Armenia is a small country in the south Caucasus nestled in between the Anatolian Peninsula and the Caspian Sea. Along with its northern neighbor, Georgia, the region is believed to be the birth place of wine. Although it is likely that the different families of grape varieties had multiple independent centers of origin, the oldest historical evidence of winemaking, going back some 6,000 years, is found in this region.
The region was conquered by Russia during the 19th century, and the historic region of Armenia was divided between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. The country enjoyed a brief independent existence from 1917 through 1920, before it was eventually incorporated into the USSR as the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. Armenia declared its sovereignty and became an independent republic in 1991.
According to local legend, Armenians have been distilling wine into brandy since the 12th century. There is little definitive evidence of this. There is some evidence of alcohol distillation occurring in what is now Lebanon and Iran during this period, so it is conceivable that the knowledge of distillation also made it to Armenia at that time. If true, then the production of brandy in Armenia predated alcohol distillation in Spain and France by several centuries.
During the late 19th century a thriving brandy industry developed in Armenia. Taking advantage of the popularity of Cognac in Russia; a consequence of the anti-German, Franco-Russian alliance that preceded World War I, Armenian Brandy was also labeled Kanyak, the Armenian spelling for Cognac. A practice that continues in Armenia, Russia and some of the other former Soviet republics.
For a brief time, one Armenian producer, Nikolay Shustov, did have the right to label his brandy as Cognac. Shustov was the official supplier of Armenian brandy to the court of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II. His company, Shustov & Sons, eventually became the Yerevan Brandy Company, Armenia’s largest brandy producer.
At the 1900 Universal Expo of Paris, Shustov & Sons’ brandy, was selected as the best brandy in a blind judging, beating out stiff competition from Cognac’s leading producer and earning the reward to legally call their product Cognac. That right, however, was revoked after the end of WW II. The Armenian government unsuccessfully lobbied the EU for permission to use the term Kanyak on its brandy in 2013.