Last autumn, I spent a month journeying through the great brandy producing regions of France, meticulously researching their varied warehousing, maturation, and blending techniques. One morning late in the trip, as I was cautiously navigating the fog-enveloped, narrow country lanes of south western France to get to a distillery appointment, I began imagining the parallels between the rustic, ancient world of Armagnac and burgeoning craft distilling movement in the United States. Both, it seemed, put an emphasis on small-scale production and hands-on techniques, and both are comprised of a fiercely independent, self-sufficient breed of individuals. Also, both have a vision of something called “craft,” but what exactly does that mean? Does this nebulous concept share the same meaning on either side of the Atlantic?

In the varied U.S. craft distilling community, nailing down a more precise meaning of the term craft has been a much-pursued, politically-charged enterprise as of late. Interwoven in the discussion of craft is the concept of authenticity, or what makes something truthful and real. Attempts to define these terms often causes a fair amount of contention within the distilling community, as settling upon acceptable definitions that can be agreed upon by all can have serious implications for some members.

My time exploring the Armagnac region of southwestern France encouraged me to investigate the meaning of craft and authenticity within the greater distilled spirit-producing world, and to delve into the question more deeply rather than try to answer it. Do these terms have the same connotations
everywhere? If not, why? It seems to me that there is much that we, as an industry that just recently celebrated its thirtieth birthday, can learn from a similar tradition that dates back 700 years.

In defining craft and the closely connected concept of authenticity within the U.S. craft distilling industry, much emphasis is often placed upon the front side of production, meaning whether the distillers partook in the fermentation and, particularly, the distillation processes themselves and at their own facility. The qualifications for authenticity seem to not be as strongly tied to whether the producer actually grows the raw ingredients themselves, although certainly some farm distilleries do grow their own raw ingredients and use that fact to help define their own authenticity.

For the Armagnac producers, however, the qualification for authenticity and craft is a little more nuanced, which is not surprising given their many centuries of experience. Perhaps the single most important factor that can create authenticity for them is capturing the native terroir of the region. Terroir includes everything concerning the local environment that can affect the grapes and ultimately the character and uniqueness of the final spirit itself, from the soil type, climatic conditions, and topography.

Authenticity, then, is achieved by the extent to which the producer wishes to lessen or increase the natural terroir in the spirit. Thus, decisions as to which grape varietals to use, where to plant the vines, the correct time to harvest the grapes, use of wild or cultured yeast, temperature and length of fermentation, distillation type, choice of barrels and toast level, maturation storage conditions, and the release of vintage bottlings vs. blends can all affect whether the natural terroir is expressed in the spirit. The more a producer allows the native terroir to be conveyed, the more “authentic” the Armagnac will become.

I visited many Armagnac producers who gave me a sense of their local terroir, as they highlighted the deep agricultural rootedness of the people to their land. Yet, perhaps because we spoke the same language, it was from an American couple that live part time in the region that I really got a sense of what these notions mean for Armagnac producers.

Bob and Laura Hill, who hail from Denver, Colorado, are the owners of Domaine Loujan, an Armagnac producing estate. It is conveniently situated in a small but highly prized area of land known as Grand Bas
Armagnac, which is often considered the most desirable area for Armagnac production.

In realizing the importance of preserving the local terroir when they bought the property in 2000, the first thing Bob and Laura Hill set out to do was to tend to the health and care of the vineyards. In addition to planting aromatically rich and complex grape varietals such as Baco and Folle Blanche, they began to employ organic methods of viticulture. They were certified as organic producers in 2012. In addition to tending the vines, they tore down the old cellar, or “chai”, and replaced it with a more humid one in order to produce the quality of Armagnac they favor.

However, what may come as a surprise to many U.S. craft distillers is that Bob and Laura Hill do not actually distill their own wine, and yet, they are entirely craft. Perhaps rather than defining them as craft, a better term would be traditional, as this and other artisanal practices have been carried out through the centuries.

I learned from many of the traditional Armagnac producers I visited, with a few exceptions, most of them do not distill their own wine. Shortly after harvest season, professional “distillateurs” haul their mobile column stills around to all the local Armagnac producers in order to single distill the wine shortly after fermentation. The distillateurs roam from vineyard to vineyard during the distilling season, contracted to turn each year’s wine into precious eaux de vie. Since distillation is only performed once a year, and perhaps no more than 3 or 4 days for a single producer, most producers feel it is better to leave that job to experienced professionals who will not make mistakes.

For producers like the Hill’s, who grow and ferment their own grapes, the authenticity and craft of their Armagnac comes from using native rather than cultured yeasts, and by having the wine distilled quickly after fermentation in order to preserve the local terroir. By distilling soon after fermentation, the distillate will also include most of the flavor-producing fatty acids and esters captured in the liquid. They have been working with a 5th generation distillateur, who uses the same mobile still, since they began laying down Armagnac 14 years ago. This adds to maintaining the continuity of ancient Armagnac traditions. And, like many other quality Armagnac producers, they also believe that the unique aromatic quality of their estate’s terroir is best kept when the wine is single distilled and the exit degree off the still is quite low, perhaps around 53 to 54% ABV.

This final point regarding the lower degree of alcohol and single pass distillation is connected to a critical difference between the U.S. craft distilling industry and the ancient craft Armagnac tradition — the use of the warehouse as a tool in maintaining and even emphasizing the local terroir. As noted previously, for most American craft producers, the stress is on the front end rather than the back end of production. Hence, using advanced warehousing techniques to achieve a “craft” product are not often employed, or even known about for that matter.

