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A fresh face in the Armagnac category

Raj Bhakta, founder of American whisky distillery WhistlePig, talks about his new Armagnac brand Bhakta Spirits which is focused on bringing modern twists to the historical category

Raj Bhakta Bhakta Spirits

How did you first get involved in the spirits industry? 

It all started when I bought a run-down dairy farm with over 400 acres near my home in Vermont, New England. At the time, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do and had briefly thought about growing the grain and brewing my own beer, though I felt that the craft beer market had peaked, so my thoughts turned to spirits and in particular vodka, though of course, that market was already saturated. 

I got to thinking about one of America’s favorite beverages, whiskey; though from what grain? Although rye had once been quite an everyday and popular whiskey, it had become unfashionable, yet I instinctively felt that it was due a renaissance, so I decided that I was going to make a rye whiskey and put it firmly on the map once more. Over 1200 acres were planted with rye and the WhistlePig story began. 

Why did you decide to move into Armagnac? 

 I have always been fascinated by the little-known category of Armagnac and, in fact, one of my WhistlePig whiskey blends was finished in an Armagnac barrel to much acclaim at the San Francisco Spirits Competition. It was the first time a rye whiskey was aged in Armagnac barrels. So, when I left the company, I always had a thought for Armagnac in the back of my mind. I considered it a shame that such a fabulous and historical spirit could be so ignored in the world of spirits, never really achieving the recognition it deserves. So, whilst on a sabbatical in the French alps with my wife and children, I took a sidestep over to the Armagnac region to learn a little more.

On arrival, I was in awe upon discovering the authenticity of the small-scale family producers and the sheer level of craft production in the region. I then struck gold when I met a family that was selling what was widely regarded as the finest and oldest collection in Armagnac. “The brandy that had survived through the centuries and the man who careened through a life-long love affair of fine spirits had finally come together.”   

How does Armagnac compare to American whiskey, as a spirit category to be working in and as a regulatory framework to deal with? 

Grape and grain are two very different animals. Grape-based spirits are so much more difficult to manage, starting with the fragility of the grape and how much more reliant on climatic conditions they are than grain. Some years the winegrowers may have a wonderful harvest, whilst others can be threatened by frost (like this year possibly) that will damage and sometimes destroy the new buds, not to mention summer hailstorms that can also greatly diminish the harvest. As a result, extreme vigilance is necessary and a lot more care and labour is involved, not just due to the weather but at all times, as growing vines is very much a full-time job. Grain is a relatively easy crop to grow by comparison. 

Of course, American whiskey is an extremely well-known and understood category, which makes our job much easier in terms of bringing the product to the audience, whereas, as I mentioned before, Armagnac is not so well understood except maybe by the trade professionals such as sommeliers, importers and distributors, although even then I find there is still a lot of ignorance and education is vital. 

As Armagnac is an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) product, the rules and regulations for its production are very strict and tightly controlled which can be quite restrictive. For example, any Armagnac that has been finished in a barrel, other than an Armagnac one (even if it is 100 per cent Armagnac) can not be called Armagnac and must therefore call itself brandy. This isn’t such an issue in the USA as brandy is a positive word, unlike in Europe where it has a negative connotation. I understand that it is important to protect the category, though I don’t believe this is a black or white question; I believe that individual cases should be studied and judged ultimately on the finer points. 

I know the regulatory framework of American whiskey off by heart after working in it for so many years, so I obviously find it easier to understand, though at times, the labelling requirements can also be very complex. 

The Bhakta 50 is your flagship Armagnac at Bhakta Spirits – tell us about the liquid and where the inspiration, particularly for the ageing process, came from.

Bhakta 50 is a 100 per cent Armagnac (generally production from the Bas Armagnac and Armagnac Tenarèze area). We have created 38 individual barrels (400-litre Armagnac barrels), each a blend of different vintages. The only thing that is constant here is the age: Bhakta 50, because 50 (52 this year) is the age of the youngest Armagnac in the blend i.e. 1970, whereas 1868 is the oldest Armagnac included (154 years for the oldest in the blend) - the oldest spirits known to mankind!

Each individual blend - created by myself, along with our cellar master (one of the oldest serving in the Armagnac region), my head of operations/production, and our oenologist - is always kept at cask strength, then aged for just a short two-week period in Islay whisky casks. After this time, the Armagnac is then transferred back into an Armagnac barrel that has just been emptied of a young Armagnac, for an additional week, and this refreshes the blend.  We have now perfected this process after much experimentation in the early days. 

Although this process may have raised a few eyebrows, the taste is unlike anything you have known before, as it really gives us the best of two worlds where it retains the lovely fruit and floral notes found in an Armagnac and ‘kisses’ them with a gentle touch of smoky peat. 

When I first visited Armagnac on my recce, I did taste one producer’s experimental foray in finishing Armagnac in a whisky cask and I really enjoyed it, particularly as an expert whisky consumer learning and discovering Armagnac for the first time, so this probably sowed the initial seed in my mind.  

