This is something I wrote for a new drinks magazine called Tonic that I’m involved with. The first issue is out there, the second is coming and we’re working on the third. You can get a 10% discount off the magazine here with the code HWOB10 at check-out.
Armenian brandy was the Johnnie Walker Black Label of the USSR. If you wanted to smooth a transaction in Minsk, Smolensk or Vladivostock, then a bottle of konyak to the right man would usually do the trick. The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam referred to it as “the golden currency of cognac”.
The Soviets had a parallel booze economy to the Western one: port and madeira-style wines were made at Massandra in Crimea, sturdy reds came from Georgia, Champanski from Moldova and, of course, Tokay from Hungary. Today Tokay has been revitalised and the Georgians are exporting to America but poor landlocked Armenia, trapped between enemies, Turks and Azeris, has little choice but to stay within the Russian sphere of influence. Though the Armenians are nothing if not resourceful when it comes to their export markets: by the side of the road in Vayots Dzor province, you’ll see what looks like Coca Cola for sale; the bottles are actually filled with wine ready to be smuggled into the Islamic Republic of Iran.
It’s a mark of how bitterly the Armenians feel towards the Turks, that the Bolshevik occupation from 1920 to 1991 isn’t remembered too badly. In some parts of the USSR, the Russians tried to stamp out local culture but in Armenia, they encouraged it, to an extent. The capital, Yerevan, has many fine Soviet-era buildings that take their cues from traditional Armenian churches; they certainly look better than the kind of Dubai-lite architecture that is now springing up all over the city.
Two of these such buildings house the rival Ararat and Noy (Noy means Noah in Armenian and Mount Ararat was where Noah was said to have landed after the flood) distilleries. The former, housed in a redbrick building somewhat reminiscent of a monastery, is described in Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook (published in 1965) as “the distillery on a hill with a clear view of Mount Ararat”. The mountain, symbol of Armenia, towers over the city, but it’s now in Turkey.
Both distilleries claim descent from the original Armenian brandy which was largely a creation of a Russian, Nikolay Shustov. So esteemed was Shustov brandy that at the International Exhibition in Paris of 1900, his firm won the right to call its product ‘cognac’. During Soviet times, Armenian brandy was a great favourite of the Politburo. Churchill was said to have drunk it but then again Churchill was said to have drunk everything: no leader except perhaps Napoleon has done more to shift booze.
Armenian brandy is double-distilled like cognac but from local grapes and aged in Caucasian oak. The cheaper ones are sweet and mellow, a small amount of sugar is added post-distillation, but the Ararat Nairi 20 year old can bear comparison with a good armagnac or cognac. The locals drink it rather as you would a dessert wine with coffee and chocolates. No meal in Armenia is complete until the bottle of cognac is on the table.
Vasily Grossman wrote “cognac may be a French word but Armenian cognac is the best in the world; no grapes are as sweet as Armenian grapes. . .” Hyperbole certainly but there’s little doubt that even under Communism, it was a fine product. It’s better made today though. Following independence in 1991, investors flocked in and cellars were modernised. Pernod-Ricard now own the Ararat brand, but it’s still little seen outside its traditional market. In a move the smacks of desperation, one distillery has taken to selling its brandy in novelty bottles in the shape of AK-47s and, oddly, penises. You can’t imagine them doing that in Cognac.
I’ve just done an internet search and everyone in Britain seems to be out of stock with Ararat, perhaps something to do with Covid and the recent war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.