Cognac’s lesser-known older sibling, Armagnac is a surprisingly elusive brandy that offers merits far more attention than it receives. Indeed, Armagnac isn’t just an alternative to cognac but a whole other brandy of its own.
In this guide, you will learn everything that you need to know about Armagnac from its flavours and how to drink it:
- What Is Armagnac?
- Armagnac History
- What Does Armagnac Taste Like?
- How To Serve Armagnac
- Similar Drinks & Substitutes
- Benefits Of Armagnac
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What Is Armagnac?
Armagnac is a type of brandy or eau-de-vie that is named after the old Armagnac region of Gascony in south-western France. Today, Armagnac is produced across parts of the modern-day departments of Gers, Landes, and Lot-et-Garonne.
Like its neighbouring brandy, Armagnac’s production is regulated by several French appellations and the region is divided into a number of individual zones.
Armagnac is made by distilling wine that has been fermented from local grape varieties, which is then aged for several years in 400-litre oak casks. As the Armagnac region is shared by other liqueurs and wines such as Floc de Gascogne and Côtes de Gascogne, some of these grapes are used for making those too.
Unlike cognac, Armagnac can be sold without being aged since 2005, which is referred to as Blanche d’Armagnac. Similarly, Armagnac is regarded as a far more artisanal brandy than cognac as it’s often made by local family-owned producers rather than large, industrial companies.
For instance, most Armagnac is released as Millésimes or vintages, which contain only the grapes harvested in the year noted on the bottle. Nevertheless, it may also be blended in a similar way to cognac.
Armagnac predates cognac by several hundred years. Indeed, cognac was first produced in the 16th century as a solution for Dutch traders to reduce the costs of exporting wine. Meanwhile, Armagnac has been documented as a local eau-de-vie as early as the 14th century.
The process of distillation had been adopted following the Umayyad conquest of Hispania. However, it was a process largely used for creating medicinal remedies.
In 1310, a Franciscan cardinal, Vital du Four, wrote a treaty describing 40 different health benefits of consuming eau-de-vie. Today, he is often regarded as the forefather and founder of modern-day Armagnac.
Furthermore, the earliest sale of local eau-de-vie in the area was recorded as early as 1461 through tax records of a market in Saint-Sever. Yet, it described an apothecary remedy rather than an alcoholic drink. By 1515, Gascony had evidence of commercial vinegar distillers.
Bordeaux and other coastal towns such as Bayonne were prevalent trading ports. They were frequently visited by the aforementioned Dutch merchants who purchased salt, wine, and wood. However, transporting wine overland to the ports was a costly process.
Initially, Armagnac’s wine producers would present a cask of brandy or “vin brûlée” (burned wine) to the traders as a gift. Although the traders were free to consume it themselves, they often added it to the wine to help preserve it during shipping.
Although a growing network of river ports was built throughout the region, much of Gascony consisted of small streams, which still required carts for transporting goods.
Therefore, the Dutch started purchasing the burned wine in greater quantities, which was easier to transport and could be diluted upon arrival in Holland. This practice quickly spread to other regions and may have inspired the creation of cognac.
Armagnac Production Grows
Distillation techniques greatly evolved throughout the 19th century. Similarly, the practice of barrel-ageing brandy became more common after realising that it improved the taste during storage between shipments.
Armagnac was somewhat considered to be an inferior product to cognac even if it was better than other brandies. Therefore, it was sold relatively cheaply and catered to a more affordable market.
However, its demand changed during the phylloxera outbreaks in the late-19th century. Cognac’s vineyards were ravaged by the insects. While Armagnac was also affected, phylloxera was unable to thrive in its sandy soil. As a result, it was able to continue producing and exporting its brandy albeit at a reduced capacity.
In 1909, the Armagnac brandy region was legally defined and the three zones were formally established. These laws were finely-tuned in 1936 with the creation of their appellations.
To overcome growing shortages, the Bureau national interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac (BNIA) was founded in 1941. However, it was unable to fully support its producers and Haut-Armagnac’s vineyards had almost disappeared by the 1970s.
Fortunately, with state support, Armagnac has since recovered and it celebrated its 700th anniversary following the publication of Vital du Four’s treaty.
Difference Between Armagnac Vs Cognac
Although both varieties of brandy share a lot in common, there are a number of differences between cognac and Armagnac. Indeed, both are produced by distilling wine from a variety of dry and acidic white grapes.
Furthermore, Ugni Blanc is the most popular grape for both Armagnac and cognac. However, Armagnac will also typically use Baco 22A, which isn’t permitted for cognac.
Their geographical locations are somewhat similar but they both have unique microclimates and soils.
Firstly, Armagnac is more southern and inland while cognac is much closer to the coast. Therefore, cognac has a greater oceanic influence whereas Armagnac is shielded by the Landes forest while also being touched by the Mediterranean’s southerly winds.
