“You have to take risks. We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen.” – Paulo Coelho
In celebration of this month’s “Malternative” spirit, I’ve elected to review a bottle that holds a unique place in my collection, which is exceptionally light on non-whiskey offerings. Today I’ll be examining one of several categories said to be the Next Big Thing™ for bourbon enthusiasts, Armagnac.
Armagnac is a French grape brandy that’s most similar to cognac, though its documented production predates the more popular spirit by at least 150 years. The primary difference between the two lies in the fact that Cognac is made on a pot still while Armagnac utilizes a column still, and typically comes off that still at a much lower ABV.
Armagnac must be made in the Gascony region of France which, for the unfamiliar, is south of Cognac in what’s known as a microclimate featuring the Pyrenees mountains on one side and a dense pine forest on the other which blocks wind flow. Divided into three growing regions, Bas-Armagnac represents the largest of the bunch and is the appellation where the expression I’ll be reviewing today comes from.
Noted for being the northernmost area among the three appellations, as well as that with the lowest altitude, Bas-Armagnac is also said to produce the most aromatic spirits. I, of course, cannot attest to my personal preference among the regions, as my Armagnac experience is quite limited. However, that it holds a high reputation among those enthusiastic about the spirit seems noteworthy.
This particular bottle comes from Domaine Lous Pibous and is comprised entirely of Folle blanche grapes which make up only about 5% of all Armagnac on the market despite having been the most prominent grape before an infamous phylloxera plague hit the region in 1879.
This expression was produced (or more accurately, bottled) by L’Encantada which has seen an outsized popularity among bourbon aficionados and developed a nearly mythic reputation. Though it wasn’t the beginning of the modern craze, this growth in attention was reported on a few years ago by prominent spirits writer Aaron Goldfarb, who traces the start of Armagnac’s rise as a whiskey connoisseur’s preferred alternative to 2018.
Speaking on the rise of the brand, Goldfarb remarked:
“L’Encantada bottlings check all the boxes for the American bourbon geek: single casks, barrel-strength, unfiltered and unadulterated; and lavishly packaged with wax-dipped necks, wooden hang tags (listing vintage year), and the requisite, dignified boxes. They are also exceedingly rare, with around 300 bottles per release; and, as for now, they are relatively cheap, especially compared to still-booming bourbon.”
It should be noted here that bourbon is still booming (camera pan to red-and-white “how’s it going to end?” button) but Armagnac continues to cast intrigue at the periphery of bourbon enthusiast circles as a worthy companion to their collection. Also of note is that, though the neck tag bears the logo of world famous Jack Rose Dining Saloon, I made this purchase at locally famous 120 West 58th Street Wine & Liquor, whose purveyor Shawn Kim purchased the other half of the barrel.
When I reached out to Shawn to find out a bit more, he informed me that this was one of the last picks L’Encantada did with Domaine Lous Pibous as they’ve since run out of juice. I’ve always found the unique and truly limited nature of spirits like Armagnac to be interesting, but learning some of the things that made this particular expression a rare treat was surprising. Cheers to the Malternatives initiative for allowing me to uncover the unexpected.
Per the standard practice of PM Spirits, who imported this expression, there are zero additives in this Armagnac which means no sugar, no coloring, and no water, which means it’s barrel strength at 112.8% proof (56.4% ABV). As aforementioned, this product of Domaine Lous Pibous is a 2004 Bas-Armagnac from a wet cellar and aged in new oak casks.
L’Encantada Domain Lous Pibous 2004 Bas Armagnac – Review
Color: Deep mahogany
On the nose: Butterscotch krimpets and roasted pecans roll out first and announce themselves in impressive fashion straight out of the bottle before nosing truly even begins. Those lush aromas are followed by Canadian maple syrup, wet sassafras, and fudge brownie edges in an alluring sweet and slightly earthy mélange. Finally, the citric smell of orange oil and lime essence, damp oak, and cinnamon rounds out the nosing experience. This smells delightful.
In the mouth: The texture undulates over the palate as it comes in a bit prickly in waves of flavor before they gently recede. Canadian maple leads the way for the flavors before the butterscotch krimpets and pecans from the nose make their way up the middle of the palate and take root on the finish where black pepper plus fresh oak also blossom. Maraschino cherry joins the party belatedly after several sips as the pepper and fresh oak presence is amplified with each swallow. The prickliness of the initial sips soon subsides but sadly so does the impact of the butterscotch krimpets as maple, maraschino cherry, black pepper, and oak become more firmly anchored. The texture of the mouthfeel is full without being “chewy” or distractingly dense, but the finish becomes increasingly dry with repeat sips which slightly detracted from the overall experience for me.
As this bottle represented my first dalliance with Armagnac it holds a fond place in my heart, but also has informed my opinion of subsequent Armagnac tipples I’ve had over the years. It’s easy to see why some have the spirit pegged as a natural successor for bourbon palates, as the flavors are sweetly reminiscent of America’s native spirit despite also carrying distinctly grape-y notes, a markedly leaner mouthfeel, and a much shorter finish.
That said, if I were only to judge this against other Armagnac pours that I’ve had: it’s wonderfully complex and full of dark sweet flavors that tend to be most pleasing to me. The finish left me wanting more, but the flavors delivered in spades and so I’m happy to call this “great” in accordance with our scoring rubric for any of my fellow bourbon aficionados looking to explore the category.