JOHN BRUNTON’S DICTADOR TWO MASTER’S TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

Imagine Dictador’s rarest vintage rum, distilled in Colombia from prize sugar cane honey and aged for over 40 years at the edge of the rainforest, cooled by maritime breezes from the azure waters of the Caribbean Sea, then sealed in a cask to begin a final journey as far as Europe and North America for an ultimate maturing under the watchful eyes of some of the world’s most renowned cellar masters. These are Dictador’s hand-picked Partner Masters,  all expert blenders and agers in their own fields, be it the finest single malt or bourbon, luscious Sauternes or bubbly champagne, elegant cognac or Bordeaux wine.

The world of luxury spirits has never witnessed as audacious a project as this, where Dictador’s master blender, Hernan Parra, boldly passes his precious creations to likeminded craftsmen from other wines and spirits, far away on another continent, in unfamiliar cellars, ageing in unknown barrels. The result is a series of  limited edition bottles, not just signed but bearing the fingerprint of each of the 2 Masters. Expect nothing less than masterpieces; not only precious to collect and display, but above all, for the unforgettable moment when opened and shared,  dazzling with incomparable aromas and tastes. 

Dictador’s cellar master is Hernan Parra, the third generation of his family to oversee this venerable 1913 distillery, a man with a vision to create a new ultra-premium category of rum. He recounts how, “we found ourselves at Dictador with a stock of exceptional vintage rum from the times of my father and grandfather and had to make a decision to create something unique that was one step ahead of everyone else.  Like all spirit producers we often buy old barrels to age our rum and the initial idea was to buy a series of prestigious barrels from across the world to finish our rum here in Colombia. But then I said; what are we going to lose if we send our rum out to be finished by other cellar masters?” Positive replies swiftly arrived back from the world’s top blenders and agers, delighting Hernan, who describes how, “when the barrel leaves our cellars I give it my blessing. It will never come back and the second masters have total carte blanche to mature, to blend as they want. In fact, at first, it was the second masters who were a little nervous, but I just said; go ahead, you have total freedom. But be sure to taste our vintages and not to drink it all before ageing!” Señor Parra certainly has no doubt that the final 2 Masters bottle is better than the rum that left Colombia, “because I send my finest rum to some of the world’s finest cellar masters and obviously they improve it by creating extra layers to the spirit. So today, collectors, connoisseurs and investors from the world of luxury spirits will genuinely discover a unique rum.”

Hernan Parra began touring the distilleries of the world as a teenager, accompanying his father on tasting trips. Travelling today to meet the second masters in their own cellars opened his eyes. “What is amazing is not the differences between all the masters but the similarities. We all have the same issues and problems and this has been a great opportunity to discuss.  It is just that we are working with different raw materials. And 2 Masters gave us all the chance to work just with rum, which I am certain is the future of the spirits world.” A new collaboration with Portugal’s iconic port houses, Niepoort, is just coming to fruition with the upcoming launch of a series of vintage Dictador rums uniquely finished in Niepoort’s  traditional oak shipping barrels. Other projects for the future are looking towards spirit masters from Mexico, Australia, Japan.

Now take the journey below to meet in person, the renowned cellar masters from Europe and America in person who have accepted the challenge to finish the ageing of Dictador’s vintage rum.

HERVE JOSTIN

Epernay is the winemaking capital of the world’s most famous bubbly, and the grand Avenue du Champagne is lined by famous name cellars as Moët & Chandon and Perrier-Jouët. But hidden down a quiet street is a more discrete Maison, Leclerc Briant, steeped in history as it approaches its 150th anniversary, and a pioneer today for organic innovation, excellence and creativity, the perfect partner for Dictador.

The cellar master and winemaker here, Hervé Justin, resembles a medieval alchemist, surrounded not just by  barrels and steel vats, but experimental terracotta ovoid amphorae, magical blown-glass jars filled with PInot Noir or Chardonnay, a titanium barrel, and a  unique steel cask coated inside with gold.

