Craft Spirits Spotlight Distillations Spirits Vol. 26 No. 02

Armagnac: France’s First Spirit

Considered by many to be the heart and soul of France’s brandies.

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France is well known for producing some of the world’s best wines. It is also known for producing some of the world’s greatest brandies, most notably Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados – the latter being not a grape spirit, but one made from either apples or pears.

The historic barrel aging cellar at Armagnac Janneau

For Grape-based French brandies, Cognac and Armagnac rule the roost. Both are made in the Southwestern part of the country, below Bordeaux. And while Cognac, made in the region of the same name, is probably the best known – and certainly most widely distributed – of France’s spirits, it is Armagnac, made south of Cognac in the gastronomically rich region of Gascony, which is the spirit considered by many to be the heart and soul of France’s brandies.

Chateau de Lacquy in the Bas Armagnac region, has been producing Armagnac since 1711

They’re both brandies made from grapes, so they must be similar, right?

Not even close. Cognac, for all intents and purposes, is a well-oiled machine, with vast regulations, large corporate structure, and aging/labeling requirements that – for the most part – breed similarity between producers and brands. Armagnac, by contrast, is more like the little engine that could: a fiercely individualistic, sometimes forgotten, always appreciated spirit made by a handful of dedicated producers for whom the art of coaxing brandy from the vineyard’s ether is as integral to their regional identity as their exceptional culinary heritage. 

The Chateau Caillaubert Cellars, part of the Tariquet Wines and Armagnac Estate

The Where & How of Armagnac Production

Armagnac, the region, is divided into three sub zones: Bas Armagnac, Armagnac –Ténarèze, and Haut Armagnac. All make the spirit Armagnac, and most are created using a blend of grapes. The main grape varieties used in its production, all of which are white grapes, include Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Colombard, and Baco (22A). While the majority of these grapes are also used to produce Cognac, it is the distillation that helps make Armagnac so unique, and individual.

Diagram, in French, showing the alembic distillation process

Cognac production favors the use of Pot Stills and double distillation, while Armagnac production employs using Column Stills and is distilled only once, leaving a new-make brandy (Eau de Vie) with more fruit character and fragrance than those of Cognac. Distilling once also leaves it a little rougher. Not a bad thing, as aging in oak alleviates that roughness over time, and brings out the subtleties and nuanced flavors of spice and dried fruit that make Armagnac so beloved.

Antique Still, once used for roaming distillation, that is now retired

Interestingly, much of Armagnac production is done employing the use of portable roaming stills that are taken from producer to producer – even those with their own stills, which often go unused. The idea behind this is that since getting the right spirit out of a still requires knowing how to work with it to create a preferred flavor profile, it makes more sense to let the person who “knows the still” make the product. One would think that this methodology makes for a more homogenous product across the board, but it does the opposite by allowing the process to be micro-tweaked to conform to a particular producer’s specific recipe. This, according to those involved, helps make for much more individual end products.

Winter view of Vineyards in the gently rolling terrain of Gascony

So, what makes Armagnac worth searching out?

First: Armagnac is the oldest distillate of France, with records dating back to the 1300’s of brandy being made in the Gascony region. So, you’re drinking the history of France.

Second: Armagnac is, for the most part, a very small production, with some producers making as little as 4,000 bottles annually. So, you’re drinking someone’s handmade effort, more often than not from a family recipe that’s been passed down over many generations. 

Third: Armagnac producers don’t only use a year’s production to make the more readily available categorized blended brandies they sell (VSOP, XO, etc), they also bottle vintage Armagnac, which can be some of the most interesting (and costly) spirits you’ll ever try.

So, you can, with some searching, probably own a bottle of Armagnac from your birth year, or even your Great-Grandfather’s birth year for that matter, making for some very interesting and delicious after-dinner conversation.

An array of offerings from the house of Dartigalongue, the oldest producer in Bas Armagnac

How can I sell more Armagnac?

It’s no small secret among restaurants and retailers that Armagnac is a slow seller and often languishes on the shelf. Perhaps this is why most places only carry a  handful of labels and bottles.  So, what can be done to maximize sales of Armagnac? From my experience, creativity is the key. Here are a few ways I’ve found that Armagnac is being used in restaurants:

Cocktail programs. Bars across the country have begun to utilize spirits never considered for cocktails. Armagnac is one and fits nicely in situations where other spirits like cognac and whisky could usually be found.

Dessert/Cheese Pairing: Try offering a glass of Armagnac with a specific dessert or cheese plate. Dessert lists often offer a selection of after-dinner drinks, but they are not included in the price of the dessert. This approach will guarantee sales.

Cheeses make a perfect pairing for Armagnac

Give Armagnac a separate category on the wine list. Wine lists always have wines, and, at times, ports listed, but how often do you see select high-end spirits listed on these lists? Adding a selection of Armagnac will get diners thinking about what they may drink to end their meal while they peruse the list for a dinner wine.

All Photos by the author.

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