I’d never talk anyone out of a Scottish whisky tour. It’s a lot of fun going to the distilleries, sampling and learning as you go, but it doesn’t carry quite the same romance or general accessibility as wine tasting. Whether you’re driving through Napa, or moving from château to château in Bordeaux, there’s a synergy of nature, architecture, and beauty that accompanies all the (educational) drinking in wine country, something that’s missing from my distillery trips. I’d go as far as to say you don’t really even need to enjoy wine to enjoy wine tasting, as there are so many other aspects that make the experience worthwhile. Visiting a whiskey distillery requires a certain level of interest and commitment as a distillery tour is designed to explain how the product is made. Wineries, on the other hand, specialize more in hospitality and a party atmosphere. Wine tasting is also more about the region, not any one individual producer, which is why Gascony is—in my humble opinion—one of the best places to taste spirits in the world. You get all the charm of the wine tasting regionality—the food, the scenery, the landscapes, the petit paysan romance—with endless amounts of mature, oak barrel-aged booze. It’s the best of both worlds.
The hard part about tasting brandy in Armagnac is that it’s not set up for tourists. When I explain it people who are interested in visiting, I always stress two key points:
1) You have to speak French. If you can’t, start learning now. If you can’t carry a conversation, or you aren’t traveling with someone who can, don’t go.
2) If you try something, you have to buy something.
Whereas Napa is fully prepared for drunken tourists, Armagnac producers in Gascony are generally farmers who also happen to do some distilling. That means if you knock on their door and ask to taste some of their brandy, you’re taking them away from something else important, and indicating that you’re interested in purchasing a bottle or two. You wouldn’t ring a farmer’s doorbell in California, ask to sample some of their produce, eat a bunch of fruits and vegetables for free, and then drive away without buying any, right? There are a few scattered producers who are large enough to have full-time tasting bars with dedicated staff members, but they’re not worth traveling thousands of miles to visit. To see truly see Gascony, you need to start with a French dictionary, not a guide book.
Once you’ve introduced yourself, explained your intentions, and put any social awkwardness at ease, you’ll find that the people in Armagnac are some of nicest and most generous folk on the planet. The more congenial you are in return, and the more you show your appreciation for their hospitality, the more likely you’ll be invited into the chai to sample the family heirlooms. Everything is about respect. Be courteous, be polite, and buy a bottle, then see where that goes. Interpersonal relationships and dialogue are key. Most of the time there are no websites or social media accounts to initiate these appointments. You have to rely entirely on pre-internet skills (which is why I enjoy it so much). On any given trip, about 75% of the visits I make are to private homes, not distillation facilities. Thus, the conversations tend to be more about life and family than business. If you’re not ready to talk, it can get awkward—fast.
If you really hit it off with a producer, he or she may invite you into their home for a few snacks (some pâté or terrine on toast), a glass of wine or coffee, and a look at the still. Most people are surprised to learn that the majority of Armagnac producers don’t actually own their own distillation equipment, so when you visit there’s not really much to do other than talk and taste. Much of the distillation in Gascony is done by a traveling still man, meaning the farmers spend most of their time tending to their vineyards and the cellars, outsourcing the actual distillation to a third-party who likely services the entire region. He’ll generally put the still on cart or a tractor bed and drive it from home to home, making appointments with each farmer as soon as the wine is pressed and ready. Thus, there’s not much to tour other than the barrel room and the house itself. Would you be uncomfortable letting a random stranger into your house? If so, keep that in the back of your mind when you knock on the door.
If you’re interested in more than just booze, the joys of Gascony are plentiful and more than worth seeking out. You’ve got the rustic homes, the small villages, the rolling country hills, and—of course—the French culture. Wine tasting in Napa or Bordeaux is fun, but the moment you leave the tasting bar is the same moment the employee there forgets your name and your face. You’re simply one of hundreds of people they’ll pour for that day. Whereas in Armagnac you’re likely the only person they’ll see that week, and the fact that you’re a foreigner and have come all that way to visit will mean something. Gascony is not just a place where you can drink 40 - 70 year old brandies for the price of a San Francisco gin and tonic. It’s a place where you can establish a true connection and lasting bond with a region, its people, and its beverage, so long as you treat it with the proper respect. Be kind and humble, and you’ll likely make a friend for life.
The effort required to visit Gascony is indeed greater, but so are the rewards.