'I am the marketing director here,' says a man with a heavy tongue who uses his car keys to pick the wax out of his ears. The sun is streaming over the grounds of the Yerevan brandy, wine and vodka factory, the man squints in its rays and looks happy. Whoever works here must simply just be happy. But the 300 employees of Yerevan's Ararat factory are ruled by a heavy hand - literally.
Meet Gagik Tsarukyan
1996 was the year Gagik Tsarukyan really showed how strong he was with his world championship title in arm-wrestling. Two years later he was crowned with the European title, and after that became a member of parliament, a member of the national security and defence ministry and chairman of the national olympic committee. Gagik Tsarukyan has a giant upper body, a show of mass and craft. He's an Armenian hulk sporting crocodile shoes. Maybe he hunted the original material down himself. But it's just a fantasy, since he never turns up. It's Sunday in Yerevan and a busy quiet reigns in the factory. There's no Gagik Tsarukyan today; no handshake with the man whose 'Multi Group Concern' business empire spreads from Yerevan chemical pharmaceuticals to a cement factory, or who holds the best attendance record at the Armenian parliament, or whose private zoos contain bears, tigers and lions or even who, in 2003, was suspected of being a part of a bomb attack on a journalist.
Tasting the brandy
'Shake the glass first a little,' explains Mara Gevorgjan. 'Arch it a little and count how many drops fall – that helps you guess the age of the brandy,' she adds. Brandy is drunk at room temperature and is served without ice, olives and lemon. You sip it with fruit, chocolate, coffee and a cigar. She doesn't have the latter on her, so she fills the time with an anecdote instead. Allegedly, Stalin negotiated with Churchill over the-then soviet brandy at the conference of Yalta, with the latter going on to order a barrel of it a month afterwards. Gevorgjan has probably told the rest of the story one hundred times. When Churchill one day complained that it tasted bad, it emerged that the technical director Markar Sedrakjan was tarrying in Siberia at the time, though not at his own will. 'Stalin reacted quick as a shot, freed Sedrakjan and gave him back his party membership – and Churchill could go on drinking from his brandy flash every day.'
The tradition of Armenian brandy goes back to the second half of the nineteenth century when the merchant Nerses Tairyan acquired the land of a Persian fortress which had been destroyed in an earthquake. In 1877 he started the industrial production of wine and then cognac ten years later. In 1898 he rented the factory to Russian spirits company Schustow and Sons. After a year they bought it for 50, 000 roubles. The legend grew from there.
Opened in 2004, second in the country
After the collapse of the soviet union and the catastrophic nineties, which saw a war on the land with Azerbaijan (ending in 1994), closed borders to Turkey and a poverty-stricken nation, the brandy factory was in a bad state. Tsarukyan got it back on its feet by renovating the buildings and having a museum constructed. The official opening in November 2004 saw him grinning over the wager with the second president of Armenia, Robert Kotscharyan. It probably doesn't bother Tsarukyan that his brandy business is second in the country behind Yerevan Brandy Company, which produces five times as much brandy. It is a successor of the Schustow company and has been run by the French company Pernod Ricard since 1998. In any case, the 54-year-old married father-of-six makes 150 million dollars in revenue per year with his multi group and is one of the top five entrepeneurs in the country.
The 54-year-old married father-of-six makes 150 million dollars in revenue per year
The factory visit is drawing to an end. The self-appointed marketing director is nowhere more to be seen. Thoughts laden with brandy sweep into the distance to hang over Mount Ararat, which is screwed onto the horizon about 5, 000 metres up in the sky. Suddenly a famous quote from Maxim Gorky pops into your mind: 'It is easier to climb up Mount Ararat than to go out from the wine cellars of Ararat,' raved the Russian author. Anyone who has been here once knows what he was talking about.