Dictador’s rum is stored at the bottom of a vertiginous 35 metre staircase in a humid, chalky cellar, and Hervé reminisces how, “I jumped at the chance to age rum, a living eau-de-vie, using our biodynamic philosophy. Rum is malleable, capable of understanding and adapting to its surroundings, and I want to see how it interacts with our champagne. We buy barrels that are 2-6 years old, which we use just for 6 years, then resell to whisky and artisan brewers who are all interested in the effects of using an old champagne barrel. I chose very lightly charred casks for Dictador’s rum, to extend our own particular  biodynamic winemaking approach to the ageing of rum. I see a real transfer of energy from our champagne, adding what I would call ‘élégance Champenoise’, a certain lightness  to the rum’s own potency, structure and complexity.”

MICKAËL BOUILLY 

Gently swirling a glass of Dictador 2 Masters rum, the elegant fifth-generation owner of  distinguished haute couture cognac house, Maison Hardy, recalls that, “I have to admit it was a surprise at first to see a Colombian blender with his casks here in my cellar in Cognac, but then I said why not.” Bénédicte Hardy is a celebrated figure in the world of luxury spirits, but admits that, “I guess I am a dinosaur with cognac as I don’t think it should be aged in any other barrels than our own. But for us to finish another spirit like rum, well that was a different challenge . I thought it was a unique idea, never done before, and Dictador are innovative and understand global markets. So putting their rum in the hands of Hardy’s cellar master Mickaël Bouilly could only be good for both of us.”

Explaining his role, Michaël eloquently describes how, “in the life of a great spirit there are all the people involved in producing the raw material – grapes in the case of cognac, sugar cane for rum. Then there is the distillation, and for me, things begin to get interesting after three years in the barrel. That is when my work really begins to influence the taste, the aroma, the colour.” And this quiet, reserved master blender suddenly becomes passionate when describing his ageing; “I found myself inspired by the four seasons. Spring is not too tannic, light like the first bud of flowers, while summer has more body, more wood. Then autumn becomes aromatic, the flowers in full bloom, hints of burnt almond, until winter is more about the toasted wood, a long persistent taste with coffee and chocolate.”

ZOLTAN KOVACS ADORJAN

Hungary’s sleepy village of Mád, pronounced Maad, is surrounded by bucolic rolling vineyards in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains that produce the world’s oldest and most famous sweet wine. Known as the Wine of Kings, Tokaji – historically called Tokay in English – has been made since the 16th century, beloved by Louis XIV, Emperor Franz Josef and Queen Victoria. It predates Bordeaux’s famous Grand Cru Classé 1855 by more than a century, and today,  Royal Tokaji is the winery leading a renaissance  of this famous amber nectar.

Zoltan Kovács Adorján is the winemaker in charge of both  vineyard cultivation and the cellar, and he enthuses that, “from the moment I met the team from Dictador it was immediately clear we were on the same wavelength, the same vibration, perfect for a collaboration. It was a special moment when Hernan Parra  came all the way to Mád to visit our winery and barrel-ageing cellars. He shipped the rare rum vintages he wanted us to work on, and from then on it was my decision how to age, which cask to choose. A wonderful sense of freedom. We had just bottled our flagship 2016 Aszú sweet wine, a terrific vintage bursting with fruit and unctuous aromas, and I decided to choose from these just-emptied casks for Dictador, in particular, a 12 year-old 300 litre cask handcrafted by our artisan cooper from local Zemplén wood.

I preferred an older barrel so that the main influence on the raw rum would be the wine rather than the wood. Today, at the end of the ageing, I can see my influence has been to increase the elegance, roundness, sense of balance, adding subtle nuances of honey and papaya”

CYRIL LAUDET

Armagnac can lay claim to being the world’s oldest distilled spirit, whose history stretches back 700 years. And nothing symbolises these traditions more than the majestic Château Laballe, where Cyril Laudet is the eighth-generation of the oldest armagnac family still producing this magical amber liquid. He only uses his own grapes from the vineyard surrounding the chateau, distills himself with a splendid wood-fired alambic, and ages over 500 casks made from local Gascon Black Oak, in an ancient 300 year-old cellar.

