Even if most of us don’t own snifters or keep a bottle of Courvoisier on the shelf, we’ve probably heard the term Cognac. Maybe it’s only because Grandpa has a bottle of XO you stole a sip from, or maybe you follow the news and remember when Chinese President Xi Jinping came down on “conspicuous consumption” in 2013 and the massive Chinese Cognac bubble (briefly) burst. However you first encountered it, it’s safe to say Cognac has snuggled into a velvety little nook of the alcohol encyclopedia, where everybody kind of knows its name.
To that we say, “Fine, but what about Armagnac, Cognac’s funkier, older cousin?” OK, forgetting that it was once—and for a while there—used to drown tiny French birds before they were roasted (however you feel about brandy, that’s a terrible way to go), Armagnac deserves more attention. Not because it was there first, but because it’s really, really good.
Though, to be fair, Armagnac was the first brandy produced in France, in the Gascony region, with the first written record of its production dating back to 1411. Even though that gives Armagnac about 200 years more tradition than Cognac, Cognac ended up the better-known and more widely exported brandy (only 3% of the Cognac produced in France stays there). But before we get ahead of ourselves quoting stats and swirling snifters—what’s brandy? It’s any fruit-based wine that’s been distilled, basically, using heat and different evaporation points to separate water and impurities from alcohol, yielding a higher ABV product with a different flavor profile.
Both Armagnac and Cognac are French grape-based brandies, but that’s pretty much where similarities end. And the reason Cognac may be better known might have to do with its subtlety (in comparison to Armagnac, that is). Neither brandy could really be called subtle, certainly not at 40% ABV. But where Cognac is all polish, Armagnac is polished rusticity—the country cousin who comes to the ball, slaps on a dress, and proceeds to seduce and charm the hell out of everyone.
Not to get too extreme—Armagnac isn’t Calamity Jane. It’s just got a bit more up-front character and robustness, owing to the production process, which is typically done on a much smaller (dare we say “small batch”?) scale than mega-produced Cognac. Armagnac can be made from up to 10 grapes, but most producers use a mixture of four: Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Baco 22A. Whereas Cognac is distilled twice, Armagnac is distilled only once—meaning it retains more flavor from the original wine. And while all Cognac has to be aged a minimum of two years, ensuring a softened and integrated final product, Armagnac only needs one year in the barrel before it can be bottled and sold (in 2005 they actually made it legal to sell blanche d’Armagnac, or unaged, clear Armagnac).
In truth, of course, many Armagnacs are aged much longer than one year—typically in medium-charred local black oak, switching from new to previously used barrels to manage the impact of the wood (unlike with, say, Bourbon, wood should have a moderate impact on flavor profile). The overall goal of aging Armagnac is to tame some of that robustness and integrate flavor, and aging time varies depending on what the producer is going for. As with Cognac, an Armagnac label might scare you away with what looks like a bunch of misplaced Scrabble tiles, but there’s a simple code:
- VS: Very Special, 1 year in wood
- VSOP: Very Superior Old Pale, 4 years in wood
- XO or Napoleon: Extra Old, at least 6 years in wood
- Hors d’Age: A decade-plus in wood
You might also find vintage Armagnacs (less common in Cognac), meaning the grapes used to produce the bottle are all from one year—which should be stated on the bottle—and these, naturally, will be a lot more expensive.
What about the taste? That’s what we’re all here for, right? Depending on what you buy—and how long it’s been aging—flavor notes and perceptible alcoholic heat will vary. If you buy some Armagnac for the holidays and want to impress, or confuse, your relatives, you can do the traditional method of dipping a finger into the glass—which should be tulip-shaped, like a Glencairn, and not a giant snifter—and put a drop of Armagnac onto the back of your hand. Once the liquid evaporates, go in for a sniff of the aroma. You don’t have to do this, of course, though your warmer body temp will be conducive to letting a lot of those flavors bloom. As for what you’ll find: anything from vanilla and toffee to spices, black pepper, florals, chocolate, figs, apricot, butterscotch—the list goes on, and tends to revel in the earthy, sensual, seductive side of things.
Which is to say, how can you resist?