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Legendary Armenian Brandy

The History of Armenian Brandy

Armenians have kept the record of their brandy since the times of Noah, when the biblical patriarch planted the first vineyard at the foothills of Mount Ararat. The memory about the forefather of the blessed drink is still alive. Back in the pagan times there was a tradition here of preparing tincture of a thousand herbs – meron (chrism). Even today children are consecrated with meron before christening. One of the wine-makers named Parkev living at the Armenian King Tirdates’ court (I c. A.D.) learned to distil spirit from this tincture. In 66 A.D., Tirdates left for Rome to the Roman Emperor Nero with a great retinue and luxurious gifts, including chrism. As evidenced by the Roman historians Tacitus, Swetonius and Plinius, tasting meron and rejoicing the consonance of the drink’s name with his own, Nero started charioting on the amphitheatre and headed the feast himself – a rare thing to happen. During the following couple of days he gave the Armenians so much gold, that it easily compensated their travel and gift expenses.

The modern history of Armenian brandy started in 1887, when the first guild merchant Nikolai Tairov (Tairian) built the first brandy factory in the Russian Empire in the place of the ancient Erivan fortress. The new production lasted until 1899. Nikolai Tairov was unable to settle marketing issues and sold the business to the Russian manufacturer Nikolai Shustov. “Shustov and Sons Company” reconstructed and re-equipped the factory with state-of-the-art technology, purchased distillers, built a new shop for spirit rectification and placed oak barrels in the basement for ageing. Shustov immediately started marketing his product. Posters with his logotype – a copper bell and the inscription “Shustov Brandy” – decorated shipboards and dirigibles. The advertising campaign was a success: Shustov’s products secured their place on the Russian market. History holds back whether Shustov was indeed so confident about his brandy or relied on chance when sending bottles of his “brainchild” to a Paris exhibition in 1900. It was a blind tasting and, as if in a fairy tale, the sophisticated French tasters tried the unknown drink and declared it the best awarding it the Grand Prix. The manufacturer’s name caused a lot of sensation: the renowned wine-makers could hardly bear with the foreign production of the originally French brand. As a sign of their respect for quality they allowed Shustov to write “cognac” on his bottles instead of “brandy” – it was customary to call cognac all alcoholic drinks made from grapes, not just those produced in the Cognac province.

However, the best recognition for the Armenian production came in 1913 when “Shustov and Sons Company” was honored by becoming the supplier of the Emperor’s court. Only 30 lucky entrepreneurs – both local and international – had similar title. To obtain it, they had to participate in all provincial exhibitions and get not a single reprimand for quality for at least 8 years.

After 1917 revolution Shustov’s business was nationalized. His name got lost among thousands of other names and destinies forgotten during 1920’s. Nevertheless, one mention of the Russian manufacturer’s name survived: it was in 1945 when a special 50 degree cognac “Dvin” was produced in Armenia for the Yalta Conference. Sir Winston Churchill asked J. Stalin for a batch of cognac. With a thoughtful look, Stalin answered: “The Soviet Union has full supply of Armenian cognac, so it may as well be sold”. Since then the periodic delivery of “Dvin” to the British Prime Minister had been controlled by the “Father of Nations” personally. In his written requests for subsequent batches Churchill persistently called the cognac by Shustov’s name, while the Russian side patiently corrected: “former Shustov’s cognac”. The legal delivery to England continued until the beginning of the cold war. Afterwards, the Russians refused to supply Churchill with that dainty. However, Churchill’s passion for cognac turned out to be stronger than his political ambitions. Only God knows how he continued receiving his favorite drink. And when aged Churchill was asked about the secret of his longevity, he answered without hesitation: “Never be late for dinner, smoke Hawaiian cigars and drink Armenian cognac!”