Richard Crooks's Website
Visit to the Ararat Distillery
Armenia produces exquisite brandies, particularly highly regarded is Ararat brandy, a brandy that has won awards in global competitions. The brandy was even at one point allowed to be called "cognac" by French officials, a practice that has remained in parts of the former USSR, with cognac (or koniak) being a generic term for brandy in the former USSR. This came about when the brandy won an international competition, and stunned the French judges.
So of course I should take a visit to the distillery while I'm here! After a few phone calls and failing to get through, I managed to get through, find someone who could speak English, and I was in luck, not only did they have a distillery tour in English that day, but it would be the last one they'd have before they stop tours for the La Francophonie summit being hosted in Yeravan!
Before heading for the distillery I decided to explore some of Yerevan. I walked to the nearby Marshal Bagramyan metro station area, where there is Lovers’ Park, and the National Assembly of Armenia (Figure 1). Lovers’ Park is named as such, as it was a favourite rendezvous point for lovers during the 20th century, but was originally named Kozern Park, and later Pushkin Park, until it was renamed Lovers’ Park in 1995. When I visited the park was a quiet and relaxing place to walk around, but the park hosts festivities for Armenian national holidays. After a walk around the park, I visited the adjacent National Assembly Building. I asked the guards at the gate if it was okay to enter and take photos, and it turned out that the garden at the front of the parliament building is also a public park and I was welcome to walk around. Armenia had been undergoing some political turmoil during 2018, so the security presence at the parliament was high. However it was peaceful while I was at the parliament building, and there was families enjoying the sunshine in the grounds of the building. After exploring this part of Yerevan, I decided to head to the city centre, and from there to the distillery.
Figure 1: A morning excursion to lovers Park (left) and the Armenian Parliament building (right). Lover’s Park is a small park near Marshal Baghramyan station which has a lot of water features and is a popular place for couples (hence the name) and also hosts a film festival. Although the Armenian Parliament building had been the site of protests while I was in Armenia, on this day it was calm and families were enjoying the sunshine, there was though an understandable security presence so I made sure it was okay to take photos and did not trespass.
The distillery is located on the other side of the Hrazdan River to the city center, in the Nor Kilikia district of Yerevan. The journey to get to the distillery passed from the city center with shops, bars and cafes, through a commercial district of Yerevan and towards the outskirts, and was quite a long walk, but as I didn’t know which bus to take, and I had walked a similar distance (in the opposite direction) previously when I visited Tsitsinakaberd, I decided it was worth walking. Just as I was about to get to the distillery though, I had a very exciting junction to cross. It was a 3 way junction, with 3 lanes going each direction, a crossing signal with a button I can press, which just so happened to be broken! Oh uh! After watching the traffic for a bit, I decided the best, and possibly safest thing to do was to wait until the first lanes of traffic had stopped, walk to the middle of the road and stand there hoping no one killed me, then run across the next half of the road! Fortunately I survived and made it to the distillery, which was located at the top of a hill, up a grand flight of steps leading up to it (Figure 1). Then after confirming my booking and collecting my tickets, it was time to begin the tour!
Figure 2: The steps leading to the Ararat distillery, where the finest brandy can be obtained, as it is distilled, aged, blended and bottled here. It is even sold at the shop that I went to after the tour.
At the beginning of the tour and upon entry to the distillery, I was greeted by the delightful sweet and fruity smell of the aging brandy that permeated the building. First of all was an explanation of the Ararat company, and where the grapes, wood, and aging takes place. A map of the wall (Figure 2) showed where different parts of the business happened. Of note, because Armenia is a seismically active country, the brandy is aged in warehouses spread around the country. As brandy has considerable value, spreading the warehouses around the country reduces the risk that a single earthquake can destroy the entire stock of brandy, which would be extremely financially damaging for the company. Additionally wood and grapes are sourced from areas around Armenia. However at the end of aging, these are blended together for a final short aging and bottled at one site in Yerevan.
Figure 3: A map showing production sites of Ararat Brandy throughout Armenia. Because Armenia is a seismically active country, and brandy is a valuable commodity, it is not all kept aging at one location to prevent an earthquake causing widespread damage to large amounts of aging brandy. It is instead kept at warehouses separated throughout the country as a form of insurance. Additionally the grapes used to make the brandy are grown throughout Armenia, separate grape varieties are distilled separately and blended together later instead of being fermented together.
Some crucial differences between Ararat brandy and other spirits are: Unlike other brandies where grapes are blended prior to fermentation, distilling and aging together, the different grape varieties used in Ararat are fermented, distilled and aged separately, so that each individual barrel will only be brandy from one grape variety prior to the final blending and finishing. Also unlike Scotch whisky where the age on the bottle is the age of the youngest whisky used in the bottle, the age on Ararat is the average age of the different brandies. The different ages give different flavours and these are blended to produce different styles for sale, and the age on the bottle is the average age of the brandies that are blended together.
Ararat barrels are charred and are reused throughout the years (unlike bourbon whiskey, which always uses new barrels), with newer barrels having a harsher effect on the spirit, so spirit is only kept in new barrels for a short period of time. Once a barrel is no longer suitable for aging spirit (a barrel lasts about 100 years) it is burned and the fire is used to char new barrels.
