Someone asked me recently at a spirits tasting I was conducting, "Is Armagnac France’s, or for that matter, the world’s finest brandy?" I despise narrowly focused queries such as that. What’s the point of "bests" really? However, I will admit to this: While I’ve long loved Cognac for its inherent finesse, comfortable familiarity and confident bearing, of late my brandy emotions have admittedly been in a state of ferment. Over the last three years I’ve encountered a host of utterly spectacular brandies born in Gascony, Armagnac’s balmy, bucolic playground in France’s extreme southwest. Keep reading beyond this introduction to find a bevy of sensuous, racy Armagnac beauties. Unlike their stately rivals from the demarcated Cognac district in the Charentes, Armagnacs are not brandies that enter a room quietly, politely. These are bawdy, door-busting brandies that snatch you by the lapels and keep your attention for extended periods by the force of their personalities. Armagnac is the Moll Flanders of the brandy realm. The more Armagnacs I’ve sampled, the more I’ve come to view them as a bona fide treasure trove for brandy aficionados of all ilks. An excursion to Gascony a couple of years ago cemented my belief that while Cognacs are overall more elegant and sophisticated brandy expressions, indeed, authentic French miracles of masterful blending, Armagnacs are raw and spirity and, therefore, more primal. Put another way: Cognacs encourage you to think while Armagnacs compel you to feel. That said, I still think that it’s preferable to just acknowledge each type of legendary French grape brandy for what each offers, for the regional and philosophical virtues that they each mirror. How’s that for diplomacy?
Also this month, we examine two lovely eaux-de-vies from the esteemed Swiss distiller, Etter, two other brandies and a quintet of liqueurs. Our beer reviews focus on one of London’s most illustrious brewers, Fuller’s.
—F. Paul Pacult
CLASSIC (96-100)/Highest Recommendation
Chateau de Saint Aubin Réserve du Chateau Bas Armagnac (France; International Beverage Company, Atlanta, GA); 40% abv, $89. Nosings uncover tightly-knit scents of holiday spices, lemon rind, sweet, vanilla-like oak, white raisins, bittersweet chocolate and wood resin. Succulent, semisweet tastes of butterscotch and nougat enchant the taste buds early-on; full-throttle flavors including marzipan, light caramel, resiny oak and grape jam complete the in-mouth flavor phase with grace. Finish is long, honey sweet and sinewy in texture. A flawless Armagnac. Best Buy.
Laubade Vintage 1969 Bas Armagnac (France; Baron Francois, Ltd., New York, NY); 40% abv, $120. Opening inhalations reveal seductive dried scents of baked apple, lead pencil, and black pepper; aeration releases chalk, earthy, slate-like fragrances that are compelling and minerally. Palate entry introduces bittersweet flavors of maple, rancio, oak resin and soft cheese. Aftertaste is focused, bittersweet, concentrated and honeyed. A fabulously oily, creamy, and decadent Armagnac.
Samalens Vintage 1952 Bas Armagnac (France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 40% abv, $395. Roasted/toasted nut perfume that welcomes the olfactory sense is classical, deep and deliciously oily; air contact opens up other levels of aroma, in particular, dry to off-dry scents of mint, grape vine, walnuts, palm oil and honey; composed and elegant. Palate entry is rich, sap-like, semisweet and sinewy in texture; by midpalate flavors abound on the tongue, especially white chocolate, walnuts, sweet oak, rancio and dark caramel. Aftertaste is opulent, firmly structured.
Sempé Vintage 1941 Armagnac (France; Caravelle Wines, Avon, CT); 40% abv, $730. The dry, dusty, lead pencil bouquet is firmly structured and remarkably vivid considering the age of the brandy; a swirl or two releases bewitching and multilayered scents of oak resin, almond butter, wet granite, cigar tobacco and a touch of cedar. Palate entry is honey sweet, biscuity, and chocolate cake frosting-like; midpalate highlights the chocolate as cheesy/woody rancio enters the picture. Finish is toasty, buttery and honeyed.
Sempé Vintage 1965 Armagnac (France; Caravelle Wines, Avon, CT); 47% abv, $165. First nosings unearth piquant aromas of black pepper, jalapeno pepper and heady spirit; aeration stimulates additional scents of baked pear, apple cobbler, resiny oak and butterscotch. Palate entry is seductively buttery and oily; the buttery/oily character becomes sweet and honeyed at midpalate with background tastes of cocoa and double cream. Finish is chewy, chocolaty and honey-like, even oloroso sherry-like. Decadent and luscious.