Cyril immediately recognised the synergy between Laballe and Dictador – both combining tradition, excellence and innovation. Moreover, his ancestor who founded the dynasty was a spice merchant, who originally made his fortune in the Caribbean before returning to his native Gascony to buy an armagnac estate. The family were pioneers shipping their armagnac to New York in the 1920’s, and today are ageing rum that was distilled in the tropics of Colombia. “After receiving Hernan Parra’s 1976 single cask selection,¨

Cyril recounts, “I wanted to leave Dictador’s precious rum to age in our distinctively humid cellar, encircled by armagnac barrels so it could be literally impregnated by our spirit. My choice of casks subtly influence the vintage rum, with a young armagnac’s oaky barrique adding fruity freshness to the finish, while suppleness comes from a venerable artisan 50 year-old barrel whose tannin has all but gone, replaced by the nutty, earthiness of what we in Armagnac country call ‘rancio’.”

CALLUM FRASER

“The license to distill at Glenfarclas dates back to 1836,” declares Callum Fraser proudly, “and we are very serious about following tradition rather than experimenting or changing for changes sake. This is Scotland’s oldest independent, family-run distillery, sitting here in the shadow of Ben Remis mountain.

“Six generations of the Grant family have been making Glenfarclas whisky, and we stick to our own rules when it comes to distilling and ageing, with no playing about. But we are also open to creative collaborations, and the similar independence and heritage we share with Dictador’s Parra family gave us the  synergy to be flexible and try a new project like 2 Masters.” Callum has been working in Scotland’s whisky business for over 30 years, recently lauded in 2020 as both Distiller and Distillery Manager  of the year. And he is the ultimate hands-on cellar master, living on site, “so no excuse being late in the morning,” he says with a wide grin.

“Hernan chose 8 casks of vintage rum for us, so from our warehouses, where we store near to 100,000 barrels, I chose 8 different barrels to complement his selection, ranging from 8 to 50 years old.” He admits that, “I may be a whisky man through and through, but like my wine and rum too, though I can find rum a little sweet.” The effect of ageing in his Hogshead Sherry casks, has been to add a certain freshness and fruitiness to Hernan Parra’s precious 1974 vintage, with emotive tasting notes that conjure up not just vintage leather and cigars but summer fruit compote and a touch of orange.

THIBAUT DESPAGNE AND JEROME COSSON

France’s Bordeaux region produces not merely some of the world’s most renowned wines, but also its most varied, and when Hernan Parra began his search here for the perfect partners in his 2 Masters project, he chose two very different domaines. Château d’Arche stands out not only for producing a sublime Sauternes, France’s iconic sweet white wine, but also as one of the  elite 87 châteaux that bear the prestigious label ‘Grand Cru Classé 1855’, selected for their exceptional quality at the request of Emperor Napoleon III for the Exposition Universelle in Paris. The history of Château d’Arche dates back to 1733, and their Sauternes is traditionally made from late harvested grapes affected by Noble Rot.

The ageing then takes place in their stunning new eco-responsible cellar, where winemaker Jérôme Cosson selects a mix of both new and old French oak barrels to add a subtle finish to Dictador’s rare 1978 rum, originally stored in American oak bourbon casks.

Across the other side of Bordeaux, Thibaut Despagne’s Château Mont Pérat is in the historic winemaking village of Entre-Deux-Mers. He explains that “although we are 100 miles from the coast, this is called ‘the land between two seas’ because of a unique oceanic climate blowing maritime winds that impregnate our barrels over the years and are now ageing Dictador’s rum from the other side of the earth, 8,000  kilometres away in Colombia.”


He also notes how “the white wine barrels originally holding dry but aromatic Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, gave freshness, a delicate flowery touch that aerated the rum, making it more lively, with a little tension, while the  tannins in the red Merlot casks toned down denseness and sweetness, adding a certain stability.”