However, for traditional Armagnac producers, the back end of production is of paramount importance in maintaining their craft. A barrel warehouse, or “chai,” is used as a simple yet sophisticated means of achieving different aroma and character profiles by controlling humidity levels. By keeping the distillation degree off the continuous still relatively low, between 52 and 54% ABV, and by keeping the humidity conditions of the warehouse relatively high, from 75 to 85%, the Armagnac will naturally reduce its alcohol content over time. This means that by bottling time, the spirit will not require any dilution with water. And since no water is required, the Armagnac thus retains its local, unique, and highly concentrated local characteristics.

The importance of this warehousing technique was strongly emphasized to me by Marc Darroze, owner of the highly-esteemed Darroze Bas Armagnac firm, whom I also had the pleasure to visit on my journey. Marc, like his father Francis before him, is what is known as a négociant  ­— a producer who neither owns his own vineyards, nor ferments his own wine, nor distills. Although not all négociants are considered artisan producers, the Darroze firm is considered to be one of the best artisan Armagnac producers of all time.

The craft and authenticity aspect of what Marc Darroze does comes from his holding firm to the philosophy of respecting the terroir of every estate from which his new make spirits hail. He achieves this in several ways: 1) in his “Unique Collection” of vintage Armagnacs, he never blends any barrels, even if they come from the same property, 2) he does not blend different vintages together; and finally, 3) he does not add water to reduce the degree of alcohol when it is time to bottle. Rather, he has his new make spirit distilled to the low degree of 53% ABV to insure it will fall to the proper bottling strength over time. In this way, the aromatic conditions that arise from the idiomatic type of soil, varietals, and microclimatic conditions at each domaine are preserved in the Armagnac.

Although négociants like Marc Darroze are absolute purists when it comes to preserving traditional techniques, it should be noted that within the Armagnac producer and négociant community, there is much debate over “the politics of reduction,” a term coined by French wine and spirits importer Charles Neal. To Armagnac purists, the addition of water to dilute the spirit for bottling is unthinkable, as it weakens the Armagnac and causes it to lose most of the intense aromatics that it acquired during maturation. It also causes the spirit to lose the unique qualities of its terroir. Some producers and négociants, however, have realized that young, blended, and reduced Armagnac is both cheaper to make and is more popular with the general consumer. This, in turn, has led to significantly bigger sales of such products.

The “politics of reduction” in southern France could be thought of as the Trans-Atlantic equivalent of the debate over in-house distilled vs. sourced, or found spirits within the U.S. craft distilling industry. In both France and the U.S., the controversy is a deeply passionate one, and at the heart of these controversies rests the very meaning of craft and “authenticity.”

Another practice — the releasing of vintages from a single property and year — is also something that is unique to traditional Armagnac producers. This is yet another way of respecting the local terroir, and of maintaining authenticity. Perusing through Darroze’s moist, cool cellar, the antiquity of the stock and individuality of each barrel is striking. The various domaines listed on each barrel reads like a Who’s Who of the best winegrowers in the Bas Armagnac region. It is easy to visualize future bottlings, with the names of the various domaines registering prominently on every label. And since each release comes from one barrel, every bottle will be a window into the singular qualities of each property, expressing that estate’s particular soil qualities, microclimate, topography, etc.

Also, producers like Marc Darroze or Bob and Laura Hill are deeply concerned about the élevage, or “education and upbringing,” of their precious barrels. This is a concept rarely discussed in American craft distilling, but just like respecting terroir, it is crucial to crafting a high-quality Armagnac. The term implies that Armagnac needs care and nurturing in the cellar in order to bring out its best qualities.

The élevage process involves hands-on work in the cellar, with a cellar master carefully monitoring the progress of each barrel. This means tasting the barrels regularly to insure that the right balance between the tannins, aromas, and alcohol is being achieved. For example, as the spirit picks up tannins after being in new oak for a year or two, it will then be transferred into an older, exhausted barrel so the harshness of the tannins can oxidize and mellow. This can be a time-consuming process.

As Laura Hill, owner of Domaine Loujan, notes on the important role of élevage, “the aging process is everything, as it involves controlling and maintaining the absolute correct humidity in the chai, the influence of the soil in the cellar upon the barrels, choosing the right type of oak barrel and level of toasting, etc. It is like nurturing a baby, and babies eventually grow up. As the Armagnac goes through various phases, it can also be like a rebellious teen before it reaches maturation.”

While respect for the local terroir and methods used to emphasize it, such as single-pass distillation, a low distillation proof, natural reduction, the release of vintages from single properties, and attention to cellar management are not the only things that characterize the artisanal aspect of Armagnac production, they are arguably the most important. And while, given our own historical experience, these ancient concepts and techniques may or may not be relevant to all aspects of craft industry in the U.S., perhaps examining this ancient tradition can somehow aid us in defining our own authenticity.

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Nancy Fraley is a whiskey and rum blender and consultant. She runs a firm called Nosing Services in Berkeley, CA, where she provides custom blending, product formulation services, creation of maturation programs, and sensory analysis for distilleries worldwide. She is also the Director of Research & instructor of blending with ADI. Nancy is creator of the American Craft Whiskey Aroma Wheel, a sensory tool for distillers and whiskey connoisseurs.