Earlier this week I awoke to my first stormy day in Yerevan. Lying in bed, I wondered what I could make of a day like this. Fortunately I did not have to think about it: my friend Sveta planned to visit the Ararat Cognac factory. This was a decision of pure genius. Read on to find out why…
We soon arrive on the well-tended grounds of the Ararat distillery and meet our personal guide, Anahit. She escorts us to the cognac cellar, which was established in 1887. As I step inside, I see barrels everywhere.
A heavenly whiff of oak and aromatic cognac tickles my nose. Anahit explains that I am smelling what is known as the “angel’s share”, which is the alcohol that naturally evaporates from barrels during the cognac’s aging process. Apparantly breathing it has anti-aging properties, as employees working here live long and happy lives. I think the angel’s share has gotten to me too: my cheeks have turned bright red and I feel great…even though I have not sipped a drop of booze!
Ararat cognac is made from five varietals of white grapes, grown in various parts of Armenia. Harvested in October, the grapes undergo a “charente”, which is the fancy French word for “double distillation”. The liquid is then transferred to barrels made of oak sourced from Nagorno Karabakh, a disputed Armenian republic near Azerbaijan. As a gesture of good will, the Ararat Cognac Company has crafted a special cask blend to be opened on the day when the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is settled. Now that’s a cause worth drinking to…
Ararat Cognac’s Crazy History
This distillery’s history is worth reading about. Soon after it’s founding in 1887 a bold Russian businessman named Mr. Shustov bought the production with the goal of exporting the cognac to the European cities. His marketing strategy goes like this: he paid young university students living in Europe to go and have lavish dinners at the fanciest restaurants in Paris, London, Rome, and Berlin. Their task was to ask for “Armenian cognac” as a digestif at the end of their meals. When the waiter replied that they did not carry any, the students would make a fuss and walk out, saying that they would not return unless such cognac was served. You can guess what happened…Armenian cognac exports began growing!
Years later Stalin and Churchill were attending the Yalta Conference, discussing what to do in the aftermath of World War II. During a stall in talks Stalin offered Churchill a glass of Ararat cognac. It was the Dvin blend, made from ten different cognacs and prepared by the Armenian master cognac distiller Margar Sedrakyan. Churchill liked it so much that he asked Stalin to send him 400 bottles a year (365 for himself and the remainder for his friends). A few years later Churchill received his usual shipment but, tasting the first bottle, noticed a difference in flavor. He immediately called Stalin to find out what had happened. Apparantly Stalin had just sent Sedrakyan to Siberia for unknown reasons. Upon receiving Churchill’s call, Stalin took a puff from his pipe and changed his mind: he recalled the cognac maker to his rightful place in the Ararat Cognac cellar. Years later, Sedrakyan made a special blend to commemorate his narrow escape from the icy Siberian gulags: He named it the Erebuni, and blended it at 57% alcohol rather than the usual 40%. The reason? To stay warm in case he got sent back to Siberia!
Before we begin the tasting, Anahit explains that cognac itself is so pure that you cannot get drunk from it alone: “What gets you drunk”, she continues, “are the little devils that hang on the rim of the glass. So, you must cling your glass against another one to knock them off. If you do get drunk, it’s because a little devil fell into your glass instead of on the floor!”. And so we drank without restraint, clinging away the rainy afternoon. We sampled some delicious cognacs:
- 3-star single varietal: this is the youngest cognac available. A light body, full of oak and mulberry on the nose.
- Akhtamar 10 year blend: full bodied and smoky. Candied walnuts and dried cherry on the nose.
- Nairi 20 year blend: an intense cognac with dark chocolate on the nose. Pairs well with life’s important decisions.
On our way out, Anahit shares a famous saying from the soviet writer Maxim Gorky: “It is easier to climb up Mount Ararat than to get out of the Ararat Cognac cellar”. To that saying, I raise my glass…