What is Armagnac?
(And why don’t more people know how awesome it is?)
Seriously, why don't more people realize just how good Armagnac is?! In 2012, about 177 million bottles of cognac were sold worldwide, while Armagnac managed to chalk up only around 6 million, with only about 125,000 of them sold here in the United States (as compared to 48 million bottles of cognac).
Armagnac, much like its cousin, Cognac, is a spirit whose name is as much tied to place as it is to the brandy produced there. To understand what makes this product so unique and interesting, let’s first explore the differences between Armagnac and the more heavily-marketed Cognac.
Both Cognac and Armagnac are brandies made from grapes. While several different grapes are permitted for Cognac, 98% is made with Ugni Blanc. Armagnac is typically a blend of four grapes: Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Colombard, and Baco. The distinct blend is left to the discretion of the distiller. Cognac is produced in the town of Cognac, near the Atlantic Ocean and just north of Bordeaux, where the climate is cool and the soil is chalky. Armagnac is produced in the region of Gascony, in the southwest of France, at the foothills of the Pyrenees, where climate is more Mediterranean and considerably warmer. The soil in this region tends to be more sandy.
The major distinguishing characteristic that defines the difference between Armagnac and Cognac lies in exactly how they are produced. Cognac is distilled two times in double copper pot stills, and then aged in oak casks. Armagnac, however, is only distilled once in a column still and then aged in oak, typically for a longer period than Cognac.
But what you really care about is flavor, right? While the second Cognac distillation helps to soften and mellow the distillate, it also removes some of the fruit characteristics. Because of the grapes used in Armagnac, and the single distillation, it tends to show more prominent fruit, especially orange, plum, quince, and apricot. Cognac's fruit tends to be lighter (pears and oranges) and more floral. The reaction that Armagnac has with oak produces notes of vanilla, caramel, toffee, and maple syrup. Cognac tends to receive less impact from the wood, though some spice does come through. Because of this, Armagnac has more robust, assertive, even decadent style, while Cognac is softer and more balanced. Think of it like Rye Whiskey vs. Bourbon. That said, both styles are wonderful, and for me, the preference depends solely on my mood.
The best way to find what you like is to drink! Stop by Kahn's and pick up a bottle of Armagnac; we have several great options to choose from. A few of my favorites are pictured at the top of this article. Who knows...Armagnac might just be your new favorite beverage you never knew existed!