France is known for its exquisite wines and Cognac, the delightful French brandy. But there’s a more rustic spirit it also produces that’s started to trend due to the bespoke cocktail movement, dusting it off for mass consumption. Called Armagnac, it’s something you simply must try if you have a fondness for spirits, particularly after a sublime meal.
Both Cognac and Armagnac are similar in many ways while being equally different. It helps to understand both sides of these spirits. Quite simply, both of these spirits are French brandies. They’re made both from white wine grapes. But from there, that’s when the differences emerge.
Interestingly, Armagnac has been around for longer than Cognac. Armagnac is 700 years old, and was written about in a book from the 1300’s which is still kept in the Vatican to this day. Wondering why you’re just learning about this centuries-old spirit now? You’ll find out shortly. In the meantime, discover the differences between these brandy cousins.
Differences of Armagnac and Cognac
What makes each of these French brandies different is crucial in understanding the flavors and dynamics, and why only one of them has been famed around the world while the other sits in the shadows.
Cognac and Armagnac are also the places from which these two brandies are produced in France. They’re about 186 miles apart and hence have different terroirs. The Armagnac region sits atop fine quartz sands along with sediments from the river and clay. Cognac soils are a bit less diverse and are mostly calcareous. The vines endure more in Cognac which tends to result in better wine. That’s not to say that it’s better than Armagnac though!
The majority of grapes used in Cognac are the Ugni Blanc, also known as Trebbiano. For Cognac, it represents 97% while Armagnac, only 55%. Armagnac also incorporates Folle Blanche, Baco Blanc, and Colombard grapes. These differences in varietals makes the wine in Armagnac consumable without being distilled. In Cognac, that simply doesn’t happen. Cognac’s white wine is incredibly acidic to point of being undrinkable. Armagnac white wines are rather pleasant though.
As an essential component of terroir, climate is a major factor. Ugni Blanc was chosen by both Cognac and Armagnac for its enduring qualities. This grape is intensely resistant. Climate plays a huge role on wines that become distilled. Armagnac enjoys a continental climate with drier, sunnier summers, however the winters are much harsher than those in Cognac.
While both come from a thin wine that goes on to be distilled, the techniques are different, creating a noticeable pronouncement between Cognac and Armagnac. Cognac undergoes two rounds of distillation in the pot stills. Armagnac only undergoes one in a column still. The more a spirit is distilled, the more it removes impurities, yet it also elevates the taste. Still, may aficionados find Armagnac to have a complex and fuller flavor than that of its relative, Cognac.
Armagnac must be aged for a minimum of one year to achieve VS (Very Special) standards, which is the least restrictive requirement. Cognac must be aged for a minimum of 2 years. Armagnac doesn’t even need to be aged at all, though with Cognac, an unaged version doesn’t even exist.
– Historic Notoriety
As mentioned, Armagnac is one of the oldest brandies in the world. It’s been around for centuries and is part of French historical significance. However, it’s been largely ignored outside the country because it wasn’t exported nearly as much as Cognac. Winemakers wanted to export their white wines with low alcohol over to Holland and England. They decided distilling it would be best for exportation and avoiding taxes. Aged in oak barrels, it became noted as ‘brandewijn” in Holland.
Cognac’s success on export was also due to being close to the Port of La Rochelle. With the treaty from 1860 between France and England, Cognac sales took off. The same grapes. The same wine. A totally different outcome. Even back in the olden days, marketing was a thriving enterprise. Perhaps if Armagnac promoted itself more, it wouldn’t have sat in the proverbial corner for the last several centuries but then again being more inland without water transport put them in a difficult situation.
Now as what’s old is new again, there’s a newfound buzz for it in the craft cocktail world. Millennials are also digging into the past for ancient treasures like Armagnac. It’s got that whole old-world thing going for it while being relatively unheard of to most people. In today’s times that means plenty of buzz. Unlike bellbottoms or other unsavory trends, it seems that Armagnac will come around to the foreground to stay, a welcome addition to any bar’s lineup.
There is one more thing that these 2 spirits share in common when it comes to tasting though. As both are strong and heavy spirits, they should be sipped, not downed. Tasting each first before mixing will allow you to experience the flavors intended for you, flavors that open up as soon as they connect with your palate for an extraordinarily luxurious experience.