I’ve hiked the Rockies, danced all night in Spanish ruins, and soaked in secret lagoons in Iceland surrounded by wild horses and bubbling earth; I’ve toured swamps deep in the bayou, broken bread with the locals in the mountains of Galicia, and kayaked the bioluminescent waters of Puerto Rico. I count myself lucky to have visited the places I’ve been – much of it through my role as a blogger for Bit by a Fox. With each new adventure I realize how much of the planet I have yet to see, and it leaves me wanting to discover more. After a trip I remain on a high for weeks, if not months, continuing to summon up the food and drink and people and culture that I was just immersed in.
My recent trip to Armenia was an especially extraordinary one that continues to sustain me. I was there to visit the 130-year-old ARARAT Brandy company with four other writers.
This trip was as much about experiencing the ancient city of Yerevan and the Armenian culture as it was about familiarizing ourselves with a spirit that is so intrinsic to its home country.
Having never been to that part of the world, I was a little nervous about what to expect. But, once there, I was surprised by how quickly I’d fallen for it. I found myself trying to compare Armenia to other places I’d been…
There was something familiar about the massive European-like plazas and bustling sidewalk cafes, the vineyards akin to Southern Spain, the dramatic mountain ranges much like the Pacific Northwest, and the Mediterranean-style olives and cheeses and spreads.
But so much was unlike anywhere else I’d ever been. As the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, the Armenian capital of Yerevan wears its political history in its architecture, like layers of clothing in different states of repair; A mix of ultra modern structures all built within the last 20 years is juxtaposed against buildings dating back to the Russian Empire through the Soviet Era.
Yerevan is known as “The Pink City” because many of the buildings were constructed from pink stones taken from lava rock found in the surrounding area, giving the impression of a rose-colored city set aglow at that magic hour before sunset.
It’s only been 26 years since Armenia was granted independence from the Soviet Union, and Yerevan feels very much like a city that is going through an exciting metamorphosis, still undiscovered by American tourists.
Despite this cosmopolitan transformation, the soul of ancient Armenia remains – modern art sits alongside sacred structures, sophisticated boutiques share space with traditional rug vendors, and while acapella voices fill ancient temples with classical music during the day, jazz clubs light up the night.
Ok, so Armenia is beautiful and special and this trip was an exciting one and all but…how is the brandy?! The thing is, I can’t talk about the brandy until I talk about Armenia. ARARAT Brandy claims to be the “Symbol of Armenia” and if ever there was a spirit that represented a culture, this is it. Ask any Armenian, it is the pride and jewel of the nation.
From the moment you land in the Zvartnots International Airport, you are inundated with billboards, and banners above the gates, and sexy videos of slow-mo brandy flowing into snifters playing on loop hovering just above each ticket line. Upon entering the city of Yerevan, some of the first buildings you see clustered high on a hill, looming large over the capital city and the Hrazdan river, will most likely be The Yerevan Brandy Company. This is where the parent company of ARARAT Brandy has its headquarters, distillery and ARARAT Museum and Visitor Center. It made sense that this was our first stop on what would be an epic, brandy-filled visit.
The ARARAT Museum and Visitor Center is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Armenia. Guides conduct tours 7 days a week in Armenian, Russian, English, French and German.
People from all over the world leave their mark here.
Now, about that brandy…
While ARARAT’S brandy range spans 3 years to over 30, a tasting at the visitor center will most likely include three of their most popular: Akhtamar (10 years), Nairi (20 years) and Dvin (Collection Reserve) – said to be Winston Churchill’s favorite brandy.
ARARAT is made in a Cognac style, double distilled and matured in oak barrels made in Yerevan Brandy Company’s workshop from trees over 70 years old. Each expression has its own personality, but I’ve found ARARAT in general to be slightly softer and floral than a lot of Cognacs. The ten-year old Akhtamar is rich, with dried fruit and big exotic spices coming through. The Nairi is my personal favorite. It is voluptuous and complex and intense with delicate oak lingering. Winston Churchill’s favorite brandy is said to have been the exclusive ARARAT Dvin. Aged longer in oak casks, it has a heavy tobacco quality, not unlike Churchill’s other favorite vice, cigars! Nutty, coffee notes and rich cooking spices come through.
The day after our distillery visit and tasting, we spent an afternoon in a vineyard under the commanding presence of Mount Ararat, the symbol of Armenia, said to be the resting place of Noah’s Ark.
Only Armenian grapes can be used in the production of ARARAT Brandy.
We had the opportunity to get acquainted with these native grapes fed by 300 days of Armenian sunshine that thrive in high altitude and their dry climate.
Our visit was just after harvest season and we were able to witness truckloads of these small, sweet white grapes get pressed. Exciting stuff!
After familiarizing ourselves with everything that goes into the production of ARARAT Brandy, we were led on a comprehensive tour of Yerevan and its countryside, with stops at historic monuments and ancient temples.
Each meal better than the next. With plenty of ARARAT Brandy involved.
Our last night culminated in a dinner with the international ARARAT team and Russian media celebrating ARARAT’S 130 year anniversary, and an unveiling of its Single Cask bottle. A special end to a trip for the ages.
I’ll be carrying this visit to Armenia and my experience with ARARAT Brandy with me as I do all of the places that have touched me and changed me so profoundly. The people, the culture and the heart of its nation, their brandy, will forever stay with me.