Spirit Spotlight: Feisty Armagnacs

Straight Up Cocktails and Spirits

With the days growing shorter and cooler, I often feel like cozying up in the evenings with a glass of something contemplative and warming. Some of my picks for this time of year are smoky single-malt scotches, well-aged tequilas - and a new favorite around my house, Armagnac.

While most American drinkers are quite familiar with the classic digestif, Cognac, fewer have heard of its lesser-known, and less prolific cousin, Armagnac. But if you like your spirits with a little more feistiness, individuality, and spark, I encourage you to give this distinctive French brandy a try.

But first things first: What exactly is Armagnac?

Let's Start with the Name
Celebrating its 700th anniversary this year, Armagnac is a grape-based brandy or eau de vie named for the region in the province of Gascony in South West France where it's made. (The town of Cognac, which makes its own eponymous spirit, is a little to the northeast of it.) "Armagnac," like "Cognac," is an appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC), or "controlled designation of origin," meaning that it comes from a specified geographical region and that its production methods are regulated by a French government bureau.

Types of Armagnac
Within the general appellation of Armagnac, there are four subcategories, plus some age designations:

  • Bas-Armagnac, the most popular type of Armagnac, which comes from the western region of the area, known for its delicate, fruity spirits.
  • Armagnac Tenarèze, which comes from the middle region known for its full-bodied spirits.
  • Haut-Armagnac, a less prolific region in the south east corner of the area.
  • Blanche Armagnac, a "white" spirit and a very recent addition to the AOC family. Long enjoyed by distillers informally at home, this clear, unaged spirit joined the commercial export roster in 2006.
  • Last but not least, there are four designations referring to how long the spirit has been aged in oak barrels: VS (1-3 years), VSOP or Napoleon (4-9 years), XO or Hors d'Age (10+ years), and XO Premium (20+ years - this designation applies to vintages too)[Note: these age designations are newly revised and are being rolled out gradually. They may differ slightly from what currently appears on bottle labels.]

How It's Made
Armagnac is made with the white grape varietals ugni blanc, folle blanche, colombard, and baco, which are first pressed and fermented into wine, then distilled once in an alembic (unlike Cognac, which is distilled twice in a pot still). The resulting spirit is immediately placed in new oak barrels, and will then eventually be transferred to older barrels to continue its aging process.

And What About the Flavor?
Armagnac is something of an indie spirit. In contrast to Cognac, which tends to be produced by larger, international houses, Armagnac is generally made by smaller producers, each with its own signature style. These rich, amber spirits are generally considered to be more "rustic" than their smoother and more uniform cousins, with varied, complex, and individualistic flavor profiles.

How to Enjoy
Sipped straight, Armagnac makes a great after-dinner drink to be enjoyed on its own or with dessert. It's especially tasty with a square of dark chocolate.

Have you tried Armagnac? What kind of digestifs are you drinking this fall?

Nora Maynard is a longtime home mixologist and an occasional instructor at NYC’s Astor Center. She is a contributor to The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries and is the recipient of the American Egg Board Fellowship in culinary writing at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow. She previously covered food and drink in film at The Kitchn in her weekly column, The Celluloid Pantry.

Related: After-Dinner Tipples: Digestifs

(Image: Nora Maynard)