Armagnac & Cask Finishes: The Beginning of the Armadillos?

img_2066Last birthday my ever generous family bought me my exam nemesis, Poire Williams.  This year they bought me a rhum agricole finished in an Armagnac cask.  I have tasted Armagnac finished in a rhum agricole cask so here it is the other way round!

Cask finished whisky is a very familiar concept to the 21st Century dram drinker.

But it is a relatively recent phenomenon.  A 1982 release of Balvenie’s Classic finished in sherry casks before bottling is believed to be the first cask finish, after which the trend took off.  It took a while for cask finishes to cross the pond, and the 1999 cask finished bourbon Distiller’s Masterpiece released by the late Jim Beam master distiller Booker Noe didn’t hit the mark.  But in time Bourbon adopted cask finishes as comprehensively as Scotch, as did other categories, so much so that in 2019 the Scotch Whisky Technical File was updated to broaden and further define the casks which could be used to mature or “finish” Scotch Whisky.  It was feared that otherwise, Scotch would become viewed as old fashioned if it didn’t adapt to facilitate at least some of the increasingly innovative finishes being adopted around the globe.

The following amendment drafted by the lawyers at the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), lodged with the EC by DEFRA, has therefore become law:

“The spirit must be matured in new oak casks and/or in oak casks which have only been used to mature wine (still or fortified) and/or beer/ale and/or spirits with the exception of:

  • wine, beer/ale or spirits produced from, or made with, stone fruits
  • beer/ale to which fruit, flavouring or sweetening has been added after fermentation
  • spirits to which fruit, flavouring or sweetening has been added after distillation

and where such previous maturation is part of the traditional processes for those wines, beers/ales or spirits.
Regardless of the type of cask used, the resulting product must have the traditional colour, taste and aroma characteristics of Scotch Whisky.’

Casks used for stone fruit based products are excluded because they are considered likely to impart flavours and aromas which are too dominant and which would not be characteristic of Scotch Whisky.  Use of casks previously filled with spirits such as gin or baiju are also excluded by the requirement that previous maturation must be part of the traditional process for those spirits.  Casks previously used for other spirits as diverse as Calvados, Mezcal and Rum can be used but the resulting product must be characteristic of Scotch Whisky.  This means a finish ought to be just that.  If, for example, one aged a Scotch Whisky in an ex Mezcal cask for 10 years, it would be highly unlikely to be anything approximating to Scotch Whisky.  But a 6 month finish in an ex Mezcal cask would, by contrast, retain Scotch Whisky character, but with additional notes imparted by the finishing cask.

In that way, the SWA aimed to maintain the quality and character of Scotch Whisky, while allowing innovation to enable competitiveness with other spirits.

So what about Armagnac cask finishes?  As I reported in articles about Chateau de Laubade and Domaine de Laguille, the cask finishing innovations of these Armagnac houses have been reined in by the BNIA.  They now stipulate that Armagnac producers using finishing as a technique cannot call their product Armagnac, and instead must specify a statement such as “Armagnac-based spirit drink”.   I know from my recent tour of Armagnac that some of its leading lights feel strongly that if the quality of the Armagnac is good enough, why mask its true character by finishing it with something else?

But what about Armagnac casks being used as finishes for other spirits?  I have not  found any Armagnac finished Scotch Whisky, but the Warenghem distillery in Brittany makes an Armorik Breton Single Malt Whisky finished in Armagnac casks, and the American whiskey industry has a number of Armagnac finishes in its armoury.  Here is a link to a very recent piece in The Spirits Business promoting a collaboration between Bardstown Bourbon Company of Kentucky and none other than Armagnac’s Chateau de Laubade: https://www.thespiritsbusiness.com/2020/04/bardstown-bourbon-co-plays-with-armagnac-cask-finishing/

img_1786In my piece about my visit to Laubade (https://winetimeevents.com/2019/11/21/armagnac-chateau-de-laubade/), you will find a tasting note for an Armagnac finished in a rhum agricole cask from Clément, who had finished their rum in Laubade Armagnac casks.  They then returned them to Laubade who reciprocated, using the rhum agricole barrels to finish an Armagnac.  The result was the prunes and pastry notes of Armagnac with a funky grassy herbaceous twang from the rum cask.  I thought this was successful, and it seemed to be to an Armagnac, but with a twist.

I’m hoping it won’t be long before I can taste a Scotch Whisky with an Armagnac cask finish.  Cask maturation is a traditional process for Armagnac, and indeed Cognac, so I can’t see why that can’t happen….

img_2068-1For those who want it the other way round, here’s a link to my piece about Laguille, who made a Scotch whisky finished Armagnac: https://winetimeevents.com/2020/04/17/armagnac-adventures-domaine-de-laguille/

So….back to the JM Rhum Armagnac Cask Finish (they also offer Cognac and Calvados Cask Finishes).  Harvey Nichols stock it: https://www.harveynichols.com/brand/rhum-jm/2023795-armagnac-cask-finish-rum/p2628723/

Based in the north of the Caribbean island of Martinique, JM is the island’s oldest rhum agricole producer, notably surviving the devastating eruption of nearby Mount Pelée in 1902.  JM own their own sugar cane plantations and crop rotate between sugar cane and bananas, which grow well in this relatively high altitude terroir.  The vinasse (or waste water from rum distillation) is used to water the bananas.  It is not therefore hard to appreciate where one of rhum agricole’s typical aromas of bananas is said to come from.

Another point of distinction is that JM pride themselves on milling their sugar cane within one hour of it being cut; you can’t get much fresher than that!  Rhum agricole is made not from molasses, but from sugar cane juice, and speed is of the essence in its processing so that the maximum amount of sugar can be extracted, and fermented into alcohol.