Generally, cognac is perceived as a more industrial brandy as it’s largely dominated by major houses such as Rémy Martin, Hennessey, and Courvoisier. Armagnac is comparatively artisanal with a variety of small, independent and family-operated producers that create their own eau-de-vie.
Similarly, Armagnac is known for its millésime expressions where the product consists of only one single vintage. While Armagnac does produce blends like cognac and using a similar ageing classification, a greater emphasis is placed on the yearly variations in yield and flavour.
You can learn more about their similarities and differences by comparing our guides on how cognac is made and how Armagnac is made. For instance, cognac uses a Charentais copper pot still while Armagnac favours a continuous column still, which results in very different eau-de-vie.
How Does Armagnac Taste?
Although often compared to cognac, Armagnac is actually has a unique flavour as a result of its distinctive production process as well as the other differences we highlight above.
Excluding their different geographical locations and climates, Armagnac is often released as yearly vintages rather than just blends like V.S.O.P. and X.O. Combined with increased flexibility in their combination of grapes, there is a greater variety in flavours.
Generally, a well-crafted and aged Armagnac will offer a complex tapestry of aromas, which create a harmoniously heady experience.
Armagnac is often livelier and fruitier than cognac as it’s usually distilled just once. Meanwhile, cognac’s second distillation run tends to remove more of the vinous bouquet.
Therefore, Armagnac tends to be quite fruit-forward with notes often associated with plums. While there are some notes of spices and caramelised wood, it places less emphasis on the bold leather and musk that you may experience with cognac.
How To Properly Drink Armagnac
As we state in all of our guides, there is no wrong way to drink a spirit as long as you are enjoying it. Although Armagnac is traditionally served neat, it can also be enjoyed chilled with ice or even as part of a cocktail.
However, it’s possible to follow a few steps in order to heighten your tasting experience and take full advantage of an Armagnac’s potential.
Firstly, Armagnac is best served at room temperature, which opens the flavours. In fact, by pressing your hand on the glass, you can gently warm the spirit in order to explore its purity.
If you were to add ice to Armagnac, you can’t control how it chills and dilutes. Therefore, you risk losing the Armagnac’s flavours as they close with the cold and break down in the water.
Nevertheless, if you find an Armagnac too strong, you can use a typical method of adding a droplet of water. By slightly decreasing its strength, you can reduce the alcohol bloom and open the flavours.
Like cognac, Armagnac is usually enjoyed as a digestif following a hearty meal. Nevertheless, it can be enjoyed with a number of dishes too. For instance, it’s often paired with foie gras, another local delicacy.
What Glasses To Use For Drinking Armagnac
Although large balloon-shaped brandy snifters tend to be the most common choice of glassware, fine tulip glasses can improve your experience. Both offer a curved shape, which helps trap the volatile compounds that evaporate and produce the aromas.
Brandy snifters are comfortable, large, and can be held in a way that easily warms the Armagnac. Meanwhile, a small tulip is easier for nosing and by holding it at the stem, you can control the brandy’s temperature.
If neither is available, a small wine or tulip champagne glass will still perform quite well for tasting the spirit. Otherwise, you can learn more about the best glasses to use with our full glassware guide.
Similar Drinks & Armagnac Substitutes
Needless to say, cognac is the most obvious substitute that you could consider to replace Armagnac! However, there are lots of different varieties of brandy all over Europe and the world.
France itself hosts a wide selection of brandies that are referred to as eaux-de-vie de vin. However, these aren’t always aged and may bear a closer resemblance to Blanche d’Armagnac.
Finally, grappa is another possibility despite not specifically being an eau-de-vie de vin. Indeed, grappa is made with pomace rather than the juice. Yet, some aged grappas can be surprisingly similar to Armagnac.
What Are The Benefits Of Drinking Armagnac?
Vital du Four listed 40 different health benefits of eau-de-vie, which included topical applications for relieving headaches, paralysis, and colds. He also suggested that it helped cure shyness and even help rejuvenate the tongue.
Although some of these benefits are probably somewhat exaggerated, Vital du Four made some interesting observations. As Armagnac is distilled only once, it likely offers more benefits than cognac when consumed in moderation.
For instance, Armagnac may feature enough antioxidants to help heart and blood circulation. Furthermore, it might even help prevent gallstones as well as type 2 diabetes.
Nevertheless, like any alcoholic spirit, excess usually has far more drawbacks than benefits.
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Armagnac
Armagnac production allows for a small dosage of sugar. However, it’s extremely limited and it remains a dry spirit. Consequently, a single shot of Armagnac should have no more than 100 calories in a similar way to other liquor like vodka or rum.
Additionally, Armagnac contains no carbohydrates or fats. Since it’s distilled from wine, Armagnac should also be gluten-free and without risk for people with celiac’s disease or other sensitivities.
Now that you have read our introductory guide to cognac, let’s dig deeper and learn more!