DREW MAYVILLE

One of America’s most renowned blenders, Drew Mayville has been in the spirits business for 42 years and oversees numerous distilleries. He is based in Kentucky, and fel thatt the perfect place to bring Dictador’s Colombian rum was rustic Bardstown, the unofficial Bourbon Capital of the World, where Barton 1792 has been distilling over 140 years.

Drew explains that although tradition is important here, with Barton proudly named after the year Kentucky joined the United States, “we are also a distillery that is known for experimentation and I leapt at this chance to collaborate with Hernan Parra.The attraction of working with Dictador was the freedom to do what I want.  Quite simply they do not dictate. I received a series of samples of different vintage rums, and they let me choose which to age, a great gesture of confidence in me on their part. I chose two,  mixed my own blend, then selected three very different types of barrels; wheated bourbon, rye-bourbon and straight rye. Each have a very different effect on the rum, hopefully  creating some very original choices for connoisseurs and collectors.”

The result is a balanced spirit where the rum shines while reflecting the nuances of our Kentucky bourbon without being overpowered by it, adding complexity and contrasts to the original vintage rum. “I have had so much fun collaborating with another cellar master over in South America,” insists Drew, “and I even suggested that next time Dictador should extend the idea to 3 Masters! Hernan just gave me a wry smile, maybe because this kind of experimentation often throws up more questions than answers. But that is how we can all increase our knowledge.”

                                                 Ends

JOHN BRUNTON’S ARMAGNAC TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

Armagnac is a genuine product of rural France, affectionately known as La France Profonde; the bucolic rolling hills of Gascony,  Bordeaux and Toulouse. Despite a history stretching back some 700 years as one of the world’s oldest distilled spirits, Armagnac remains a mysterious secret to many, with barely 300 producers, ranging from aristocratic owners of historic châteaux to cheerful red-faced farmers who stash away their precious barrels like a marriage dowry, while concentrating on the daily business of raising ducks and cattle, tending vines and fruit trees, cultivating cereals. A biodiversity that makes this region unique. The big global brands  dominating the world’s spirits markets are delightfully absent in Armagnac, meaning that instead of  a conformist, reliable style of eau-de-vie, Armagnac is delightfully individualist, idiosyncratic.

Each bottle varies not just from region or producer, but from one barrel to another, depending on the choice of grapes and quality of the wine, its distilling, wood ageing, and finally the crucial role of the cellar master in the blending.

But to really understand Armagnac you need to come visit the region, and meet the people making this unique spirit. The welcome awaiting visitors for a tasting is exceptional, whether it is in a sumptuous castle or rustic farmhouse. To understand all the detailed background of elusive, complex Armagnac,  have a read first of the informative official website, then make an itinerary to visit some of the following ten recommendations.

TOP TEN ARMAGNAC PRODUCERS TO DISCOVER

Domaine d’Espérance

This romantic manor house, encircled by neat lines of graphic vines, is owned by one of Gascony’s most historic families, descendants no less of the famed Comte D’Artagnan. The present-day Countess, Claire de Montesquieu, is the hands-on producer, from sticking on labels to tasting and blending. The rustic wood-beamed tasting room is dominated by an ancient copper alambic, and while swirling and gently sniffing a glass of one of her rare vintages, she explains that, “our armagnac comes solely from the wine we make from the family’s vineyard. The higher the quality of the wine to distill, the better the armagnac, and that is our secret for making what I call an haute-couture armagnac.” And she insists that, “I am very strict with my principles of not adding anything to my armagnac –  no caramel for the colour, no water to dilute the alcohol. No compromises.”

Her ageing cellar is spectacular, piled high to the rafters with 400 litre barrels, and Claire proudly relates how, “each of my Gascon oak barrels tells its own story, and that is why many of my clients prefer to buy a whole one, even making a pilgrimage to bottle their own armagnac.”

