On February 4, 1945 (almost exactly three months before VE Day), Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin convened in Ukraine’s Livadia Palace to, for all intents and purposes, divvy up soon-to-be post-war Europe. In addition to being a monumental moment in world history, the Yalta Conference was also a bacchanalia where three of the most powerful heads of state in history went on a weeklong bender. True to form, the festivities were presided over by none other than British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Of course, by 1945 Churchill’s inclination for a stiff drink was of no surprise to anyone – Lord Richard Butler, a contemporary of Churchill, wrote that on several occasions dinners with the prime minister were “followed by libations of brandy so ample that I felt it prudent on more than one occasion to tip the liquid into the side of my shoe.” Churchill’s drinking was of such note during the conference that Alexander Cadigan, an aide to Churchill, was quoted as saying that the prime minister was “…drinking buckets of Caucasian champagne which would undermine the health of any normal man.” The same report also indicates that Churchill brought 500 cigars to a weeklong conference. In short, this was not a man who lived mildly.
At the beginning of the Yalta Conference it was clear, based on Stalin’s decision to serve 10-year-old Armenian Dvin brandy, that Churchill’s predilections for booze (especially brandy) had preceded him. Though no record of Churchill’s first sip of Dvin brandy exists, the well-worn palette of the PM surely broke apart the brandy’s complexity, starting with initial nuances of deep mahogany, followed by a subtle aroma of cloves, layered notes of dried fruit, and finished with bright tinges of spice derived from forest nuts. Unconfirmed accounts after Yalta indicate that Churchill developed such a taste for the elixir distilled by the Yerevan Brandy Company that Stalin shipped the PM 400 bottles a year after WWII. Understandably, Armenians are very proud of this story, but little exists to suggest that it’s anything more than folklore.
However, that is not to say that Armenian brandy is not worthy of such accolades. First distilled in Armenian in 1878 by Nerses Tairion, Armenian brandy follows a distillation process similar to that of Cognac’s Méthode Charentaise – double pot distillation followed by at least three years in Caucasian oak casks. Additionally, Armenian brandy is also graded as Very Superior (VS); Very Superior Old Pale (VSOP); and Extra Old (XO). In terms of aging requirements, Armenian brandy has a minimum three-ageing process, whereas French cognac has an industry average of four to five years. Although relatively similar in terms of its distillation, Armenian brandy comes in “hotter” than its French cousin. The brandy served at Yalta, Dvinis 100 proof (50%), 10% more alcoholic than French cognac.
The question remains: how much did Churchill actually enjoy the brandy Stalin served at a meeting fated to partition post-war Europe? For people of Armenian heritage, such as your author, the answer is disappointing. Though it is true that Churchill developed a taste for Armenian brandy during his time in Crimea, the lack of any kind of historical record makes it highly unlikely that Churchill ordered or received 400 bottles of Armenian Dvin brandy per year. In fact, archival records suggest that not one bottle of brandy was ever sent by Stalin to Churchill. Moreover, even if Churchill did secretly acquire Armenian brandy through backchannels, it was by no means his favorite. Actual historical accounts point to the fact that the Prime Minister enjoyed a range of different high quality brandies, such as l’Hertier de Jean Fremicourt and Prunier. Interestingly, the brandy served most often at Chartwell, Churchill’s estate, was the humble Hine VS, produced by Thomas Hine & Co., which today retails for around $50 a bottle.
Regardless of the overwrought folklore attached to Armenian brandy, it remains the country’s second-largest export, after the significantly less drinkable copper concentrate. Moreover, Armenian brandy remains at the center of European unification. In 2013, Armenia’s government lobbied the European Union to allow it to continue marketing its brandy as “cognac,” the name used to sell the product in many parts of the former Soviet bloc. Unfortunately for Armenia, the European delegation stated that “cognac” could only be used for brandies that came from the French region of Cognac – no surprise there.
Did Armenian brandy oil the wheels at the Yalta Conference? Quite possibly. It certainly made “the Riviera of Hades (as Churchill called it)” more tolerable. Did Churchill become so infatuated with Dvin’s taste (and high proof) that he ordered enormous quantities of it soon thereafter? Most likely not. However, if you want to experience a little bit of European history and a deep sense of bonhomie, order a glass of Armenian brandy the next time you’re out. With glass in hand, take a seat, close your eyes, take a sip, and imagine you’re sitting at a Crimean bargaining table with a four-term U.S. president, a high-functioning alcoholic, and a maniacal dictator. You’re one step closer to solving the world’s greatest diplomatic problems.
Ruben Gzirian is a pursuer of fine whiskeys, with Michter’s US*1 American Whiskey currently his favorite. He holds an MA from the Monterey Institute of International Studies and enjoys reading World War II history, with a focus on the Eastern Front.
Photo credit: Veni Markovski