Don’t Call This Delicious Moldovan Spirit ‘Cognac’
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it tastes familiar for a reason.
As you uncork the bottle of this Moldovan spirit and take a whiff, you’ll catch a sweet yet slightly bitter aroma you might recognize. Pour yourself a glass and observe the drink’s soft amber hue, taking note of its syrup-like viscosity as it clings to the sides. That might seem familiar too. Now have a sip and let the mellow liquid impart its sugary sting on your tongue. As it pleasantly sizzles the back of your throat, that’s when it’ll hit you: cognac!
Not so fast. Since the French region of Charente keeps a strict lockdown on that term — which is reserved exclusively for the booze produced in or around the town of the same name — Moldova had to take a different approach after becoming an independent country in the early 1990s. So these days, this brandy is called divin — and it’s a tasty local treasure that’s prized by alcohol enthusiasts in the provincial country of 3 million people.
A blend of fruity and slightly floral flavors is sharply accented by the pungency of old oak.
In addition to wine, brandy has been produced for decades in the rolling hills and bucolic plains of this ex-Soviet republic nestled between Romania and Ukraine. Divin gained notoriety across the former communist empire under the generic name “cognac,” mostly because it’s produced the same way as its celebrated French counterpart: by distilling grape-based alcohol twice, then aging it for several years in oak barrels.
Moldova devised the term divin (a portmanteau of distilat de vin, or “distilled wine”) not only to remain aboveboard but also to establish a brand of it own. The government even registered the name as an official trademark shortly after its coinage in the mid-1990s. But competing with cognac, a world-renowned product with centuries of history, obviously isn’t easy — especially for a relatively young and impoverished country like Moldova, which is still struggling after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For starters, says Sergei Babiy, director of Barza Alba, one of the country’s largest divin makers, located in Balti, local producers need to better organize themselves to collectively advocate for their industry. Today, their product is exported mostly to nearby and former Soviet states.
Despite the challenges to get the word out, the drink is a delight. While still somewhat rough around the edges, a glass of 5-year-old divin from a small distillery called Golden Stork, for example, offers a blend of fruity and slightly floral flavors sharply accented by the pungency of old oak. A better-known brand, regarded for its quality, is Kvint. For producers like Babiy, who’s been in the business for several decades, it’s the taste of a traditional yet evolving product. He wants producers to “find the strength to establish and define a solid foundation [for the industry],” he says. If Moldova’s distillers keep pumping out such tasty products, they may have a decent shot.