Friday, March 21, 2008

Cognac's Cousin From Gascony

Armagnac has an image problem. To start with, not that many people seem to be sure exactly what it is. Kingsley Amis, in the "Mean Sod's Guide" section of his book "On Drink," suggested that the mean sod (that is, cheap host) can avoid the expense of serving a post-prandial cognac by presenting his guests a "rather exceptional" armagnac: "a watered-down cooking brandy from remote parts of France or from South Africa." Since few know what armagnac -- a French brandy not unlike cognac, but from the heart of Gascony -- should taste like, the average guest will be easily fooled, Amis suggested. But ignorance isn't the biggest impediment to armagnac finding the market it deserves. Far worse is that, to the extent most folks have heard of armagnac, the impression they have been given is that it is a pompous quaff for phonies and poseurs and heavies -- characters such as Senator Planet, Guy Francon, Sheridan Ballou and Eugene Lopwitz.

Senator Planet, in John Dos Passos's 1936 indictment of American avarice, "The Big Money," makes today's Abramoff crowd look like kindergartners. "I've been much criticized of late," laments the senator over a lavish dinner with lobbyists, "by irresponsible people of course, for what they term my reactionary association with big business." To punctuate Senator Planet's reactionary bona fides, Dos Passos puts a brandy in his hand and has the rapacious fellow proclaim: "Fine Armagnac has been my favorite for years."
A few years later, Ayn Rand picked up the theme. The novelist prided herself on penning caricatures of phonies such as Guy Francon, who in "The Fountainhead" embodies everything her architect hero Howard Roark despises. A rich and successful architect, Francon is intellectually lazy and stylistically derivative. Francon "hasn't designed a doghouse in eight years," but when he did, he was fond of such touches as "Corinthian columns of cast iron painted gold, and garlands of gilded fruit on the walls." And what does Francon like to drink? Armagnac.

Rand seems to associate armagnac with the most contemptible sort of self-satisfaction. The paragraph that ends with Francon declaring he has fired Roark (because "the insolent bastard" refused to mock up a simplified Doric design for an office building) begins with the boss bragging about how he buys his favorite armagnac for "a hundred dollars a case!"

Armagnac continued to come in for such abuse in Raymond Chandler's 1949 novel "The Little Sister." Sheridan Ballou is a Hollywood agent most notable for his pretentious affectations. When detective Philip Marlowe first visits Ballou's office, the agent strolls across the carpet swinging a Malacca cane. "It could only happen in Hollywood," sneers Marlowe. "That an apparently sane man could walk up and down inside the house with a Piccadilly stroll and monkey stick in his hand." Ballou soon has a glass of armagnac in his hand instead.

The agent pours a "pot-bellied" glass for Marlowe, too, and then congratulates himself for it: " 'Armagnac,' he said. 'If you knew me, you'd appreciate the compliment.' " Ballou then demonstrates the approved method for enjoying the drink: "He lifted the glass, sniffed and sipped a tiny sip." Marlowe is having none of that nonsense: "I put mine down in a lump. It tasted like good French brandy."

"My God," sputters the agent, "you sip that stuff, you don't swallow it whole."

"I swallow it whole," is Marlowe's blunt reply.

Derision of armagnac -- or at least of those who fancy it -- isn't restricted to mid-century authors. Tom Wolfe uses the brandy in "The Bonfire of the Vanities" to fill out the picture of Sherman McCoy's boss, Eugene Lopwitz. The financier, who has created a faux English manor lifestyle for himself, maintains a private jet he keeps stocked with a 1934 armagnac. "It's great stuff," Lopwitz crows. "That's the greatest year there ever was for Armagnac, 1934."

Unlike its cousin cognac, armagnac has long featured vintage dating, which is confounding to casual consumers but catnip to the sort of dilettante eager to bank impressively obscure knowledge. Thus armagnac's impression of fussiness -- a reputation that is not deserved.

If anything, armagnac is less fussy than cognac, which has been criticized over the years for being so carefully matured and blended that it ends up missing the quirky individuality natural, say, to single-malt Scotch. Though both cognac and armagnac depend in large measure on n├ęgociants -- merchants who buy up casks from small producers to age, blend and bottle under a brand name -- armagnac is decidedly less corporate than cognac. Which is one of the reasons that the Gascon brandy brands are generally less well known than Courvoisier, Hennessy and Martell. But it is also the reason that armagnacs tend to have a little more personality than cognacs. This is certainly the case with the single-estate, vintage, unblended armagnacs bottled by the boutique n├ęgociants such as Francis Darroze. Even the mainstream blended armagnacs retain a hint of rusticity that makes them a pleasant change of pace from cognac.

I went to my local liquor stores to see what nonvintage armagnacs I could find, and enjoyed most of them. They shared the regional style, which is somewhat drier than brandy from the Cognac region. Of those I tried, I particularly liked several, including the Cerbois V.S.O.P., that had a satisfying richness cut with a nice spicy note of licorice. The Laubade X.O. was dense without being heavy, with a taste of toast just shy of being burned. The Kelt Reserve de Chateau de Saint Aubin had a slight scent of smoke, but on the tongue was light and soft, with a lovely balance between its taste of fresh fruit and its buttery texture. The Kelt, by the way, ought not to be confused with "Domaine de Saint Aubin" a legendary producer of armagnac that is no more, the remaining stocks of which are being carefully (and expensively) doled out by Darroze.

If you give armagnac a try, don't feel obliged to swirl it in a snifter or sample it in baby-sips. Even so, please don't put it down in a lump.

Eric Felten