The “brown sugar” signature style of JM emanates in no small part from Nazaire Canatous, who has over 45 years experience as JM’s master distiller and blender, having taken over from his father.

Rhum agricole is, as a category, well known for being more reflective of its terroir than molasses based rums.  Terroir is said to play its part in JM Rhum both in terms of the flavours from the sugar cane itself, and also from the ageing environment – the rum ages on the estate in an exceptionally humid atmosphere which results in bottlings unique to JM.

I was intrigued to try JM’s Armagnac finish not just because of the Armagnac connection, but also because when I was learning about spirits, I would occasionally, on blind tasting, mistake Armagnac for rum!  To excuse myself, I wonder whether there is an affinity between them.

img_2067-1JM’s Armagnac collaborator is Domaine Tariquet, who I visited last November (more about them here: https://winetimeevents.com/2020/02/23/armagnac-adventures-domaine-tariquet/).

This limited release of 470 bottles spent 8 years in bourbon casks before finishing for a few months in Tariquet barrels.

In the glass it is vibrant amber with copper arms.  The nose powerfully speaks of its origins in the form of toffee and spun brown sugar (JM house style), ripe and under ripe bananas with savoury almost fino sherry like bite and earthy straw notes,  (the sugar cane juice), gingernuts, corn, vanilla and smoke (the ex bourbon casks), and hints of sandalwood, prunes and raisins (the Armagnac casks).  Rounded and warming, and yet lively, there is a long finish which evolves through fresh ginger, and smoky notes through to toasted pecans.  Rhum agricole, bourbon and Armagnac in one glass – and so quite a bargain!  It’s bursting with character and rewards spirits explorers with focus, balance, complexity and length.  It demands your attention in the same way as a nail biting episode of Homeland, with its absorbing intensity and twists and turns on the palate.

But is having a fusion of three such unique and characterful spirits necessarily desirable?  Or are we seeing a crossover of spirits threatening to blur and detract from their individuality?

In Rudyard Kipling’s tale The Beginning of the Armadillos, Stickly-Prickly Hedgehog and his friend Slow-and-Solid Tortoise, in the High and Far Off Times along the banks of the Turbid Amazon, adapted to avoid the predatory attentions of Painted Jaguar.  They fused their abilities to curl up into a prickly ball, and to swim, respectively, causing Painted Jaguar much confusion. His mother had advised him how to deal with them, and said, ever so many times, graciously waving her tail: “A Hedgehog is a Hedgehog, and can’t be anything but a Hedgehog, and a Tortoise is a Tortoise, and can never be anything else”.  Poor Painted Jaguar wailed in reply “But it isn’t a Hedgehog, and it isn’t a Tortoise.  It’s a little bit of both, and I don’t know its proper name”.     Mother Jaguar advised her son that “Everything has its proper name.  I should call it “Armadillo” til I found out the real one”.

Similarly, cask finishes fuse spirit characteristics, making them appealing to new consumers.  This is useful for rhum agricole, because cane juice rums are too funky for some, and newcomers expecting them to be rich and smooth like rum from molasses are in for a surprise!  This cask finish range therefore offers a cane juice rum experience with extra roundness and approachability.

At the same time, this cask finish is of high quality with a mindblowing sequence of flavours, perfect for those collecting a range of rums to sip and savour in solitude, or share with discerning companions.  Care has evidently gone into its creation.

But what should we call this curious cask finish creature?   Is it really a rum if the bourbon and Armagnac elements are so intense?  Or is it an Armadillo?

Unlike other rums, Martinique Rhum has its own quality designation along similar lines to the French AOC system for wine, which was sought to protect and reinforce its premium reputation.  Details are available here: https://www.rhum-agricole.net/site/en/index.php?id=aoc

Finishing is not defined or referred to, possibly because use of finishing in rum has been slower to catch on than in other spirit categories.  Also, it took some time for Martinique Rhum to get its own AOC in the first place.  It may be that in time the decree is amended to regulate Martinique Rhum finishing as has happened in Armagnac, with the requirement that cask finishes are called something like “rum-based spirit drink” – i.e. rum Armadillo – taking them outside the AOC.

But I would argue that what we have here is not an Armadillo.  It is rum, with a twist.  Equally, Laubade’s rhum agricole finish Armagnac is Armagnac, with a twist.

I would advocate for the SWA approach instead.  So long as the cask finish retains the traditional taste, colour and aroma characteristics of rhum agricole from Martinique, then it seems appropriate for it to be described as such.  However, I would also advocate that the nature of the finishing casks used are clearly and prominently identified, as JM have done here.  The “indrink” (the original beverage absorbed into the wood) inevitably imparts character to the finished product (after all, that is why these casks are being used).  Identification of the “indrink” is therefore an important piece of information for consumers to know.   So long as consumers are not misled, and can see how the nature of the product might vary from more classic expressions, it seems perfectly proper that cask finishes remain within the AOC.

More importantly, keeping cask finishes within the AOC retains control over them, helping to preserve rhum agricole’s unique character and quality.  This was a key consideration for the SWA, hence their stipulation of the nature of the casks which can, and cannot, be used to finish Scotch Whisky.  Indrink which is likely to dominate or alter the character beyond consumer expectations can therefore be excluded.

Personally, I hope to see more cask finish creations, but with the caveat that producers come together to own them, rather than sideline them.  The crossover trend has potential to debase a spirit’s core traditional character, but if regulatory review is used wisely, the essence of what makes our favourite spirits so admired can be maintained, for the benefit of consumers and producers alike.

Author: Diana Lyalle BA (Oxon) DipWSET

Lawyer turned wine educator and tasting events host based in Wraxall, North Somerset. Wine Specialist for Harvey Nichols Bristol. All opinions expressed are those of Diana Lyalle only. Email: dlyalle@winetimeevents.com Mobile: 07772055928

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s