I first had Armenian brandy in a remote burg in northeast Uzbekistan. We sat around the breakfast table eating steamed Uzbek sweet potato dumplings and drinking Armenian brandy while watching "Casper, the Friendly Ghost," dubbed in Russian.
The family I was staying with seemed to think breakfast was a little early for brandy, but my host was simply breaking out the good stuff for the guest, as Central Asian etiquette demands. Armenian brandy is highly regarded in the countries of the old Soviet empire, above all in Russia and Ukraine, which between them import millions of bottles a month.
I was pretty sure Uzbek sweet potato mantu are not the ideal match for Armenian brandy. But the issue remained academic until recently, when I discovered a huge selection of Armenian brandies at Mission Liquor in Pasadena. Because Southern California has a sizable Armenian population, Mission stocks about two dozen versions, from 3-year-olds at about $9 to rarities more than 30 years old in the $90 price range.
Another benefit of having such a large Armenian colony is that we have top-notch Armenian bakeries. Putting the two sources together, I tasted a variety of brandies and pastries and found a particularly delicious combination: a 25-year-old brandy called Mesrob Mashtots paired with the excellent almond kataif from Sarkis Pastry in Glendale. The buttery, crunchy pastry has the toasted flavors to flatter an oak-aged spirit, and its plush almond center makes a particularly agreeable background for this smooth, ethereal but mouthfilling brandy, with its magisterial notes of smoke, licorice, dried fruit and wild herbs.
Out of Arax
Most Armenian brandy is made in the agricultural heart of the Republic of Armenia, the Arax Valley, which Armenia shares (reluctantly) with its neighbors Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan. It's distilled from local grape varieties such as Garan Damak, Kangu and Voskehat -- not surprisingly, since it was somewhere in the Caucasus that winemaking originated, as the story of Noah suggests. Armenia also makes wine from its local grape varieties, but neighboring Georgia is better known for wine.
Whether because of the grapes or the Krasnodar oak barrels used for aging, Armenian brandies tend to be light and elegant, but you wouldn't mistake them for French brandy. In place of the honey, caramel and floral qualities of Cognac, their flavors often seem to include toasted nut and exotic fruit notes. In the mouth, they tend to a suave, papery dryness.
For decades, all the distillers had to sell whatever they made to the Yerevan Brandy Co., which marketed under the brand name Ararat. After the Soviet collapse, the French liquor giant Pernod-Ricard bought the 118-year-old Yerevan/Ararat brand and started upgrading the operation.
In the meanwhile, some of the small distillers have started marketing brandy themselves. The French connection with Armenian brandy goes beyond Ararat, by the way -- Armenian distilleries send some of their grandest brandies in cask to France, to be put in rather floridly shaped bottles, like giant perfume bottles, because Armenia lacks the facilities to do so. From there they are shipped to Armenian communities around the world.
Places, faces and flavors
Probably because Armenian brandy-making was centralized for so long, labels rarely refer to where the brandy was made. To be sure, many older brandies are named for mountains or other geographic features of Armenia (or famous figures in Armenian history), but those are brand names. Younger brandies have three to six stars on their labels, a star for each year of aging.
Frankly, I'm still just getting my feet wet, as it were, in Armenian brandy. Besides the Mesrob Mashtots, I've tried a small representative range, starting with a 6-year-old Eghvard (named for a famous church), which had a plush butterscotchy aroma that made me think of an old Madeira.
Then I had Artavazd (10 years; named for an Armenian king), which superimposed a smoky quality -- almost like tobacco smoke (one of my colleagues thought it smelled like butterscotch in an ashtray). Vaspurakan, an 18-year-old named for a medieval Armenian kingdom, had a quite different emphasis, something like dried apricots and orange peel. That's quite a variety of styles.
I was particularly knocked out by the Mesrob Mashtots/kataif combination. But many Armenians pair brandy with everything.
"There's definitely a split in the Armenian diaspora about when to drink brandy," says Melkon Khosrovian, owner of the flavored vodka company Modern Spirits. "There are some who drink brandy with virtually every part of the meal, treating it in much the same way as wine or vodka. In our family, we drink it mainly with the mezze and then again with desserts."
But for me, the best time is after a nice dinner. An agreeable sensation of crunch and sweetness, a mouth-filling flood of brandy, then a long aftertaste that drifts away into the night.
Mesrob Mashtots Armenian brandy (about $35) is available at Mission Liquor, 1801 W. Washington, Pasadena, (626) 797-0500. Almond kataif is $7 a pound (about 10 pieces) at Sarkis Pastries, 1111 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale, (818) 956-6636.