When I page through the Moleskine that went with me to Gascony last year, my Armagnac tasting notes sound more like the dizzyingly aromatic contents of an “Alice in Wonderland” larder than the qualities of France’s most undersung brandy-making region: hazelnut, licorice, apple, miso, seaweed, leather, cardamom, fermented mushroom, brioche, chamomile, marmalade, mint, suede, tomato paste.
For many years, I’d heard Armagnac described (incorrectly) as a rougher, more rustic version of its famous brandy cousin, cognac, found 170 miles to the northwest. I heard it so many times, I began to repeat it myself, accepting as truth this old chestnut.
But what I learned, visiting more than a dozen producers among the Bas, Tenareze and Haut regions of Armagnac, was that France’s first brandy isn’t rough and tumble at all. It’s diverse, particular and personal, the stamp of each grape used and each producer’s choices indelible in its character, ranging from floral and savory to rich and ripe. If cognac is a luxurious silk duvet, Armagnac is a finely stitched heirloom quilt. And every time you look upon its ancient patterns, you’ll see some new piece you never noticed and can’t help but appreciate.
This isn’t a story about why Armagnac is better than cognac. They are both lovely brandies, each well worth your attention. What this story is about is why Armagnac, from its affordability to the vast playground of aromatic and flavor intricacy, is a true craft bartender’s spirit.
“I always go for the underdog no matter what,” says Tommy Tardie, the owner of New York City’s Flatiron Room and Fine & Rare. When he opened the latter a year and a half ago, he wanted to diversify from his first whiskey-centric bar and took a deep dive into spirits that get less of the limelight. Not only did Armagnac fill the bill, it captivated Tardie’s attention entirely. He currently carries around 30 bottles and even has a special tableside cart to lure in more devotees. “I like spreading the gospel on it,” he says.
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, oftentimes with vineyards steps from where the distilling takes place. And many, like Tariquet, 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 these days as a few producers experimenting with it.
“The most commonly planted is ugni, at around 55 percent. The second is baco at 35 percent, then folle and colombard,” says May Matta-Aliah, Armagnac’s regional American ambassador and educator for the last decade. But how distillers use those grapes is entirely unique. “It really tends to be more of a producer decision,” she says. “And I would say that it changes a little by the region,” depending upon the soil and how the grape adapts to it.
While cognac is twice-distilled to get 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 in tact. What this means is that Armagnac smells and tastes really awesome.
“The general public tends to gravitate toward the word that I hate most in this business: smooth,” says Gregory Buda, the director of education for New York City’s cocktail icons The Dead Rabbit and BlackTail. “But if we’re looking at smooth as delicate, mellow and soft, then cognac [fills] that bill. It’s a blank sheet of paper for oak to come in. Things that are more intense are harder to wrap our heads around, and Armagnac has more intensity to it.”
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 generations.
It was the allure of that history that made Patrick Sterling, a barman and former assistant general manager at Revolution in the Royal Sonesta hotel in New Orleans, create a commemorative Sazerac using an 1893 vintage Castarede Armagnac, one of the oldest in Armagnac production, for the upcoming 300th anniversary of New Orleans. “Armagnac was what was being imported during the 19th-century cocktail boom time in the U.S.,” he says. “If you think about the original cocktails that call for French brandy, they were referring to Armagnac.”
Buda, who was on the same trip to Armagnac as me last November, often wore a look of wonder and curiosity that I recognized as a mirror of my own. From walking the vineyards and understanding how deeply the terroir is entwined with the final outcome of the spirit to seeing the fire-stoked stills (many houses still don’t have their own but instead adhere to the old ways of roving stills that go from house to house to distill their wine), the plant-to-bottle process makes for a beautiful story to bestow upon customers.
“I would equate it with mezcal, which can be made with up to 40 or 50 types of agave, whereas tequila uses just one,” says Buda. “To have a spirit that has this kind of diversity is a huge spectrum of opportunity. You’re limited in cognac because it not only uses mostly ugni blanc but distills it to be neutral to focus on barrel aging rather than the grape.”
But even with Sterling’s $650 tableside Sazerac, the other part of Armagnac comes at a more affordable cost in comparison to its better-known brandy cousin.
“I often think cognac needs to be VSOP and up to really be delish,” says Meaghan Dorman, the beverage director at Raines Law Room and Dear Irving in New York City, referring to the age designation of French brandies. “Therefore, they’re likely too expensive to mix with.” She’s currently experimenting with two V.S. Armagnacs for her cocktails because she appreciates the innate expressive quality and ability to stand up and out in myriad drinks.
The pocket ease of V.S. and even VSOP Armagnac is indeed alluring, as well as that of the blanche versions, an unaged pisco-like spirit whose fascinating aromatics zero in on the individuality of the grape or grapes being used. But even the more rarefied versions are actually bottles you can consider in the realm of a possible splurge, and they’re by and large vintage (a rare bird for cognac, which favors the more scotch-centric base-age blends). A cognac with several decades of blended age could run you from a couple hundred to thousands of dollars. I walked away from Armagnac with a 1966 Armagnac for around a hundred bucks and change.
In workability, Armagnac plays well with others, too. “As you might expect, the blanche versions are very perfumy; they’re fruit- and floral-forward,” says Buda. “In general, they go really well in stirred Martini-style drinks. And it’s a great substitute for pisco, another unaged grape-based spirit.”
Buda also finds that aged versions tend to cleave to spirits like rye and rum. “As a spirit pairing, it plays really nicely with rye whiskey and rum, usually something mid-age range,” he says. “Think of it like a boxing match: Pair heavyweight with heavyweight, and lightweight with lightweight. If you pair an Armagnac that’s a few years old with a rum or rye that’s a few years old, they tend to meld to each other well.”
Sipping Armagnac on its own in the tradition of Gascony is, of course, thoroughly A-OK too. “When we’re introducing something at Fine & Rare to people, we want to go above and beyond. We have an Armagnac cocktail, but we also use it as a digestif at the end of a meal or for VIPs with a piece of chocolate, compliments of the house.”