste.
A region as large and diverse as Armagnac can't live only by the aficionado's favor, and lately it's been Asia that has buoyed the region's hopes. But US bartenders are missing out on exactly the kind of pugnacious presence that drew them to mescal and rye when they ignore Armagnac. Sure, the better expressions - XO and Hors d'Age specifically - are too pricey for cocktails and probably too sophisticated in their evolution to be mixed anyway, although the high rollers in Vegas have shown that someone will eventually call for a $500 cocktail using ultra-top shelf products. Those better expressions are best saved for presenting as an alternative to Cognac when late-night tippling, especially with cigars on hand. But VS Armagnac, as well as an unaged white version called Blanche de Armagnac, and Floc, an Armagnac-based aperitif, offers just the kind of versatility, complexity and vigor that the ever-thirsty drink-maker desires when looking for lively and unusual ingredients.
In the region, there's not much of a cocktail culture, but well-heeled establishments like the resort spa La Bastide make a point of providing finely made cocktails, like the Gascony Mojito, a lively crushed ice concoction made with fresh ginger and mint. But outside Paris, French cocktail making still lags and it's in Paris where Armagnac can be more often found in contemporary recipes. While the trends in Paris have mostly followed the UK and US, it's here where the application of Armagnac in great drinks can be best sampled.
Many Armagnac producers - Castarede, Montesquiou, Tarriquet, Laubade, Dartigalongue - have continued to work on the US market, shifting importers and distributers and working the market whenever they can. And if that trend wheel keeps turning, and American bar folk are willing to consider yet another brown spirit, one that offers muscle and finesse, complexity and a different array of flavors commonly found in the brandy category, then perhaps those diligent Gascons will be rewarded at the bar.