Armagnac Castarède

The Castarède entrance is clearly marked by a towering lone parasol pine, with a route running through vineyards, eventually coming out at a grand château. The châtelaine is another dynamic lady, Florence Castarède,  6th generation of one of the oldest Armagnac houses, operating since 1832. “My grandfather bought the château 40 years ago, a 17th century domaine that once had over 2,000 hectares of vines. Today there are still 16 hectares dedicated solely to the grapes we use to distill our armagnac;  Colombard, Folle Blanche, Ugni-blanc, Baco and Plant de Graisse.”

For Florence, the magic of armagnac begins with the ageing process, passionately describing how “first we decide on the level of toasting of the wood, then aerating the eau-de-vie, changing barrels from new oak to older casks, when or if to add water – ‘les petites eaux’ – a mixture of distilled water and armagnac, sometimes necessary to reduce the level of alcohol, and finally, the moment to stop the ageing and transfer the armagnac to a glass demijohn.”

The process of aerating armagnac

She has an exceptional collection of her grandfather’s vintages, with some as old as 1893, and is committed to demystifying armagnac.

For special tastings, there is an ornate trolley packed with 50 tiny bottles, each a different vintage that she searches through like a chef selecting ingredients, saying, “people need to try small bottles of 20 year old, 30 year old and 40 year-old to really understand the differences.” 

Domaine de Laguille

There might not be chickens and ducks running around the farmyard but Domaine de Laguille is clearly a more rural, artisan world than some of Armagnac’s elegant chateaux. Guy Vignoli and his wife, Colette, live on the property, and their rustic half-timbered barns and animal stables have been converted into barrel-ageing cellars.

A classic Gascon farmer, Guy used to raise cattle, but today concentrates on producing not just a high quality selection of Armagnacs, but a surprising range of wines. “I am a proud Vigneron Indépendant,” clarifies Guy, “because our wine production is very important to provide a treasury to invest in the future of armagnac.”

Guy enjoys experimenting with older, used casks, but only he knows what is stored in his cellar where barrels are seemingly piled higgledy-piggledy, with cobwebs everywhere, a dusty, sandy earth floor, and mouldy fungi growing on the wall, all classic consequences when small quantities of armagnac evaporate during ageing. But he says with a glint in his eye that “if someone comes in and asks for a bottle of a particular vintage, then I just disappear into the cellar, draw direct from the cask then bottle and label by hand.”

Château de Lacquy  

Gilles de Boisséson likes to taste his armagnac direct from the barrel, delicately drawing the precious amber liquid with a long glass ‘pipette’. Each cask is meticulously marked with the year and type of grape, so you can discern the subtle differences between Folle Blanche, Colombard and Baco. No  Ugni-blanc though, as Gilles feels “it is not suited to our sandy soil here.” Everything about Château de Lacquy takes your breath away; the cellar is filled with 500 casks, crafted from Gascon oak, the estate extends over 400 hectares of cereals, vegetables and vines, while the distinguished château has been in the family since 1711, historically the oldest producer of armagnac. Gilles is the 10th generation, an affable country squire who talks passionately about armagnac. “I always love it when American visitors tell me that the French export their cognac but keep armagnac for themselves,” he recounts. “People must understand that if you have a bad wine then you have a bad basis for distillation, producing an aggressive eau-de-vie. This is why whiskey and cognac are double distilled, reaching 70° or even 90° degrees to get rid of impurities. The tradition here of using our specially designed still, an Alambic Armagnaçais, is that there is only a single, gentle continuous distillation, producing a clear eau-de-vie that is already perfect at 50-52°.” 

Château Laubade  

Laubade is a distinctive, unorthodox Armagnac house, beginning with its 1870 château, a brightly-painted half-timbered mansion that looks more seaside Normandy than rural Gascon. It is surrounded by a massive 103 hectare single vineyard, solely producing the wine distilled for their armagnac.

