The Sins of 700

by Matthew Bedard

Louis-Marie de Castelbajac Launches a French Armagnac for the Luxuriant Brandy Tipper
Oh, the shame. circled around the fanning pools of a 2,000-year-old roman aqueduct, four local ladies veil, with kerchiefs, their shame in the face of God. These ladies, seeking whatever hedonism might be gleaned from this, the Gers, la Toscane Française (“French Tuscany”), as it’s often referred, have just wholly devoured a wee, roasted Ortolan bird in a centuries old rite of culinary passage, now illegal. The bird was drowned, its lungs swelling with the distinctly divine Armagnac brandy, and then put to the fire. When the Ortolan is consumed, the pretty teeth of these eager, beautiful escapists puncture its lungs, the Armagnac bursting free. It’s cruel, yes, and very delicious.

The Armagnac spilling from the Ortolan is called 700, in honor of the seven centuries the French brandy has existed. For three years, artist, entrepreneur, and the Gers resident, Count Louis-Marie de Castelbajac, has been working with the most reputable distilleries in the region for his Armagnac’s presentation to the top shelf global spirit market. 700 launches this fall in Paris, where de Castelbajac divides his time.

The 700 experience is incomparably French, and therefore, exceptionally distinct, assured, and, of course, carried out with éclat. A glass noses pepper and vanilla, and sings of woody robustness, caramel, and aged citrus. It’s smooth and complex. Spiritually, the liquor carries sentiments of sun-soaked feasts of foie gras and grape must-driven moutarde de Gascogne, specialties of the region. It also contains memoirs of the fecund soil of Southwestern France; the labored battles with the Moors, with the pesky English; chilly afternoons spent fireside in a library of leatherbound classics; and an understanding that your father often knows more than you. “I feel Armagnac resembles what in today’s world is kind of fading away,” de Castelbajac shares over a quick picnic of cured olives, Beaufort, and a bottle of Gascogne on Paris’ Pont des Arts Bridge, where those truly deserving of summer have congregated. “In a big consumption world it embodies a tradition and a region that truly feels timeless, truly unpolluted by society—where really beautiful men and women, some of whom have never even been to Paris, wake up everyday and tend to their vines, and get their hands dirty.”

Not only did de Castelbajac seek the finest Armagnac distilleries in the region, he created a bottle that harmonizes perfectly with the brandy’s essence. De Castelbajac toiled over the design with a specialist, which features hand-blown numerals inverted up into the copper-colored liquid, akin to wavy coral on an ocean floor. De Castelbajac hints at artist collaborations to rework the bottle down the road, but, as is, the bottle is a radical departure from Armagnac’s often-dull housing. “My approach has really been to adapt 700 to today’s desire for originality, to make it young again,” de Castelbajac says, “because in France, it’s very much an alcohol which has been savored by the elders—and the new generation doesn’t even know anything about Armagnac. I worked to create a unique flavor with the right elements. Some of these producers you’ll find in the most desolate areas and those can be the best ones. So it can be a big process—not a painful process, because, you know, there’s a lot of drinking involved, a lot of tastings and getting to know the experts who are like the noses for perfume—but a lot of travel, patience for the systems of agriculture in France, a lot of trial and error.”

Patience is a virtuous trait in France, more so than any other country. The French are patient (lunches are often gastronomic marathons, complete with heavily poured wine), but they also demand patience in return. “France has been seen as a beacon of know-how for certain things,” de Castelbajac responds to the suggestion that the world perhaps needed to wait 700 years to truly learn of Armagnac. “I think that know-how is very important to a certain point, but sometimes I think French products don’t retain their identity. Or they don’t look at a contemporary way to communicate to the consumer. And so I think, especially this one, it’s been in the countryside for 700 years now, because it’s been developed for 700 years. You always have fashion and certain things, which are the pinnacle of France to the outer world, but perhaps it’s now time for Armagnac’s glory—its savoir-faire you could say.”

The savoir-faire of agricultural production, and particularly products designated AOC (Appellation D'origine Controlee—France’s strict provenance-control bureau), is arguably not all lovey-dovey, though. “That products and land are protected is great,” de Castelbajac says, as the sun sets over the Seine, “but sometimes it is hard to bring a contemporary idea into that environment because you work with so many unions and so forth, and it’s intensive to take a new project through. Or perhaps there can be a sense that such an endeavor might put them at risk, and in the end they could appear ostentatious.”

Risks, at present, are of a different variety. For we’re awfully far from the Gers. A trio of Parisian girls has just arrived onto the bridge, a bottle of rosé in tow, and a chic detachment on their faces—as opposed to kerchiefs. Still, they somehow appear equally eager as the ladies down south for a bit of spice. It’s suggested to de Castelbajac that they be invited for a clandestine Ortolan session with the 700. He shakes his head and laughs. “That ceremony is pretty barbaric, man, but what I like about it is the ceremony aspect. That’s life to me,” he says, “the universal thread of existing—loving, laughing, having dinner with friends, having adventures. And cheesy as it sounds, it’s important to ask, ‘Why is this a beautiful thing, or why is this a beautiful art piece, or what is the complexity in this?’ A lot of people tend to skim through that, but if you really sit down and want to appreciate something, it’s the company you’re in and how you’re enjoying it that makes the difference.” At that, the Ortolan idea is shelved, the 700 is cracked, the ladies are lured to our company, night dizzily melts into dawn, and shame before God? We’ll leave it to the birds.

Photography: Louis Canadas at LouisCanadas.fr.

Models: Morgane and Virginie for VIPModels.fr.