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Armenia, one a mighty kingdom occupying two thirds of Asia Minor, is now a small landlocked republic in the Caucasus sandwiched between Georgia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran.
Most researchers agree that wine was first made in the Caucasus, most probably in Armenia. You can visit the ruins, for the era huge, of Zvartnots Cathedral and admire a 4000-year-old earthenware wine container.
Logically then, when Arab alchemists trying to covnert base metals to gold in southern Spain around 1200’s discovered the principles of distillation, monks were eager to learn the secrets. At the time, monks enjoyed literacy and the use of libraries. They also had all the time to study. Entrepreneurial monks running monasteries were never shy investing in profitable businesses to guarantee the survival of their abbeys. Benedictine and Malthusian monks invented liqueurs and commercialised them. They still make them.
Cistercian monasteries in Belgium are famous for their beers.
When Armenian clergy got hold of the secret process of distillation, it took little time to bring it to Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Church leader.
Armenia is a country with a long grape-growing tradition and winemaking dating back 40 centuries.
Ancient Greek chroniclers Herodotus, Xenophon, and Strabo recorded a lively wine trade between Armenia and neighbouring countries.
Archaeological evidence in the hill of Karmir-Blur, and ancient fortress in the Yerevan region built in the VIII and VII centuries B C suggests the existence of irrigated vineyards.
Ever since, the hills of the mighty Ararat Mountain produced some of the finest grapes in the Caucasus.
Most scholars consider 1887 to be the beginning of industrialization of wine and brandy distillation in the country. Nerses Tairian started the Ararat distillery on the former fortress of Sardar Khan.
In 1892, Megerditch Musiyantz, a graduate of Montpellier Wine Institute in France, was appointed general manager of the distillery. During his tenure, both brandy and wine production increased significantly. Quality was also improved. He planted new vineyards and built up the brandy stocks for future quality improvements. In 1898 Shustov and Sons, at the time a huge alcohol distributor in Russia with outlets in Moscow, Odessa, Smolensk, Nijni Novgorod, and Warsaw, leased the plant and marketed Armenian brandy throughout Eastern Europe.
Under Shustov, the distillery grew, and by 1903 more than half of all brandy consumed in Russia came from the Yerevan Brandy Factory.
By 1922, Armenia was declared one of the Soviet republics, and for the following 70 years the Yerevan Brandy factory supplied much of the brandy Soviet aparatchiks consumed, and/or shipped to Soviet embassies all over the world. It should be pointed out that Georgia to the north of Armenia also produces brandy but its fame has never spread through the soviet system and never even approached the world-wide fame of the Armenian brandy.
The Yerevan Distillery was essentially a monopoly contributing huge tax revenues to the state coffers.
Josef Stalin presented a few bottles of Armenian brandy (remember that he was Georgian) during the Yalta Conference. Churchill, ever so fond of whisky and champagne took to enjoying Armenian brandy.
After the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the Armenian government, desperately short of cash, put the Yerevan Brandy Compamy for sale in 1994.
Pernod Ricard, a huge French liquor conglomerate won the bidding in 1998.
Immediately a much needed US $ 5 million capital was injected to renovate outdated machinery and today a considerable product line (20 in all) are exported to 22 countries, but still Russia is the biggest market.
By law, only the following five grape varieties may be used for the Armenian brandy: Rkatsiteli, Mskhali, Garan Damak, Kangu and Voskehat.
After fermentation the wine is double distilled in Charantais-style stills. Each batch is separated into three parts: “head”; “heart” and “tail”. Both head and tail are collected separately and re-distilled. The heart is aged in new Krasnodar oak barrels for nine months and then transferred to old barrels.
Krasnodar oak barrels are made from 70 – 100 year old trees, which have been hand split and seasoned prior to making the barrel.
The minimum age of Armenian brandy is three years, but more often than not even the youngest brandy receives six years of aging to ensure smoothness.
Armenian Brandy Factory blenders may be considered artists more than scientists, creating brandies in laboratories. They proceed by tasting and deciding which brandy to use for what product.
Judging from the expert figures ever since Pernod Ricard took over the plant, quality and packaging improved and so did exports.
You can buy Armenian brandy in the U S A, United Kingdom, Kazakhstan, Russia, France, Japan, Lebanon, Syria, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan.
Here are the brands:
Hayk, 3 year old, 40 % ABV light, fresh, amber. Best for cocktails
Ararat, 3 year old, fresh, hazelnut aromas, smooth, nutty and balanced
Ararat, 5 year old, 40 % ABV nutty, balanced, amber with a hint of vanilla and cinnamon
Ani, 6 year old, 42 % ABV smooth, vanilla and chocolate flavours
Akthamar, 10 year old, 42% ABV dried fruit aromas (apricot, currant and raisin), smooth, full bodied with a citrusy finish
Jubilee, 10year old, 43% ABV dark mahogany in colour, smells like old tawny port and cigar box. Full-bodied and smooth. A brandy to enjoy after a fine meal
Armenia, 10 year old, 45%ABV A superior dark brown brandy with distinct dried apricot aromas, smooth texture and satisfying finish.
Dvin, 10 year, old 50% ABV Exceptionally smooth, ethereal, with distinct apricot flavours and a particularly long and satisfying aftertaste. Enjoy after an expensive and substantial meal
Prazdnichny, 15 year old, 42% ABV Prazdnichny in Russian means celebration. This masterful blend was created particularly for the Russian market in 1964. It exudes a rich bouquet of dried fruits. In the mouth subtle spicy flavours and tawny port characteristics become apparent. Smooth and richly textured with an excellent and long finish.
Vaspurakan, 18 year old, 40 % ABV Aromas of candied orange and figs waft out of the snifter. Dry and exceptionally smooth with layers of flavours difficult to describe. You must experience it to understand the subtlety and refinement of this brandy.
Nairi, 20 year old, 41 % ABV Dark mahogany in colour with old tawny port and cedar aromas coming through. On the palate candied fruit and nutmeg flavours become apparent.
Blended form the best 20 year old and older brandies, it deserves the recognition of brandy connoisseurs everywhere
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu
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