A few months ago when I was staying with friends in Goa we were looking for some sort of alcohol to make Christmas cake. The local “brandy” was terrible & we were getting increasingly desperate, when we stumbled upon a bottle of something called Armada in a local supermarket.
My friend & I were both drawn to the description of a liqueur made from an old Portuguese recipe with spices & fruit, so we decided to give it a try. Out in the car we cracked the bottle open (purely for research purposes) & were immediately excited by the scent of boozy spices. Don’t worry, we were just smelling it, not drinking and driving!
Armada is not like anything I have tasted before. We both agreed we could drink it neat as an aperitif as well as using it in cocktails or desserts, because it is just so flippin’ delicious.
The first spice to hit my palate was cardamom (my fave) then you get cloves, vanilla, cinnamon & citrus notes. The flavours are unusually clean & beautifully harmonious. It is sweet, but not too sweet. It worked a treat in our Christmas cake as the flavours complimented the ingredients perfectly.
A couple of weeks later we went to the Goa Farmers Market (unlike any farmers market I have been to before, not a dirty vegetable in sight and there were massage tables next to the beach!) & there we found an Armada stall. You can imagine we were so excited to find out more about our new favourite drink… and to buy some more!
The stall was run by Oscar the founder of the company & he told us his story & how Armada came about. Oscar is really enthusiastic about his product (with good reason) so I asked if he would mind answering some questions about it for our blog. Luckily for me he said yes, so here is our interview with Oscar de Sequeira Nazareth:
Can you tell us the story of Armada, I hear it’s an old family recipe?
Certainly! It begins centuries ago, when Portuguese possessions included the Spice Islands, Brazil, parts of Africa and of course a few enclaves in Western India, most notably the old city of Goa.
The recipe for our spiced liqueur comes from that time and can be traced back to a remote village in central Portugal. The ingredients include sugar from Brazil, spices from Asia and Portuguese fruit, which are then all steeped in strong spirit until the liqueur matures.
This recipe was handed down from generation to generation, until it ended up in my family’s hands in Goa. In 2012 I was working as an investment banker in London. I thought the spirit was so delicious that I decided to quit my job, move back to Goa and start my own company making our old family recipe, under the brand name ‘Armada’.
So where does the name Armada come from?
I chose to name the liqueur ‘Armada’ for a number of reasons. Firstly it’s an archaic Portuguese and Spanish word for a naval fleet – from a time when the two countries were united under King Philip – and so the word pinpoints both the historical and geographical location of the spirit’s origins.
Secondly, I thought it was quite apt for a spirit originally made from rare goods sourced across the globe – these would have travelled in convoys much like the legendary Spanish Silver Fleet, ending up in Lisbon harbour. So our Nau (Portuguese ship) logo seems to fit the product rather nicely.
Finally, it’s easy to pronounce in any language!
How would you describe the flavour?
Armada is a dark amber spirit and really has a unique taste all of its own – it opens with topnotes of cardamom, cinnamon and orange, and you slowly get hints of turmeric, cloves and other spices. The liqueur has extremely long legs – it seems to linger forever on the palate!
How would you drink it?
Well, it is eminently drinkable as a traditional digestif, and it can also be used to make superb cocktails. And, as you recently discovered, you can even use it to cook with!
It goes really well in many sweets – from profiteroles to ice-cream, chocolate brownies to Christmas cake – adding a sophisticated, decadent spicy taste layer. Some friends of mine even use it as a chicken marinade, because it glazes beautifully.
That being said my favourite way to drink it is neat, with maybe a cube of ice if in a hot country. But I’m always fond of making Armada cocktails for my friends!
Have you had to change the recipe much in order to make it available commercially?
I did make a couple of changes for legal reasons, most notably to the alcohol content – which went from 50% (illegal in India as well as way too strong!) to around 30%. However I stayed as true to the original recipe as I could.
I absolutely refuse to have anything to do with artificial flavours, colours, preservatives etc, which is quite unusual in the Indian market. If the best products from around the world can do without them, there’s no reason why Indian spirits should be made with artificial additives.
Armada is still handcrafted in small batches – no more than 1,000 bottles at a time – and it uses only natural ingredients, most of them locally sourced. I personally purchase all the ingredients myself, supervise each batch and only release it when it’s ready – after all, it’s my reputation on the line.
It’s a little bit more trouble as each batch is slightly different, due to natural variations in the spices, but I think it adds real character to the product. Customers know they’re getting the real deal, not some identikit mass-produced ‘me-too’ product.
I also get asked a lot whether we plan to launch any other flavours, to which my answer is that we’ll do so when we have another original, ancient family recipe!
And finally, in the two years since you began the company, what would you say was your personal highlight?
I was truly delighted when Armada was recognized in the world’s most prestigious spirits awards – the International Wine and Spirit Competition held annually in London. We won a Gold Outstanding medal, the first Indian product across all categories to ever receive the accolade, in 45 years of the competition. (*Note: Read the Judges tasting notes below)
Plus, since winning the IWSC medal, we’ve received inquiries from across the world. We’re preparing to ship to Finland and the United Kingdom as we speak and we’re also finalizing deals to export to other continents too. It’s a dream come true.
Of course, much like the ships that inspired Armada, it’s not been all plain sailing. It was a real challenge to get the business off the ground since nobody thought India could make a quality liqueur; sadly many Indians are immediately suspicious of anything that’s made locally – although when it comes to spirits, they may often have good reason. Luckily our IWSC medal goes a long way in silencing our critics! 🙂
From tedious paperwork (this is India, after all) to convincing local hotels, bars and restaurants to stock us, to persuading the press to write about us (they’re allergic to alcohol stories) to coping with spreading the word in a country where alcoholic beverages cannot be advertised, we’ve had more than a few obstacles in our way. But it’s been fun despite the steep learning curve; I doubt I could ever go back to investment banking after running my own business!
*IWSC Judges Tasting Notes: Deep, old gold colour. Fascinating nose with mysterious Indian combinations of spice including cinnamon, nutmeg and some ginger, Very attractive. Deep tumble of flavours into a smooth flowing mouth. Rich and full with all the manner spices getting a spirit lift as they pass over the palate. Smooth and ever so satisfying.
A huge thank you to Oscar for taking time out from his busy schedule with Armada to be interviewed for our blog. I should say that we were not sponsored by the company to talk about their product or anything like that, I just love it so much that I wanted to share it with our readers and help Oscar spread the word about his family’s delicious drink. He is now exploring ways to export his product so hopefully we will see it in the UK soon (apart from the bottles I am going to squeeze into my luggage!).