The Ararat distillery hosts the peace barrel (Figure 3). Barrelled at the signing of the cease fire that temporarily ended the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1994, the peace barrel is only to be opened when there is a permanent peace and settlement for the Nagorno-Karabakh war. The barrel is on display, and there are messages of peace written on and around the barrel, along with the flags of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Artsakh, as well as USA, France and Russia who are also involved in the peace negotiations. The Azerbaijani flag on display here is the only Azerbaijani flag anywhere in Armenia.
Figure 4: The Ararat Peace Barrel which was distilled and put into Barrel in 1994 at the signing of the ceasefire of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. Messages of Peace are written on the barrel and on the walls around it, and the intention is that barrel will not be opened for bottling until there is a permanent peace settlement to the conflict. The flags of the parties in the conflict and the peace process (Azerbaijan, France, Russia, the United States, Artsakh and Armenia) are in the background behind the barrel. This Azerbaijani flag is the only Azerbaijani flag in Armenia, as the countries do not have diplomatic relations with one another.
A tradition for notable dignitaries, especially government leaders on official visits to Armenia who visit the distillery is for them to receive their weight in brandy as a gift. So there are a set of scales for weighing such visitors (Figure 4). The heaviest visitor to the distillery was Boris Yeltsin. I'm not notable enough to receive such brandy, and I'm not sure how to import that much brandy either... I suspect I might have some interesting discussions checking in my luggage and dealing with customs! But it's a fun tradition they have for more notable dignitaries who I'm sure have the staff to deal with such technicalities!
Figure 5: Famous dignitaries who visit the distillery are given their bodyweight in brandy as a gift, and these are the scales used to weigh them for such an honour. The heaviest such dignitary to be so gifted was Boris Yeltsin. I am insufficiently notable to be awarded such a gift unfortunately, and I’m not sure how customs deal with a vast quantity of alcohol to be imported.
Ararat brandy has a long history, but in its early days it was marketed using an unusual strategy. A group of well dressed young men and attractive women were sent to Paris (the capital of France, home of some of the most revered wines and brandies) to dine in some fine restaurants and to ask for Armenian brandy. As Armenian brandy wasn't well known at the time, the restaurants did not have it, which upset the well dressed diners, thus the restaurants decided to obtain some as they should definitely keep up with their sophisticated guests taste. Ararat brandy being the leading producer of Armenian brandy was thus in a good position to supply this new market. Another interesting fact is that the Ararat distillery used to be located on the other side of the river, but relocated to its current site during its history. The original site is now the distillery for Ararat's main Armenian rival, Noy. The nice man who gave me a lift back from Sardarapat told me that his favourite brandy is Noy when I mention how fond I am of Ararat to him.
There was a display of different packages of Ararat brandy throughout the years, and how the bottles evolved through the years. One particularly important brandy was the Ararat Dvin, which was a favourite of Sir Winston Churchill. After enjoying it at the Yalta conference, Stalin shipped a case of it frequently to Churchill. The brandy is still sold today, and is the premier brandy made by Ararat and is a 15 year old brandy, which despite being the premier brandy, is not the oldest brandy in the range, rather there is a 20 year old brandy.
No tour of a distillery would be complete without a tasting session. The distillery offers two tours, which differ only in the brandies served during the tasting. The regular tour which features the 3 and 10 year old brandies, and the premium tour which features the 10 and 20 year old and Dvin brandies. I opted for the premium tour due to my reverence of Ararat brandy, and so got to try these high end brandies. The brandies were served with chocolate beans, and our tour guide told us about how this is a common accompaniment to brandy, but different countries have their own traditions, with Armenia favouring apricot and Russians favouring lemon. Along with some water which serves as a palette cleaner, along with the accompaniment for tasting the different brandies. The tour guide also explained the shape of the Ararat glass (which I bought a pair of) and how it's designed to enhance the flavour and aroma of the brandy. The tulip shaped nose concentrates the aroma under the nose while tasting. Additionally the shape of the glass allows the brandy to be served in the right volume, as the glass should be able to be tilted to its side and balance without spilling brandy (Figure 5). My favourite brandy during the tasting was the 20 year old Ararat Nairi, which I've tried before and found to be a wonderfully rich and smooth brandy, I think better than even the famous Dvin.
Figure 6: The brandy tasting session with the official Ararat glasses, a set of which that I bought for myself from the shop. We were shown that the Brandy should be filled into the glass at such a volume that the glass will not spill if it is balanced like this. During the tasting I had the premium tour, which included three brandies, the 10 year old (Vaspurakan), 20 year old (Nairi), and the prestigious Ararat Dvin, a 50% bottling that was the brandy favoured by Winston Churchill, of which my favorite was the 20-year-old.
Some American tourists on the tour who I shared a table with offered to let me to share their taxi ride back to the city centre, so I needed to be quick in the gift shop. Knowing I was limited to 1 bottle of brandy (due to customs) I decided not to buy the 20 year old, which was 40,000AMD (then worth over $100) and I thought was a bit too expensive to be a souvenir! So instead I decided to buy a special edition Ararat Yerevan bottling, which was a 10 year old brandy bottled at 57% and was to celebrate the 2800th anniversary of the city of Yerevan. This was an excellent (and strong) souvenir from my time in Armenia, which I drank out of my new glasses.