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The history of Armagnac – 16th, 17th and 18th Century

During the 16th century, a spirit distilled from a wine in Toulouse known as aygue ardente or eau de vie became popular with the Dutch to supply their ships. They were happy to buy their the spirit at Bayonne, which after some time became known as Armagnac, and was found comparable in quality to the brandy from Cognac. Local historians claimed its international fame, but in reality armagnac remained something of a rustic curiosity. This was a puzzle since the region had an ample supply of acid wine and plenty of wood to burn. It had contact with the Dutch to provide a market and an older indigenous tradition of distillation than Cognac. Indeed, we can still see the earliest known brûleries set up at the Château de Busca in Maniban in the 17th century, by Thomas de Maniban, a member of the legal aristocracy who successfully sold fine wines of the region.

The armagnacais lacked the commercial aggressiveness to sell their fine spirits and as a result armagnac did not compete as a rival to cognac in the market which counted – the fashionable society of Restoration London – and became submerged in the mass of brandies from Bordeaux and “Nants” which were considered  inferior to cognac. By the end of the 17th century armagnac was a well-integrated rural industry. Yet even when the Bordeaux monopoly collapsed during the 18th century, it remained largely local because of transport problems. Crucially the river Baise, which empties into the Garonne, was not navigable beyond Pont-de-Bordes at Lavadac at the very northern end of the region. It was this single difficulty that largely prevented the eaux de vie from being shipped to the ports, particularly Bordeaux, where merchants were trading in the local wines and eaux de vie with the merchants from England, Ireland and Holland. Armagnacs great variation from cognac, its great fruitiness and excitement to drink has kept the local and traditional methods alive through the 18th and 19th centuries for our enjoyment today.