If you seek a spirit that has the nuance of wine, eschews uniformity, and reflects a timeless craft rooted in family tradition, then look no further than Armagnac.
Armagnac is the oldest brandy produced in France, with its origin tracing back more than 700 years. It’s exclusively produced in the heart of Gascony in the southwest of France. Nestled in the triangle that connects Bordeaux to the north, Toulouse to the southeast, and Biarritz to the southwest, the region is perhaps best known as the home of D’Artagnan, Captain of Louis XIV’s Musketeers in the days of yore, and timelessly celebrated for its “douceur de vivre” or sweetness of life, unspoiled countryside, and a gastronomic bounty of duck, foie gras, prunes, and, of course, brandy. On a clear day, the distant peaks of the Pyrenées are visible from Eauze, the heart of the region and the capital of Armagnac. This proximity to the Spanish border not only lends a distinctive Basque influence to the local culture and cuisine (bullfights and tapas anyone?), it’s also the likely source of ancient alembic distillation methods, gleaned from the Moors who ruled Spain during the Middle Ages, which are used to this day to distill the region’s celebrated Armagnac.
Armagnac is typically crafted from four regional white wine grapes: Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Colombard, and Baco. The blend of grapes is left up to the discretion of the producer, which begets nuance and complexity in each house spirit. The distillation process for Armagnac is steeped in tradition. It must take place between the grape harvest in the fall and the end of March of the following year. The grapes are pressed, fermented, and continuously distilled, typically in a copper alembic, resulting in a clear eau-de-vie. The liquid is then aged in new oak barrels sourced from local forests for six months to two years, before being pumped into older barrels to continue the aging process. The single distillation allows for prominent fruit characteristics, such as prune, apricot, and quince; and the oak cask aging develops color, flavor, and complexity, introducing notes such as toffee, vanilla, and caramel. Throughout the production, the tradition and finesse of the producer prevail, from the grapes and distillation, to the aging and blending, which results in a diverse and intriguing brandy which puts a unique stamp on an individual house’s spirit.
Armagnac, Cognac, What’s the Difference?
While Armagnac and Cognac are both brandies, they are not the same. Cognac lies to the north of Bordeaux, separating the regions by approximately 300 miles with variations in soil and climate. The differences are more than just terroir. Unlike the variety of grape permutations in Armagnac, Cognac is primarily double distilled from one grape, the Ugni Blanc. The double distillation yields a cleaner, less nuanced brandy with fewer fruit characteristics, while Armagnac’s single distillation allows for more expression and character. To put it simply: If Cognac is the glitzy, celebrity of brandies, then Armagnac is its soulful and deeply intriguing friend. One might say that while there’s a time and place for both in life, in the long run still waters (and complex spirits) run deep – which invites the pouring of a glass of Armagnac and getting to know it.
Breaking down the Lingo
VS or 3 star (***) is the youngest brandy, with a minimum of 1 year in the cask, and is best used as an aperitif, in cooking, and flavorful cocktails. VSOP has a minimum of 4 years in the cask and is best for cocktails, as an aperitif, and pairing with food.
XO and Napoleon are aged for at least 6 years, and Hors d’Age is aged for 10 years or more. These brandies are best for tasting and as a digestif.
Vintages age for a minimum of 10 years, and the year on the label corresponds to the year of harvest of the youngest wine. These are best for tasting and treasuring and will express character and style unique to the producer.
Blanche Armagnac, is the “new” Armagnac, a clear (white) eau-de-vie that is aged in inert containers for 3 months to preserve aroma and clarity. Fresh, floral, and fruity it can be enjoyed as an aperitif or addition to a flavorful cocktail.
How to Store
Armagnac stops aging once bottled, so it can be stored in your liquor cabinet indefinitely, even after it’s opened. It’s important to store the bottle upright, so that the Armagnac does not come in contact with the cork, or it will spoil.
Pour and Sniff
Pour the Armagnac into a thin-glassed snifter or wine glass. Warm it with the heat from the palms of your hands and allow the aromas to come to your nose. Don’t insert your nose into the glass, but hold the glass below. As the temperature rises, the aromas will be released and waft up.
A trick to tasting Armagnac is to first dab your finger in the glass and then dab it on the back of your hand. The liquid will evaporate, leaving behind the aromas of the spirit. Take a sniff and you will identify the essence that you will taste, such as dried fruit, plum, apricot, butterscotch. Take a small sip and savor it, let it swirl and settle in your mouth and under your tongue before swallowing.
When to Enjoy
Armagnac is not just an after-dinner drink. Its flavor complexity complements robust meat dishes as well as cheese and desserts, and it can also serve as a palate cleanser. Young and fruity Armagnacs can be enjoyed in a cocktail. For inspiration, try this Armagnac Cocktail, originally published in Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide: How to Mix Drinks (published in 1862). The recipe is a perfect representation of Armagnac: ancient in origin, timeless in craft, and modern in taste. Sante!
Jerry Thomas’ Armagnac Cocktail
Makes one cocktail
2 ounces Armagnac (VSOP)
0.5 ounces Orgeat (Almond) Syrup
2 to 3 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine the ingredients in a shaker filled with ice. Shake and strain into a cocktail glass and serve with a twist of lemon.
Lynda Balslev is an award winning writer, recipe developer, and cookbook author currently based in the San Francisco Bay area. She studied cooking in Paris and remained in Europe for 16 years, while living in Switzerland, England, and Denmark, where she learned that the best way to immerse oneself in a new culture was at the kitchen table. When she is not writing about food and wine through the lens of the travel, she writes about travel and culture through the lens of food and wine. Either way, it’s a win-win, and she looks forward to her next trip.