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Cognac & Armagnac: A Brief Starter’s Guide

READY TO BRANCH OUT FROM BOURBON? WHY NOT GIVE SOMETHING FRENCH A TRY!

Some fragrant magic happens when your hands warm a snifter of cognac. We pour cognac at the dinner table in our home but consume it thoughtfully in comfortable chairs. The big red leather chair is my preference. 

Push your nose as far into the snifter as possible and gently inhale the perfumed French spice, trying to describe and sort precisely what it is that you smell: floral notes, warm spice, dark fruit. A sip of cognac warms your mouth. 

Give it a swirl and let your tongue pick up what your nose has identified. The amber liquid warms you the whole way down. 

This is a liquid treat to be savored slowly, every sniff and sip enjoyed.

Cognac and Armagnac are both brandies, but these specialty French brandies are from specific areas created under particular rules, each with a different distilling process from specific fermented grapes.

 The local terroir, grape, process, French white oak barrels, age of the barrels, and age of the amber liquid, in addition to where and how it’s aged, all influence the vapor that hits your nose, the liquid that washes over your palate delivering waves of pleasure. 

COGNAC AND ARMAGNAC DEFINED 

The 1976 edition of the original 1938 Larousse Gastronomic says this about cognac: 

“Cognac is a little town in the district of Charente, which has given its name to famous brandies. Brandy of this region is the prototype of brandies of Charente: it’s characterized by a very delicate aroma, recalling the gentle perfume of the vine in flower and by a vigorous and full savor, which is translated in the tasting into prolonged and pleasurable sensations. This brandy is warm without burning the palate, and its color, if it has aged in an ideal situation, is very pale gold.”

To earn the cognac label, the spirit must not only originate in this area, it must be distilled solely from grapes grown on these vines: Ugni Blanc, Semillon, Folle-Blanche, Colombard, Jurancon blanc, Montils, Folignan, and Sauvignon. 

Cognac and Armagnac (1)
Armagnac and cognac are similar, and it’s a distinct pleasure to compare and contrast them.

The grapes are fermented immediately after harvest starting in late September, then processed (distilled) twice in copper pots shaped like gargantuan Hershey’s Kisses. The resulting distillate is called eau-de-vie and aged in oak barrels stored underground. After two years of aging, the spirit qualifies as cognac, but the best cognacs are much older.   

AGE CATEGORIES 

The age categories are V.S., “Very special,” youngest brandy in blend aged at least two years; V.S.O.P., “Very superior old pale,” aged at least four years; Napoleon, aged at least six years; and X.O., “Extra old,” aged a minimum of 10 years. It’s worth noting that many cognacs are blended from multiple vintages. The age statement refers to the minimum age of any contributing vintage. 

The label holds important information. This Armagnac is 18 years old and comes from a single distillery. The good cognac starts as you approach $100 a bottle.

A VSOP may be comprised of multiple vintages, some much older than the four-year minimum. 

Cognac is strongly influenced by big multinational luxury brands. Think names like Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin, and Courvoisier. One of the most important things for these brands is consistency. And each of them works very hard to produce delicious cognac that delivers a consistent taste year over year — premium brands, premium products.

ARMAGNAC

Armagnac comes from another region in France — the old province of Gascony. Its brandies are famous and second only to Charente, where cognac comes from. The grapes are pretty much the same varieties, the geography is similar, but the output is significantly different. 

For the most part, Armagnac is produced in small houses, and the year over year variability in vintages is striking. This alone makes for great post-dinner conversation. Armagnac uses a different distillation process, column distillation, leaving the spirit with more of the flavor from the process.

Florence Castarede, sixth-generation family owner of the Armagnac house bearing her name, said:

“You have casks made of 55 different pieces of wood coming from up to 12 different oaks. Putting white Armagnac in two different wooden casks, you never know what’s happened between the wooden cask and the Armagnac because of the different pieces of wood coming from 12 trees, oak trees, you understand. As you know, we’re a very small property and producer. It’s why we’re not very well known. It’s, for me, an industry of really artisanal product.” 

Pick up a bottle or two of each kind and organize a taste test evening with friends. 

PRICE

The lowest-priced and very drinkable cognac will get you some change back from a crisp $50, and while you can fork over several hundred dollars for a top-tier bottle, the markedly good stuff starts at about $100. 

I tested two of these: the Chateau Montifaud Cognac and a Janneau Grand Armagnac. (In addition to a $22 bottle of very drinkable French brandy.) Both were worthy of an extended leather chair session. The two spirits are related but significantly different in taste. 

The classic snifter is the perfect vessel for cognac and increases the pleasure of the experience.

It’s worth adding a low-cost French brandy into the works and organizing an after-dinner tasting and comparison. It would be an exciting and pleasurable discussion, as you and your crew break down the finer points of each and compare nose and taste notes.  

A NOTE ABOUT COCKTAILS

While Hennessy’s website features 126 handmade cognac cocktails from Manhattans to Mint Juleps, my two favorite cocktails are the Sidecar and the Old Fashioned. Certainly, you can enjoy a hand-warmed snifter of these fine (cognac or Armagnac) distilled nectars on their own, but sometimes a cocktail just fits. 

Sidecar

  • 1.5 ounces cognac
  • 0.75 ounces Cointreau
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 5 to 6 ice cubes crushed

Place your glass in the freezer to chill it. Fill a shaker half full with crushed ice. Add the cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice. Shake the cocktail vigorously. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Serve with a twist of lemon.

Old Fashioned

  • 2 ounces cognac
  • 1.5 teaspoons of maple syrup
  • 1 dash orange bitters
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
  • Lemon slice for garnish
  • Ice cubes

Combine all the liquid ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and stir well to combine. Strain the cocktail over ice in a rocks glass. Add a slice of lemon for garnish.

Any brandy is worth celebrating, but cognac and Armagnac up the celebration game significantly.

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