SUPERB (90-95)/Highest Recommendation
Darroze 15 Year Old Age des Epices Bas Armagnac (France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 43% abv, $75. Immediate aroma is firm and full of toasty, roasted scents, like walnuts, cashews, and baked apple; a smoky bouquet that displays armagnac’s oily side, an appealing aspect rarely seen in other brandy categories. Palate entry is buttery, bittersweet and fatty; midpalate offers intense and slightly burnt/charred tastes of cocoa butter, roasted almonds and charcoal. Finish is all tobacco and the oil. Best Buy.
Darroze 20 Year Old Age du Rancio Bas Armagnac (France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 43% abv, $90. Rich, dry and intensely nutty aromas of sautéed walnut, dried red fruit and lanolin. Palate entry features the oily/mildly sweet taste of old oak/vanillin and a touch of almond paste; midpalate focuses squarely on the honeyed old oak, hard cheese, dried fruit and black raisin flavor mix.
Sempé Vintage 1961 Armagnac (France; Caravelle Wines, Avon, CT); 40% abv, $180. Bouquet after the pour offers lovely, dry and nut-like/ nougaty aromas; following six minutes of aeration, delectable aromas of marshmallow, honey and old oak/vanilla extract make for lusciously rewarding inhaling. Palate entry is politely buttery/creamy and very oily; assertive tastes of fudge, cocoa bean, almond butter and faint rancio delight the taste buds. Finish is heady, long, honeyed and sap-like.
VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommendation
Darroze 10 Year Old Age de Fruits Bas Armagnac (France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 43% abv, $60. Initial nosings find delightfully fruity, almost pear-like and spicy aromas; aeration stimulates biscuity, sappy sweet and ripe aromas of pear and apple cobbler, light honey and sugar cookies. The flavor is focused and dry, offering mildly toasty and buttery tastes of toffee and honey wheat bread; midpalate expands to include resiny/sappy oak, vanilla extract, maple syrup and butterscotch. Aftertaste is resiny sweet and lip-smacking.
Sempé Vintage 1942 Armagnac (France; Caravelle Wines, Avon, CT); 40% abv, $700. Opening sniffings unearth mature and intensely woody aromas that are more dry than sweet. Palate entry is intensely buttery and a touch fusty/musty. Aftertaste is long, dry to off-dry and oaky. Hardcore Armagnac fans only.
Sempé Vintage 1973 Armagnac (France; Caravelle Wines, Avon, CT); 40% abv, $100. Smells of holiday spices and egg cream; later on, dry to off-dry aromas appear, most notably, almond oil, lead pencil and white raisins. Palate entry is so sweet that it comes as a shock after the low key bouquet. Aftertaste is concentrated, super-sweet to a fault.
VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
Etter Cuvée Anniversary Mixed Fruit Brandy (Switzerland; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 41% abv, $50. A fruit salad eau-de-vie distilled from pears, raspberries, grapes, apples and cherries. A ripe, gently sweet, opening bouquet. Palate entry is clean and pear-like; midpalate sees the cherry and apple emerge. Finish is quick, tart, acidic and lean.
Etter Pomme Gravine (Switzerland; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 41% abv, $47. Appley opening aroma is refreshing, tart and green. Palate entry is dry and spirity; at midpalate the apple character shifts into fourth gear. Finish is austere, bone dry and prickly.
SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommendation
Exquis Heritage Réserve de la Famille Grande Champagne Cognac (France; CVI Brands, San Carlos, CA); 40% abv, $99. Nose begins in understated toffee-like scents. Palate entry is creamy, big-hearted, and buttery; midpalate features lovely, round tastes of old oak, almond butter and nougat. Aftertaste is long, thick and caramel sweet. Nicely balanced and supple.
Exquis XO Grande Champagne Cognac (France; CVI Brands, San Carlos, CA); 40% abv, $63. Opening bouquet is vigorous and heady, offering spicy aromas of paraffin and vanilla wafer. Palate entry is silky, sweet, and textured, more elegant than vibrant; by midpalate, a racy, sophisticated flavor profile develops that’s rich, candy sweet and nutty. Finishes with a buttery flourish.
VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
Exquis Réserve Grande Fine Champagne Cognac (France; CVI Brands, San Carlos, CA); 40% abv, $38. Opening nosing passes are ambrosial; extra time in the glass encourages light scents of oaky vanillin and spice. Palate entry shows bittersweet tastes of dark chocolate and cocoa bean; midpalate features cinnamon and vanilla. Aftertaste is long, medium-bodied and moderately sweet.
Exquis Napoleon Très Vieille Réserve Grande Fine Champagne Cognac (France; CVI Brands, San Carlos, CA); 40% abv, $50. Initial sniffings find savory, dry aromas of vivid spirit, slightly underripe grapes, and distant spice. Palate entry is sweet, caramelized and heady; at midpalate ripe grape flavors override all other taste elements except for the sweet oakiness. Finish is medium long, a little sap-like and semisweet.
VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
Suvoborska Premium Slivowitz Natural Plum Brandy (Yugoslavia; Global Systems, Inc., Lawrence Harbor, NJ); 45% abv, $28. Opening sniffings find zesty, mildly spiced aromas of yellow plums and chrysanthemum. Palate entry is astringent, but refreshing, dry and clean; by midpalate, softly ripe, off-dry and ripe tastes of plum and bittersweet cocoa paste make for intriguing tasting. Aftertaste is bittersweet, austere, nutty.
Louis Dupré Napoleon VSOP French Brandy (France; David Sherman Corporation, St. Louis, MO); 40% abv, $11. Nosings detect a distant nuttiness; additional air contact unleashes more assertive scents of nougat, sauteed almonds, caramel and oak. Palate entry is very sweet and sap-like; midpalate stays the sweet, toffee candy course. Finish is medium long, sweet and maple-like.
SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Amarula Marula Fruit Cream Liqueur (Republic of South Africa; Brown-Forman Beverages Worldwide, Louisville, KY); 17% abv, $24. Pleasantly sweet, ripe, fruity and cream aromas. Palate entry is delightfully off-dry to sweet but neither cloying nor heavy. Midpalate displays a nicely balanced taste profile. Aftertaste is more creamy than fruity and a touch vanilla-like. A racy addition to the cream liqueur sweepstakes. Best Buy.
VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
Clair’s Cognac & Cream (France; Beverage Importers, LLC., Metairie, LA); 17% abv, $20. Nosings following the pour detect little in the way of brandy/cream aromas; after additional aeration time, hints of brandy and fruit emerge along with nuances of bean-like spice. Palate entry is mildly creamy, but with no immediate brandy impact; at midpalate an alluring flavor profile develops, one that’s delicate, more creamy than brandy-like and mild. Soft, creamy, moderately spicy finish.
GIinja Sem Rival Cherry Liqueur (Portugal; Aidil Wine & Liquors, Rahway, NJ); 24.2% abv, $13. Aroma is concentrated, ripe, jammy. Palate entry is bittersweet and ripe; by midpalate the taste goes slightly tannic but remains true to Finish is medium long, tannic and bitter. Best Buy.
Eduardino Liqueur (Portugal; Aidil Wine & Liquors, Rahway, NJ); 25.5% abv, $11. Whiffs pick up scents of bubble gum, licorice, anise, fennel and citrus rind; later. Palate entry is sweet and minty; midpalate turns even sweeter, almost sugary, as the botanicals begin to fade in the face of the sugarcane sweetness. Finish is sweet.
Licoro Coconut Liqueur (Dominican Republic; Falcon Busto Importers, Inc., Union City, NJ); 28% abv, $17./200 ml. First nosings discover coconut meat aroma. Palate entry taste of fresh coconut is authentic; midpalate flavor profile is all sweetened coconut. Finish is pleasantly sweet, fruity and intensely coconutty.
SUPERB (90-95)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Fuller’s 1845 Bottle Conditioned Ale (England; Paulaner – North America Corporation, Englewood, CO). Bouquet is weedy at first, then with aeration scents of popcorn, pine nuts, toasted barley and hops delight the olfactory sense. In the mouth, this buxom bitter ale shows heavily roasted flavors of malt and soy, but it’s the velvety texture that seduces the palate. Aftertaste is deep, hoppy, malty.
Fuller’s India Pale Ale (England; Paulaner – North America Corporation, Englewood, CO). Initial nosings detect dried herbs, tar, cigarette smoke and molasses; later inhalations pick up astringent scents of hoppy bitterness and dark malt; a bouquet of grace and firmness. Palate entry is smooth, sweet/sour and malty; midpalate tastes include brown sugar, red fruit and stone-dry breakfast cereal. Finish is clean, smoky.
Heineken Lager (Holland; Heineken USA, Inc., White Plains, NY). Clean, distinctive, grainy, mildly hoppy bouquet hints of barley. Tastes of soft, sweet yellow fruits, mostly apricot. Finishes crisp and sweet; the world’s best mass-produced lager.
Stella Artois Lager (Belgium; Labatt Importers, Darien, CT). Biscuity and malty aromas greet the olfactory sense; later, a lightly toasted, malty perfume. Palate entry is dry and firm; grainy/wheaty flavors blossom at midpalate in balanced, crisp waves. Aftertaste is tart, mildly bitter, long.
VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
Fuller’s London Pride (England; Paulaner – North America Corporation, Englewood, CO). Bouquet displays subtle notes of road tar, bitter hops, almonds and parchment. Palate entry is tarry and desert dry; at midpalate more developed flavors take hold including malt, yellow fruit and hops. Aftertaste is long and dry.