Rare spirits at approachable prices: Spirits educator Hannah Lanfear on armagnac

Kate Malczewski

Kate Malczewski

06 March 2019

Imbibe Educator of the Year Hannah Lanfear is one of the on-trade’s go-to resources for spirits knowledge. Drawing on her years of experience behind the bar, she created The Mixing Class and partnered with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) to develop its level three spirits course, rolling out later this year.

Now, alongside her work with the WSET, Lanfear is honing in on one spirit in particular – armagnac. She was recently appointed armagnac educator for the UK by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac (BNIA) and is out to demystify the category for the trade.

But with so many spirits categories buzzing at the moment, why has she chosen armagnac as one to watch? Imbibe caught up with her to find out

First things first: what is armagnac, and why should the trade know about it?

Armagnac is a French brandy produced in Gascony. It’s one of the oldest and most historical spirits, with distillation introduced in the region around 700 years ago. It’s an incredibly complex spirit with a fairly low distillation strength, which results in a very inviting character.

I don't think it’s always necessary to compare armagnac to cognac, but it’s helpful for understanding it. With cognac, producers use a homogeneous grape varietal, Ugni Blanc, whereas with armagnac you also have this rogue, hybrid grape varietal called Baco. The French have been rooting out hybrid grapes and don't necessarily want them in their vineyards, but armagnac producers are fighting to keep [Baco]. It gives the liquid this structure and fatness and this ability to be aged for a long time. On the flip side, you also have armagnacs made with Folle Blanche,  an aromatic grape variety that's a pain in the ass to grow. But producers make the effort because if you have success with it, the spirit is ethereal and lovely. It's commonly used in Blanche armagnac, which is a wonderful spirit to use in cocktails.

And I think armagnac has so much to give the cocktail industry. It’s kind of unassuming, whereas with certain other French brandies [there’s the association of] Baccharat decanters, and exorbitant amounts of money have to change hands to obtain it. You can get a real bargain in armagnac, experiencing something that's really old at a very affordable price. That gives the bartender an opportunity to actually work with it and put it in cocktails in a way that’s prohibitive with other spirits.

You’ve got a broad and deep knowledge of the spirit industry – why are you particularly interested in armagnac?

I was preparing for the WSET level three award in spirits that’s coming out, and I was aware that there was a gap in my knowledge when it came to armagnac.

I felt that it was hard to find enough information out there, so I reached out to Amanda [Garnham, press officer for the BNIA]. She arranged a 10-distillery tour, and we visited armagnac distilleries for three days. I fell completely in love with the spirit.

Its production has nuances of viticulture and winemaking, and what I find super interesting is its single continuous distillation process. If you love learning about distillation, you will love learning about armagnac.

What does the role of armagnac educator entail?

I’ll be working with the on-trade, essentially arranging in-house training sessions. If bars want to incorporate armagnac education into their programmes, I’ll be there to support them and introduce bartenders to a wide array of armagnacs.

And how can bartenders use those armagnacs?

Armagnac’s low distillation strengths mean that it has such an identity. It's very interesting to work into drinks, and very pliable. Typically what I do is swap it into classic cocktail structures. Recently I had a French 75 with Blanche armagnac in Swift, and it was just heavenly. I've even had it in a Negroni and it was great!

Since it’s still a lesser-known spirit, how can a bartender or somm introduce armagnac to a customer?

It's a hand-sell, for sure – but once you introduce people to it, they are so delighted that they've discovered it and that voyage of discovery continues. Introducing it in a cocktail serve is a great idea. It also works as a digestif, but for me, mixing with armagnac is the way to incorporate it into your everyday drinking life.

At the moment, armagnac is experiencing a breakthrough. There's some really exciting buzz around it, and I'm starting to see it on cocktail menus. At the same time, it's a spirit that requires constant education, and the public doesn't necessarily know too much about it. But it's very exciting because there's all these little pockets of knowledge [within the category] that you can go and explore.

Interested in learning more about armagnac? Contact hannah@themixingclass.com to take part in a training session

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