IN A marketing technique made famous by Br'er Rabbit begging not to be thrown into the briar patch, France's armagnac is again attempting a major push into the American market with such national advertisements as, "The French give cognac. They surrender armagnac."
And this campaign has another important new twist, the marketing of the first dated brandies to have been legally imported for sale in the United States within recent memory.
Armagnac, the 80-plus-proof brandy of Gascony in southwestern France, the liquor that locals call the "velvet flame," has for about three years been seriously trying to make inroads in the American market, usually with generic advertising, this time with a campaign by a single brand, De Montal.
It is heading for direct competition with cognac, which the Gascons patronizingly refer to as armagnac's younger cousin. Armagnac production can be traced back to 1337; as for it having largely stayed home all these years, there have been good reasons. Cognac has roughly 100 producers, some of them quite large (Englishmen, with names like Hennessy, sniffed armagnac exporter Olivier de Montal, in Washington to introduce his product). Armagnac, on the other hand, has over 300 producers, most of them "farms that do maize on one side and armagnac on the other," said de Montal, and they just sell "to the next-door supermarket and friends in Paris." So developing brand-name recognition of armagnacs has been difficult, even in Gascony.
Furthermore, cognac, which is distilled twice, ages more quickly than armagnac, which is made by one continuous distillation. A 2-year-old cognac may be good, but a 2-year-old armagnac is considered undrinkable. And at three years it suffers "the illness of the armagnac," when it tastes overwhelmed by wood for a few months. What is crucial to armagnac is the marriage of the brandy and the wood, explained de Montal.
Armagnac has to be at least seven years in the wood to be acceptable. Fourteen is better, and 20-year-old armagnac (in the cask, for it does not age in the bottle) is really good. So said Marcel Tre'pout to visitors at his Gascon farm-distillery. At age 78, Tre'pout is said to be the oldest living armagnac producer, and himself still has some 1883 armagnac.
In Gascony respectable armagnac has been virtually always sold as a vintage product. Each vintage and each producer's armagnac has been distinctive, so buying has been a matter of knowing a particular producer's wares. While blended cognacs have been available on the American market -- vintage liquors not being allowed into the country -- they have played a low-key role, consumers buying them either because they were already fans of armagnac or because they have been cheaper than cognac. The several brands (for example, La Fontan at about $14, Marquis de Caussade at $15, Samalens at $20 and Danflou at $35) that are already available in Washington, tend to be a few dollars less than cognacs of similar quality.
A couple of years ago some armagnac collectives began promotions of armagnac creative enough to win advertising awards, but individual brands have done little promotion. What is new this time around is the first marketing in the U.S. of dated armagnacs and the blending of an armagnac specifically designed for the American market. De Montal, a Frenchman who works in France for an American oil company, began last fall to develop De Montal armagnac, buying up all the casks he could find and blending for a consistent product that would suit American taste. The blending was finished early last summer, and De Montal blended nonvintage armagnac is ready to hit the stores.
What is being sold in the United States differs from De Montal armagnac in France. "American kids have been brought up on sugar," said de Montal. "So armagnac as such would be too bitey." He describes his as "mellow, soft, easy, more going to the sugarish side," but keeping armagnac's character, "its bite, its warmth, its pleasure." In Gascony, De Montal armagnac for the American market was called by one farmer, "armagnac pour les femmes" (armagnac for women). De Montal himself put it, "Ladies who don't like cognac like it." Other Gascons described it as softer, less strong, with less wood taste than armagnac in France. Those who knew it considered it decent but not great. Chef Andre' Daguin, who worked with de Montal on the project, says it is "reliable -- a good one."
De Montal has suggested a minimum retail price of $17 for his blended armagnac, which is packaged in a specially designed bottle and wooden box.
He is also selling five dated armagnacs -- 1961, 1960, 1939, 1904, 1893 -- at considerably higher prices ($27 to $475). The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which certifies the labels for brandy imports, has approved labels that specify the year the armagnac was distilled; that does not certify the vintage, nor does it certify that the brandy was kept in the cask for any time more specific than at least seven years. Even so, with dates on the label of a brandy in the United States for the first time, de Montal expects to sell out of his stocks within the year. His promotion calls them vintage armagnacs, and their sales, he readily admits, "are more for our image." He has on hand about a half million cases of armagnac for his blending, or what he anticipates as 10 years' inventory.
In any case, once the market is developed, competition is likely to become as stiff as a shot of armagnac. Other armagnac producers are watching de Montal's campaign; as for their opinion of de Montal's enterprise, he shrugs, "They're all jealous. But very interested."