The past decade has witnessed a quiet revolution for chronically overlooked spirits. In the world of agave, the intricate charm of mezcal has rocketed into the international spotlight, with drinkers discovering its smoky appeal en masse. When it comes to whiskey, rye has stepped outside of bourbon’s shadow, with its spicy bite finally getting the respect it deserves. And now, it’s high time that the nuanced flavour of Armagnac finds its proper place in glasses and along back bars.
A centuries-old type of brandy from the Gascony region of Southwest France, Armagnac is a white-wine-based liquor traditionally distilled once using a column still known as an alembic armagnaçaise, then aged in oak barrels. The epitome of a craft spirit, the majority of Armagnac is produced by small-scale, often family-owned operations that take a great deal of pride not only in their deeply unique versions of the spirit but the cultural importance of Armagnac to the culture of Gascony.
Like any grape-based spirit, Armagnac begins as a wine. But while cognac’s base wine is fermented to be a neutral means to an end (most cognac producers do not tend their own vineyards), Armagnac producers, with little exception, are grower-producers, often with vineyards steps from where the distilling takes place. And many produce table wine as well as Armagnac (cognac producers do not, as a rule).
Of the 10 grape varieties allowed for use in Armagnac, four dominate: ugni blanc, baco blanc, folle blanche and colombard. An ancient fifth, plant de grasse, is making a comeback as a few producers experiment with it.
While cognac is twice-distilled to make the final spirit as neutral as possible, Armagnac goes through its often-fire-fueled squat column stills once, leaving the spirit at a lower proof and with many of its aromatic-holding congeners intact. What this means is that Armagnac smells and tastes, well, awesome.
If cognac is the smooth and serious older brother of the brandy family, Armagnac is the spunky youngster that’s always up to something surprising. One of the biggest differentiating factors between Armagnac and its more streamlined relatives is just how complex and varied it can be, even from vintage to vintage. This diversity is due in large part to the length of time the Armagnac is aged (the longer you keep it in oak barrels, the spicier and more complicated it becomes) but also the subtle differences in terroir throughout Gascony. Also, unlike cognac, there are various combinations of A.O.C.-approved grapes that can be used to make diverse Armagnac blends, ensuring that each vintage has a little something different to offer drinkers.
This is perhaps the most alluring attribute of Armagnac. Unlike Cognac, Armagnac is a region dominated by dozens and dozens of small to medium-size multigeneration family producers who not only have relatively small production but who begin making choices about the expressiveness of their spirit right in their own vineyards, tended for decades.
Since Armagnacs can differ significantly, even from the same producer, don’t be afraid to test them out. When sampling Armagnac, treat it like you’re trying a new perfume or cologne. Dab a little bit on the back of your hand, then take in the aroma to gather the unique characteristics of the vintage.