The Worshipful Company of Distillers

Court visit to Gascony June 2-6th 2019

The Master has a particular affinity for southern France which naturally led to a Distillers Court visit to Gascony, the country of gastronomy and rural charm and especially the home of the much loved spirit of Armagnac.

This area stretching almost from the Pyrenees toward the Massif Central and from the Landes and the Basque country to Toulouse, the home of Airbus, is one of, if not the most rural areas of France Truly it is La France Profonde – the original rural countryside of rolling hills and Bastides – the fortified hill top towns reminiscent of Tuscany – where little has changed for centuries.  How appropriate for this most artisanale of spirits to be produced on farms by long established families who cherish this magical background and eschew the traditional dressing of distilleries and the modern trappings of brands.

So it was on a beautiful Sunday evening in June that the Court and their consorts arrived for a five –day session of their own – to understand the mysteries of distilling Armagnac and to enjoy the fruits of the Gascon countryside. We were based in a beautiful hotel – named La Bastide of course – next to the thermal baths in Barbotan clothed in a wooden structure typical of the curing barns of the air dried tobacco that used to be kept here.  

But to business, and the serious matter of exploring the wonderful array of wines and spirits from the area. First the Floc de Gasconne – a wonderful melange of fruit and Armagnac Blanche– the new spirit straight from the still – a much loved aperitif whether in white or red formats that was the subject of our first reception in the wonderful warm evening sunshine that greeted us as we arrived by car or plane.  (How long did it take to gain acceptance of an immature spirit calling itself Armagnac Blanche I wonder in a country that prides itself on its innumerable appellations and strict conformity with tradition?)  But delicious it certainly is and a great introduction to the noble spirit.  Then it was the wines – deliciously light and fruity expressions of Ugny Blanc and Colombard that were brilliant foils to the rich cuisine of foie gras and guinea fowl that awaited us at every turn, helping us to understand better the main ingredient of the mature Armagnac that was served later.

Each day we were treated to multiple tastings of Hors D’Age, XO, Single Vintage Millesime and single cask variations of the grand theme and gradually the picture emerged.  It was a surprise to find that the stills were mainly columns – albeit quite short – and that pot stills or alambics were the exception rather than the rule.  How could such stills retain the characteristically earthy and fruity flavours that are the hallmark of this spirit?  Well the maximum strength of about 66 degrees was one clue and the high quality tight grained new French oak barrels toasted from the outset clearly made their contribution. At Domaine Arton we heard Patrick de Montal speak eloquently of the importance of the wine and variation of the vintages – not the usual narrative of a spirit producer.

At Chateau de Bordeneuve Thomas Guasch introduced us over lunch to his best Armagnacs, Le Duc de Signognac and La Grande Josianne.  We learned about how the delicious Serrano ham is cured and cut and discovered the delights (and the meaning) of a “dejeuner champetre” in is gardens.  Monet would have been proud of us.

Our new friends at Armagnac Delord treated us not only to their vintage and 25 Years old expressions but also made us into their bottlers that morning as we were shown how to dip the bottle necks into hot wax without any drips and then make your own impression of the seal with more hot wax on the shoulders – a very skilful operation. 

Only when we arrived at Le Tariquet did we get to see a large modern and beautifully crafted purpose-built visitor centre and production area where we were treated to another excellent wine and spirit tasting.  Leading from their purpose-built tasting room we repaired to a wonderfully atmospheric distillery cum reception hall – pausing to admire the mobile stills as we entered their low-light refectory for our final session.

Although we worked diligently studying Armagnac distillation and having tutored tastings, there was still time to explore the region, 

In a packed programme, we admired the Cathedral of Condom and took our group photograph in the company of D’Artagnan and his three mousqueteers outside; we enjoyed early morning coffee  in the only round square in France, in the middle of  the fortified village of Fources; we were amazed by the Roman mosaics at the Seviac site, and toured the cloisters, the physic garden and art exhibition at the Abbaye Floran.

All too soon it was the last night and we returned to Condom to the Table de Cordeliers for the gala dinner, and what a special night it was.  We were joined not only by all our new Armagnac friends, but also by Francois Rivière, Captain Lieutenant of the global Compagnie des Mousquetaires . After suitably elaborate introductions  and the entrance of the Master and members of the Compagnie des Mousquetaires many of whom were at the inauguration of the new London squadron. We witnessed the introduction of our own Charles Minoprio and his clothing with the wide blue sash and eight pointed star badge, a delightful end to a wonderfully entertaining and enlightening few days in this lovely part of France – a place to be savoured and enjoyed “a nouveau” in not too many years. We learned a lot and made many new friends who showed us their warmth and legendary hospitality to very good effect.

Congratulations to the Master and Mistress, their cohorts of supporters and legions of friendly producers who gave so generously of their time, their enthusiasm, their knowledge and their products to make this a truly memorable occasion. 

Richard Watling

Master 2016/7