Stalin and the Soviet Union brought Armenian brandy to the masses—and with it, a complicated legacy that’s been hard to shake ever since.
When you take the number 201 bus into Yerevan from Zvartnots International Airport, the first sign that you’re nearing the city is a hilltop citadel looming on the horizon with soaring arches, wrap-around stone walls, and landscaped lawns that slope gently down to the banks of the Hrazdan River—Armenia’s House of Parliament, you might think, or the prime minister’s residence. But this grand, iconic building welcoming visitors from near and far is, in fact, a brandy factory.
To most Westerners, Cognac and brandy conjure up images of French châteaux and European aristocrats, but ask anyone raised in the Soviet Union what country springs to mind when it comes to great brandy, and the answer is likely to be Armenia. Even today, for many Eastern Europeans and vast swaths of Central Asia, Armenian brandy remains the gold standard. So why do most Americans know so little about it?
Armenia is legendary for its open-armed hospitality to foreigners—a local proverb states that every guest is a gift from god. So as a travel writer on the Caucasus beat, whenever I dined with Armenians, the bottle of kanyak (“Cognac” to locals) almost always came out at the end of the meal. Confession time: Until last summer, I turned my nose up at the stuff. You see, traveling around ex-Eastern Bloc countries, you learn quickly that European-esque commodities, from waxy Russian chocolate to ersatz Georgian “Champagne,” are seldom any good. One hundred-proof booze made in a Soviet-era factory? That sounded downright hazardous—a surefire night-ruiner if not a Molotov cocktail to the innards.