The present owners, the Lesgourgues family, bought the estate in 1974, and are serious patrons of the arts. Everywhere you look there are eye-catching artworks, sculptures and installations, displayed in the distilling room and barrel-ageing cellars, the gardens, vineyards, and sumptuous salons inside the château. Watching the freshly-distilled eau-de-vie trickle out of their immense purpose-designed gas-fired alambic, Denis Lesgourgues recounts how  “my grandfather fell in love with the chateau and bought it on impulse, and when my father took over he transformed Laudabe into a single-minded producer of high quality armagnac.” The barrel collection here is astonishing, some 2,800 ‘pieces’ of 400 litre casks, enough stock for 15 years. And what really takes the breath away is Laubade’s Paradis of ancient vintages, a beautiful private cellar filled with antiques and artworks, mysterious glass bonbons filled with golden elixirs, some going back to 1888, preciously saved for exclusive assemblages and precious vintages.

Armagnac Delord

Prosper Delord founded his family business in 1892, and today, the fourth generation brothers, Jérôme and Sylvain, have created one of the most innovative armagnac houses. A sepia portrait of the moustachioed Prosper hangs in the tasting room, but nostalgia is replaced by modernity as soon as Jérôme takes guests on a tour of the cellars and towering state-of-the-art wine cisterns, decorated with massive murals of provocative street art graffiti.

In the distilling chai stand four imposing alambics, two traditional Armagnaçaises and two Charentaises, the double distillation pot used to make cognac. It is rare for an armagnac producer to use a cognac-style alambic, but Jérôme insists that, “we try to take the best from both systems of single and double distillation. In general, the Charentaise is perfect for our range of young armagnacs – VS and VSOP – while for XO blends and vintages, it is more likely to be a single Armagnacaise distillation.”

Delord are pioneers in promoting younger spirits aged 1-4 years, “because we want armagnac to be accessible for everyone, easy to drink, reasonably priced” recounts Jerome. “These young armagnacs and our traditional ‘Blanche or White Armagnac’, a clear, fruity eau-de-vie not aged in wood, are perfect in cocktails and long drinks, a very different way for a younger generation to discover our venerable 700 year-old spirit.”

Domaine Tariquet

A visit to Tariquet resembles nothing else in the Armagnac region. A vast family enterprise cultivates a 1,125  hectare vineyard, the largest in France, run by two unassuming but highly driven forty-something brothers, Armin and Rémy Grassa. Their family bought Château Tariquet in 1912, an historic site where armagnac was produced since 1683. “In 1972, at just 18 years of age, my father Yves and his sister Maïté, were handed total control of the domaine, a huge responsibility and opportunity that they leaped at,” recounts Armin. “Two crucial decisions were made; to enlarge the production and quality of wine, and create a stock of armagnac. In 1982 our first bottled wine was sold and so the Côtes de Gascogne revolution began – a quality, well-priced, refreshing wine, using the grapes traditionally grown to distill as armagnac. No one thought it would take off as it did.” Today, Tariquet produce around 10 million bottles of wine a year, while if armagnac production stopped tomorrow, their 7 cellars are filled to last the next 23 years. “We stock some 5,000 barrels, because we believe in the future of armagnac,” states Armin proudly.

“Wine may have brought Tariquet visibility, but our historic role remains that of an armagnac producer. It is our heart. Wine is immediate while armagnac is for the future. Wine is innovative while armagnac is traditional.”

Armagnac Darroze

If you have ever wondered why in any fine dining restaurant there is always a selection of exceptional vintage armagnacs, then a trip to Marc Darroze  will provide the answers. Darroze proudly calls itself a ‘négociant’. so Armagnac’s most famous ‘Maison’ does not own a vineyard , but diligently purchases wine to distil and age, and also unearths hidden treasures of ancient armagnac stashed away by smallholders. The founder, Jean Darroze, a well-known local restaurateur in the 1950’s, discovered many farmer vignerons had a stock of valuable armagnac casks, their way of saving for a rainy day rather than putting money in the bank.

Marc Darroze is his grandson, who reminisces how, “grand-père began by buying barrels to serve by the glass, meticulously naming the farm, the village, the grapes. Then my father, Francis, began selling our armagnac to restaurants all over the world. The chefs loved our philosophy, our respect for the terroir. We showed that each cask of armagnac is different, even if it comes from the same grape and vineyard, the same harvest, the same alambic.” Marc has transformed the Maison, which now proposes organic armagnac, a  range of prestigious Grands Assemblages, a unique range of single grape Blanche Armagnac and much more.

