Armenia is famous for it’s brandy, which rivals some of the best in the world. The tradition of the two main brandy makers in Armenia goes back only to 1887, but they have a rich reputation. In 1902 an unlabeled bottle won first place at a brandy contest held in France, and was reportedly the only non-French drink ever awarded the right to call itself Cognac (though later legislation forbade this). Churchill favored the 50% Dvin style over all other brandies. And the Kremlin Award brand is the one used in official Russian state ceremonies.
Brandy is a distilled spirit made from fruits. In this case, nearly all of the Armenian brandy is made from grapes – a fruit which grows in great abundance here. Glass pipes transport the cognac between barrels. As cognac ages it is moved to older barrels, enriching the flavor. Once it has matured sufficiently, the liquid from each barrel is tasted, blended with others and mixed with water until it reaches the desired flavor and strength. Then the brandy is aged for a few months to allow the different flavors to marry with each other. The age marked on the bottle is the average age of each spirit which goes into the final blend. French Cognac is also made this way, but has the added distinction of having been born in the Cognac region of France and so can apply the trademarked label to its bottles. French Cognac also marks the bottles with a rating system which describes the youngest spirit in the blend, rather than the average. When drinking, you should always use a brandy snifter. The proper amount to have is just enough so that when you tip the glass on its side, it comes to the edge, but does not spill.
Today Armenia’s two main brandy factories sit across the road from each other. Having once been a part of the same company, their stories are intertwined and often confusing. But each factory site tour is interesting in its own right. So for you, dear reader, I have gone to the trouble of examining both and reporting back.
In the 16th century, Erevan Fortress was built just outside what is modern day Yerevan. In 1887, the fortress was turned into a winery. In 1902 the first brandy was bottled and won the aforementioned first prize. In 1920 the factory was one of the first to be nationalized by the state, and during this state-run period vodka production was begun as well. In 1945, Churchill enjoyed the spirit at the Yalta summit and Stalin sent him a case every month for the rest of his life. It’s said that when the flavor changed, he complained to Stalin who had to quickly retrieve the master distiller from Siberia where he had been recently exiled. In 1953 a new factory was built and brandy production moved to this new facility. In 1998 the brandy factory was sold to Pernod Ricard (rumor has it for a price less than the value of its assets) and at some point the original factory began making and selling brandy under a different name.
This split is what makes the history so murky. The current day location of this new factory houses the Yerevan Brandy Company (commonly called ArArAt), whereas the original location in the fortress is called the Yerevan Wine Company (commonly known as Noy). Since both companies have a similar lineage, both claim it proudly but ignore the elephant across the street, as it were. So it’s a bit hard to piece together the history into one single story. Each factory claims to be THE original brandy lineage and it seems each has a pretty good claim. So the real question then is how were the tours and how is the brandy?
The original Erevan fortress has been restored several times and is now in fantastic shape. There’s a legend about an old bell that one of the previous owners, Shustov, would ring after each batch of wine had been made. A replica has been incorporated into the building. The first stop on the tour is a large room with many bottled brandies in glass cases, along with some of the awards. There are photos all around of the new owner doing things and of the dignitaries who have visited. It seems very self-important and a bit pompous. There’s a large oil painting of the owner that looks over the room like in some creepy Scoobie Doo episode where the ghost is looking through the eyes of the painting. We were asked to wait here for 10 minutes while another group passed through and our guide went off to chat with her friends.
After being alternately rushed and asked to wait through a few more places telling the story of the place, we were taken down to the cellars. We had a special treat in front of us – the opportunity to taste a 1924 Madiera wine! It was very nice and smooth, and you could really taste the aging. I’m not sure I’ll ever top that again for sheer age of a beverage. It was impressive. They have enough old wine in the barrels down there to last visitors about a hundred years, they claim, since they don’t sell the wine.
Next we saw a couple of old caverns. Apparently they were dug by prisoners at some point, and were allegedly to bring in grapes from the surrounding areas to keep them cool. But that explanation didn’t make a lot of sense, because the grapes would have to come many miles before hitting a cavern. Instead I suspect that they were dug as escape and supply routes in the event that the fort were ever sieged. More recently they may have been made for more nefarious purposes, as one leads to the US Embassy.
Finally to the tasting. We were seated at a table with some difficulty – there were more people than places and this baffled our guide who spent a few minutes looking at the table, the people and you could almost see the gears turning. So with some difficulty the non-drinkers were asked to sit at another table (purgatory) while the rest of us enjoyed water, juice, fresh fruit and chocolate. Other than the logistics the tasting was quite nice and an Iranian group next to us took great pains to try to communicate with us and emphasize that they like America a lot.
This tour focuses on everything but the brandy. The factory, owners, old wines, etc. We were continually told to stop and wait while other groups either caught up or were given priority. And we were rushed through the brandy tasting too quickly to enjoy it. Overall I give the tour a D, the building and grounds a B+ and tasting an A+. If you’re planning to go, I would recommend you call ahead and reserve an English guide: +374 10 547048
Yerevan Brandy Factory (Ararat)
This is the factory originally built in 1953. The tour here begins and ends in the gift shop. In comparison with the Noy tour, this one focuses much more on the making of brandy. And of course highlights the common history and modern differences. For instance, it’s at this distillery that visiting heads of state are given their own barrels of brandy to age and wait for the proper time to be bottled, as a present for the dignitary.
The guide went to a great length to make sure we all understood what she was trying to communicate. Both tour guides had obviously received training from a script, but the script here is much better and the guide seemed a lot happier to tell us about things. Always smiling and chaperoning us around in a well choreographed way.
The guide also told us many of the Armenian legends involving wine or brandy. One I recall was that tiny devils dance on the top of brandy glasses. When you clink glasses some fall away but what fall in your glass are what make you drunk. It’s not your fault nor that of the brandy, it’s just the devils. Another saying is that you should only ever have three glasses of brandy: “The first glass is only to slake thirst. Second is just joy. Third is happiness. Fourth is craziness.”
I would give the tour here an A, the building and grounds a B- and the tasting a B. Call ahead for reservations here too: +374 10 540 000 You can likely take care of both tours on the same day.