Getting to Know Armenia

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Thanks to the Kardashians, hundreds of millions of people all over the world are well aware of the large Armenian presence in Los Angeles. But in the few weeks I’ve lived here I’ve learned quite a bit more, beyond the local hotspots where Khloe and Kourtney like to have lunch in Sherman Oaks, and into the traditions of the culture itself. I’ve been hanging out in the city of Glendale as of late, where it’s estimated that 40% of the population is Armenian (that means a good 80,000 people or so); hence, there are tons of Armenian grocery stores, Armenian bakeries, and Armenian liquor stores chalk-full of Armenian spirits. As someone who’s always looking for the next boozy adventure, I’ve been rather overwhelmed by the variety of brandies I see when I’m making my rounds. Having worked with Ararat in my former retail days, I’ve always been aware that a strong brandy tradition existed in Armenia, but I had no idea how deep the rabbit hole went.

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Ararat brandy—the most popular Armenian brand—is named after Mount Ararat, the gigantic volcano on the Turkish-Armenian border that extends nearly 17,000 feet above sea level. I never really gave much more thought to Armenia’s majestic mountains beyond the stencil that appears on the Ararat label, but one thing I’ve learned just recently is that these snowcapped peaks are more renowned for another important liquid: water. Water in Armenia has become big business over the last fifteen years or so, having doubled in production since 2004.

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One of my Armenian customers this week schooled me on the merit of Armenian mineral water, some of the purest in the world, and an industry that has grown to over 60 million liters a year in sales (most of which is exported to Russia). I was so fascinated by the conversation that I rushed over to the nearest market to purchase some of this delicious water for myself. I ended up with a case of Sipan, a brand from the mountain spa region of Jermuk and, I can honestly report, that it’s some of the cleanest, most refreshing water I’ve ever drunk. My wife concurred. “Where the hell did you get this?” she asked me last night after we popped our first bottle. “And when you can get more?” she added. The fact that Armenia has amazingly pure water is apparently no secret to millions of people all over the planet. I, however, didn’t know any of this until Monday.

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That leads me back to Armenian spirits. As we vodka drinkers know, the reduction water plays a big role in the ultimate quality, flavor, and texture of any vodka. Since Armenian water has been my big new discovery this week, one of my buddies turned me on to Godfather vodka: a Russian wheat-distilled spirit, diluted and bottled in Armenia with mountain water from the Armenian highlands. I’ve been sipping on it all night while typing this, savoring the same clean and refreshing finish I’ve been enjoying in my Sipan mineral water. “You drink this all night, no mixers, and you’ll wake up with no hangover,” my friend added. One thing I love about LA is that people still talk about alcohol in terms of feel, rather than flavor. Drinking is still a practical activity here. I sold a restaurant owner seven cases of Tequila last week solely by comparing the potential hangovers between mixtos and pure agave expressions. If your customers feel like shit the next day, they won’t come back for more happy hour.

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My favorite part of my job right now is the fact that I can bring home each day’s discoveries to enjoy with my wife; like all the delectable goods from the Armenian bakeries, stuffed with potatoes and meats, and topped with all sorts of flavorful garnishes. Glendale alone is a giant community full of all sorts of treasures that I’m still uncovering. Armenia is bordered by Georgia to the north, Turkey to the west, and Iran to the south, so it has Russian, Mediterranean, and Persian influences in its food and drinking cultures, which I find rather fascinating.

Never once up north did I come across a complete aisle of spirits, packed entirely with dozens of 10 - 50 year old Armenian brandies, numerous arak options, and various unaged fruit distillates. Yet, here it’s an everyday occurrence.

-David Driscoll