He plans to open his own distillery soon. “But we must preserve our traditions,” he says nostalgically, “so I still ask our winemakers to distill one cask to hide away, because this was the beginning of our story.”

Château de Pellehaut 

Don’t be surprised if a tasting tour of Château de Pellehaut continues on after the cellars to see their herd of 60 Blonde d’Aquitaine cows, as the environmentally- conscious brothers who run the estate, Mathieu and Martin Béraut are just as proud of the cows as their exceptional armagnacs and innovative wine range.

Mathieu proudly relates how, “there are records of our family being active in the local commune over 400 years ago, and my father, Gaston, bought this 18th century château in the 1970’s. It covered 280 hectares of fully-functioning polyculture; farming. vineyard and armagnac. That has been the Gascon tradition for centuries, explaining our incredible biodiversity. But sadly estates like ours have become the exception rather than the rule today. The formula was simple and we have never changed – plant vines on the best land, grow cereals on fertile fields to feed cattle while the rest leave as woods.” Wine is also very important here, as the family launched their first commercial bottles in 1985, and have extended the original 65 hectare vineyard to some 300 hectares. When tasting, be sure to try the ‘brut de fût’ selection much loved by modern connoisseurs, often single cask, single grape bottles with no water reduction, so be ready for a jolt of 50° alcohol rather than the softer, smoother 40° of an aged blend or older vintage. 

Domaine Saint-Martin

No period is more emotive in Armagnac than the months of November till March, reserved for distilling the wine from the year’s grape harvest into a crystal clear eau-de-vie that will metamorphose into golden nectar after years of barrel maturing. While some producers own their own alambics, many rely on the traditional mobile still to turn up for a  few days to produce the annual armagnac. Marc Saint-Martin is one of the last ‘bouilleur de cru’, trundling round over 70 domaines with his two ancient wood-fired alambics. Visit his rustic domaine, and you will meet a man who is also an independent winemaker and armagnac producer. His Alambic Armagnaçais sits on display in the tasting room, looking like a Victorian steam engine with its tall copper boilers linked by numerous pipes, balancing on a set of wheels.

And the work as an ambulant distiller is hardly glamorous, with the alambic unceremoniously pulled by tractor from one cellar to the other, with the vigneron obliged to supply and stoke the wood while Marc supervises the non-stop distillation, 24 hours a day without sleep, until there is no more wine left, and the armagnac can head off to the cask.   

where to stay

L’Agapé

Beautifully restored farmhouse popular with both pilgrims following the route of Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle and armagnac-lovers on a tasting holiday.

Domaine de Paguy

Friendly owners of grand manor house offer b&b accommodation, swimming pool and cellar tasting of their armagnac, wines and Floc de Gascogne.

where to eat

La Falène Bleue 

L

Classic village bistrot surprises with mix of traditional dishes and creative tastes like organic trout with pumpkin and lemongrass broth.

La Bastide Gasconne

Time for a splash-out? Enjoy  gourmet cuisine inspired by famous 3 Star Michelin chef, Michel Guérard, at surprisingly affordable prices. 

Loft Cafe

Rub shoulders with vignerons and armagnac producers, feast off kilometre-zero local products from organic veggies and cheeses to artisan foie gras.

what to do

Notre-Dame des Cyclistes

Outside picturesque Labastide d’Armagnac, this 12th century Knights Templar chapel museum is a pilgrimage for amateur and Tour de France cyclists  

Fezas Foie Gras

There will always be controversy about foie gras production, but visiting an artisan farm with the ducks waddling around at liberty paints a different picture. And the Fezas family also propose a whole lot of other delicious gourmet conserves.

Flaran Abbey

This well-preserved 12th century Cistercian abbey also displays a private art collection with Cezanne, Monet, Picasso and Renoir