Page last updated at 12:51 GMT, Thursday, 7 July 2011 13:51 UK

The sustaining power of Armenia's historic brandy

By Alex Renton

Life is tough for many people in Armenia but the economy is kept afloat by the country's cognac, reputed to have been a favourite of Britain's wartime leader, Winston Churchill.

Barrels in the brandy factory
Churchill claimed he had drunk enough brandy to fill three rail carriages

A vast, red stone fortress looms over Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

It could be a palace, it could be a prison but it is, in fact, the headquarters and the distillery of the Yerevan Brandy Company.

Among the vast stills and the old oak casks - all faithfully copied from French cognac makers back in 1887 - are a few bottles of a strong and specially aged brandy named Ararat Dvin.

This may just possibly be the liquor that oiled the partition of Europe at the end of World War II.

Yerevan... is eager for new markets - hence the need to pin down the Churchill connection

Like many people, Armenians have a favourite Winston Churchill quotation. Asked the secret of his long life, they tell you that the great man replied: "Cuban cigars, Armenian brandy and no sport!"

The quote sadly appears nowhere that I can find in any Churchill biography or archive.

But it is certainly true that he liked brandy - a lot. By his own estimate, he had by 1945 - aged 71 - drunk enough to fill three railway carriages.

It is also true that, during the war, Joseph Stalin shipped him several dozen cases of Armenian cognac made by the Yerevan company.

'Buckets of champagne'

And it is certain that a lot of alcohol was drunk at the 1945 Yalta conference, where Stalin, Churchill and President Roosevelt met to haggle over the carving up of east and central Europe, as the end of fighting loomed.

Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at Yalta in 1945
Armenian brandy oiled the wheels at the Yalta Conference

One of Churchill's aides at Yalta wrote about the prime minister "drinking buckets of Caucasian champagne which would undermine the health of any ordinary man".

Touring the factory, Armine Ghazarian told me that the company had testimony from an Armenian spy who was at Yalta helping organise the conference. He informed us that Dvin brandy was officially served during the day.

But that crucial source died last year.

This is all more significant than you might imagine.

Brandy is the country's most important manufactured export and Armenia these days is finding it very hard to hold its head up economically.

And so Yerevan (now owned by the French company Pernod-Ricard) is eager for new markets. Hence the need to pin down the Churchill connection.

White blanket

In the Armenian mountains, we went to visit the farmers who provide the raw material for the country's wine and spirit industry.

There was shocking hardship. I met families living on foraged greens they found under the spring snow, whose children had never seen a doctor. Some had only eaten meat once in the last six months.

So severe are the problems that Oxfam has a programme there of the sort you would see in poorer parts of Africa. The aid agency gives families cows and sheep to improve their nutrition and help them get an income.

Map showing Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran

There is a perfect storm of factors that have brought these parts of Armenia to poverty levels comparable with the world's least developed countries.

Geography does not help. Armenia is a cul-de-sac of a country, which does not trade with two of its richer neighbours - Turkey and Azerbaijan - because of historic disputes.

And Armenia must import much of its staple foods. The price of those is rising frighteningly - up 14% last year. Wheat flour alone costs double what it did three years ago.

And then there is the weather.

Climatic change has hit hard, with hotter summers, more violent rainfall and dryer, colder winters.

I have never seen that so dramatically illustrated as in the mountains of Vayots Dzor, near Armenia's border with Iran.

Woman digging for roots in Armenia

On our second morning there, we woke to a fresh snowfall. It covered the blossom of the apple and apricot trees with a fatal, white blanket.

"Our new-born child is under the frost," farmer Angela Babayan said to me, as she tried to beat the snow from the trees with a broomstick.

She had never seen such a frost so late until last year. And then the Babayans lost the entire apricot crop, one of the few things on the smallholding other than grapes that can be sold for cash.

The vines, though, were undamaged. So brandy means hope to the Babayans and thousands of other families in Armenia's harsh mountains.

Dvin, Churchill's brand, is rarely made now, but I eventually tracked some down in a tourist shop in central Yerevan.

It was $100 (£60) a bottle but I had to try it.

In the glass, it was a lovely, caramelly brown - much darker than cognac.

On the nose - as they say - it was rich and spicy, the first sip an instant shock to the throat and then the brain.

Dvin is 50 degrees proof, 10 more than most French cognac.

But it was good. It made you glow.

After a glass, a deep sense of bonhomie settled in. After another, you felt you could certainly tackle a big, Cuban cigar. But no sport.

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