I know the American whiskey market well, though the Americans don’t really know Armagnac. I wanted to share this incredible Armagnac eau-de-vie with the American whisky consumer as I just knew they would fall in love with the rich and bold flavours, though you have to tread slowly and one step at a time - hence the touch of peat that is so familiar to the American audience I know. Draw them in with this and they will discover the Armagnac category. Then, you are in a much better place in order to present them with other Armagnacs, particularly the single vintages that Bhakta Spirits is now launching. 

I know that I have found the world’s best supply of brandy, that I think is the actual ‘pinnacle’ of spirits. This is the essence of the American dream: find something old, beautiful, exquisite… priceless really; bring it to America; and let it realise its full potential. Time is the one thing that money can’t buy. Where else in the world, with what other category or brand, are you going to be able to drink spirits that were distilled in 1870?

As a newcomer to the world of Armagnac, what were your initial impressions of the industry?

It’s not easy to suddenly arrive in a small and humble appellation as an outsider, particularly this American that pitches up and buys a large stock of extremely rare and valuable Armagnac with its chateau and cellar. Although I try and I’m learning, I haven’t quite mastered the language yet, not to mention the cultural differences!  

I love France and I love our historic home in the town of Condom that we as a family try to visit as much as possible, though it hasn’t been so easy with Covid-19, of course. Initially, I found that the Armagnac producers, particularly the negotiant traders, were extremely wary of this stranger in their midst. The producers and negotiants are all very protective (and rightly so), though for the most part I have been welcomed and the more I come, the more I feel that I am accepted. There are always the non-believers in any field, though I’m used to that. The important thing for me is that the consumer is discovering the product and enjoying it.

It’s a foolish man that denies innovation and vision for the future health of a category, particularly a relatively unknown one such as Armagnac. The slightly peaty profile of the Bhakta 50 will introduce the American whisky drinker to the incredible diversity to be found when you explore Armagnac brandy.  New blood is always a positive driver, and I believe that I am breathing new life into the category.

The Bhakta consumer is new to this concept and this category. They are a sophisticated drinker and know what they like, but they are prepared to discover a new product. Our job is to educate and tell the story as it is and as clearly as possible.  

What have been the main benefits and challenges in taking on such a large cellar of existing stock, particularly as someone who hasn’t worked in Armagnac (or, indeed, the French spirits industry) before?

We are a small company, so things take time and it's no mean feat logistically dealing/exchanging between France and the USA, though I am very fortunate to have a good and dedicated team that I can fully rely on in both countries. It couldn’t work without this. 


- A large stock of individual vintages to offer and satisfy our customers demands and also a large stock is essential when wanting to create blends - a bit like a painter with all the colours at his disposition enabling him to create a masterpiece.

-  At the moment, Bhakta is essentially for the US market, though in time (hopefully by the end of 2022) it will be available in other countries and so having a base in Europe will be beneficial.

-  I have created a Stockholder Club with different Armagnac collections (Bhakta 50 collection with two bottles from each barrel and also a series of different vintage collections such as the Victorian Collection) that we offer to clients. Alternative investments such as wine, spirits and fine art are increasingly popular. 


- Understanding the best way to age and store these incredibly old Armagnacs. 

- Logistics of importing and exporting between France and the US, plus the costs and delays involved that have changed a lot since the virus took hold. 

- Understanding the people and the politics on the French side. Lots of bureaucracy and red tape.

Why did you decide to split maturing stock between France and the US?

To be as diverse as possible with the Armagnacs that we can offer our customers – ageing in the US as well as France adds a new dimension (the spirits age differently though not drastically). As well as our centuries-old cellars in France, we have a fabulous facility in the US dedicated to the ageing. Our farm in Vermont is on 800 acres for vines and cereals and there we have a large cellar containing approximately 1,000 (420-450 litre) barrels that have all originated from our French operation. Here, they continue to age slowly (temperatures in Vermont tend to be much colder in the winter, -10°C to -20°C as opposed to the mild climate in Gascony and not quite as hot in the summer as in Armagnac).  We have planted a small vineyard in the US (Franco/American hybrids) and we have also refurbished and imported a traditional continuous Armagnac alembic to the US, so we will be able to distil our own wine there as well. As I write, we are looking at buying another Armagnac alembic to send over to Vermont.

What opportunities do you see for Armagnac in the future? Are there any potential areas for growth or experimentation that you feel you could capitalise on?

With Bhakta Spirits deeply involved in Armagnac now, I firmly believe that the Armagnac category will grow substantially, particularly in the USA. Our innovations will certainly motivate the other players. The question of educating the consumer is key. There is also a new generation of winegrowers now with a wider more dynamic vision, and so I believe we will see quite a lot of experimentation. 

What can we expect next from Bhakta Spirits?

Now, that would be telling! In all seriousness, we are currently concentrating and consolidating all of our efforts into Bhakta 50 and our single vintages. This all takes time and we are dedicated to getting that ‘machine’ in perfect working order before attacking any other projects. However, seeing as you ask, I am going to create a spirits empire and have many plans up my sleeve. Watch this space!

8 July 2022