Bhakta Spirits dominated the Beverage Testing Institute’s recent brandy judging, sweeping all three of the Platinum Medal–Superlative awards and six out of seven top-ranked Gold medals. In total, eight of the top-ranked 14 brandies were from Bhakta.
The Bhakta brandy hails from Armagnac, France’s oldest brandy-producing region. Armagnac’s production is around 2% of Cognac’s production, 4.4 million bottles of Armagnac versus 212.5 million bottles of Cognac.
Armagnac is only distilled once, typically in a mobile column still, while Cognac is distilled twice in a Charentais pot still. The single distillation produces a more robust, flavorful spirit that can be somewhat rustic, while Cognac is typically lighter and more refined.
Roughly half of the production is consumed in France, and the rest is exported. Fortunately, Bhakta Armagnac is available in the US. While sometimes rare at retail, it can be readily found on the company’s website.
BTI reviews and scores, on a hundred-point scale, thousands of beverages each year. This activity makes it more like a conventional wine and spirit competition. The Chicago-based organization, however, plays a dual role in the beverage industry. It also functions as a consultancy that, in its own words, utilizes:
Exceptional methodology, proprietary tools, and decades of experience offer research, development, and marketing services that protect large investments, elevate brand reputations, optimize market reception, and engage consumers.
In the beverage industry, this dual role is unprecedented. BTI’s evaluations and advice are closely followed in the drinks industry by global wine and spirit companies, recently established craft spirit producers, and consumers worldwide.
The top-ranked brandy, scoring 98/100 points, was Bhakta Spirits 1973 Single Vintage Armagnac, 50.3% ABV. Raj Bhakta is a serial spirits entrepreneur who made his reputation in the beverage industry as a co-founder of Whistle Pig.
In 2019, Bhakta acquired the historic Armagnac House of Ryst Duyperon. The acquisition came with a legendary cellar from one of Armagnac’s largest producers. Since then, Bhakta acquired additional Armagnac stocks from other producers, giving the company an almost complete collection of vintages dating back to 1868.
Commenting on the results, Raj Bhakta noted:
We are proud of the many honors and awards we have garnered since the release of our 150-year Single Vintage Armagnac collection just a year ago. This isn’t just a win for BHAKTA — it’s a victory for Armagnac, the brandy category, and all single vintage spirits. It’s also a moment of overdue recognition for our Cellar Master, Bernard Domecq, whose genius for selecting, blending, and aging Armagnac is unparalleled. BHAKTA 1973 was just Bernard’s fourth vintage of a fifty-one-year tenure.
The BTI’s official judging panel described the Armagnac as featuring:
Intensely aromatic with initial inhalations of sweetness like old, crystalized orange blossom honey and vanilla. A second sniff shows layers of spice and rancio like fine Cuban tobacco, Italian leather, mushrooms, and marzipan with lighter fruity notes of mixed red berries and herbaceous, minty notes of Herbs de Provence. These aromas are duplicated on the lush, dry palate, with the notes of dried cherry, fruit cake, and honey becoming more pronounced with a lingering hint of spiced nuts and Cavendish tobacco. A well-integrated Armagnac with complex aromas and flavors. It rightly embodies the luxury spirits category
The Armagnac retails for $399/bottle, an exceptional price for an Armagnac that is approximately 50 years old.
In second place, with 97/100 points, was the Bhakta Spirits 1964 Single Vintage, 50.1% ABV.
The BTI’s official judging panel described the Armagnac as showing:
Restrained, resinous, and woody on the nose at first, but unfurls over hours to become a complex fruited bouquet. Gingerbread, dry maple syrup, chocolate caramels, leatherbound books, dried fig, orange marmalade, plum, and flowers all develop to the nose, with additions of walnut, sassafras tea, licorice, and angelica root on the palate. A well-aged spirit’s rich and complex qualities cannot be faked or taken for granted, even if they sometimes need a little time and air to demonstrate their full glory.
Rounding out the Platinum winners was Bhakta Spirits, 50-Year-Old De Gaulle Barrel No. 29 Islay Cask-Finished Armagnac, 48% ABV.
The bottling is a blend of Armagnacs from 1868, 1888, 1941, 1956, 1962, 1965, 1967, and 1970. The expression is named for the French general and politician Charles de Gaulle, whose military and political career spans many of the vintages in the blend.
The BTI judging panel described the Armagnac as exhibiting:
Islay Scotch-like aroma of betadine, smoldering pipe tobacco, and toasted marshmallow. Secondary aromas reveal leather, ginger, orange zest, and allspice with a faintly fruity pastry element like baked cherries on banana bread pudding. The palate reinforces the savory and fruity elements with notes of chocolate, cigar box, butterscotch, black tea, and smoked bacon. Complex and delicious, with fruit leading the way and mildly smoky and savory elements that linger on forever. This dram has a most interesting story of an expertly crafted cuvee that demands a listen.
Among the other Bhakta Armagnac expressions that scored Gold medals were: Bhakta Spirits, 50 YO Rasputin Barrel No 28, Islay Cask Finished Armagnac, 47.4& ABV, 95/100; Bhakta Spirits 50 YO Emperor Norton Barrel No. 30, Islay Cask Finished Armagnac, 48.2% ABV, 95/100; Bhakta Spirits 1979 Single Vintage Armagnac, 54.9% ABV, 94/100; Bhakta Spirits 50 YO Pickerell Barrel No 26, Islay Whisky Cask Finished Armagnac, 47.7% ABV, 94/100; Bhakta Spirits 1974 Single Vintage Armagnac, 49% ABV, 94/100; Bhakta Spirits 1994 Single Vintage Armagnac, 55% ABV, 94/100; Bhakta Spirits 1984 Single Vintage Armagnac, 50.9% ABV, 93/100 and Bhakta Spirits 50 YO Jackie Barrel No. 27 Islay Cask-Finished Armagnac, 47.3% ABV, 93/100.
The top-ranked Cognac was Abecassis 1er Cru, VSOP Cognac, Grande Champagne, 40% ABV, 94/100. Also winning Gold medals were: Merlet VSOP Cognac, Camus XO Cognac, Ferrand Selection des Anges Cognac; Martell Blue Swift VSOP Cognac; Martingale Single Estate Cognac; Courvoisier XO Cognac, Courvoisier 30 YO Royal Cognac; Abecassis 1er Cru VS Cognac, Grande Champagne; Ferrand 1840 VS Cognac; Reviseur Single Estate Platinum XO Cognac, Petite Champagne and Courvoisier VS Cognac.
The top-ranked Spanish brandy were both from Cardinal Mendoza. Cardinal Mendoza Solera Gran Reserva Brandy, 40% ABV, 94/100, and Cardinal Mendoza, Nebulis Unusually Smoky Cask-Finished Brandy, 40% ABV, 93/100. Both Mendoza brandies retail for under $50. They represent an exceptional value not only among Spanish brandies but also in general.
The top-ranked American brandy was Brandy Lab Aged Brandy, 40% ABV, 93/100. At a recommended retail selling price of $34/bottle, this blend of 5 YO and 10 YO brandies from California’s Central Valley is among the best-value American brandies available.
There is much to explore among BTI’s top-ranked brandy medalists. See the Beverage Testing Institute website for a complete listing of all the medalists.