Armagnac, Cognac, Whisky: What is the Difference?
Armagnac and Cognac are AOC white wine brandy aged in wooden barrels and produced exclusively in France. Their production depends on a calendar, that of the seasons, which gives rhythm to the work of the vine, the harvest, the vinification, and the distillation. A decree defines the distillation period as going from the end of the grape harvest (October) to the following March 31st.
Whiskey is a grain brandy aged in a wooden barrel. It is produced from grains (barley in general). Like industrial spirits such as Gin, Vodka, or Rum, it can be distilled all year round. Its production does not depend on a specific terroir. It can be produced anywhere in the world, which explains its great geographical diversity (Ireland, Scotland, Japan, France…).
If Armagnac and Cognac are clearly distinguished from Whiskey, it is not always easy to differentiate the French spirits from each other. Let’s discover in 7 points what makes each one unique.
1. ARMAGNAC VS COGNAC : DISTILLATION
Armagnac and Cognac spirits are produced in two very different stills. This is their fundamental difference. The distillation process specific to each one determines the specificity of this brandy. Armagnac is distilled only once, in an Armagnac still (with columns), while Cognac is distilled twice, in a Charentais still.
The “Armagnacais” still is a copper alembic with columns and plates, known as a “continuous distillation alembic” (a single heating).
During the Armagnac distillation process, the freshly made wine is brought to a boil (100 °C). Its vapors rise and pass through trays where they pass through the fresh wine: this is the bubbling process.
The vapors are thus charged with the aromas of the fresh wine, and preserve the organic, mineral, and vegetable components of the wine which will give it all its aromatic power. With each plateau, the vapors are enriched a little more and arrive at the top of the column saturated with aromas. Then they condense to flow out of the still at 56° of alcohol. This is the lowest alcohol distillate of all spirits. This brandy is placed in oak barrels, where it will blossom and take on the color of the wood to become Armagnac.
The “cognaçais” or “charentais” alembic is a copper alembic called “à repasse” (or double heating) because the alcohol is distilled twice. Once the wine is brought to the boil, the vapors escape without meeting the fresh wine and then gradually condense. This first distillate, called “brouillis”, has an alcohol content between 27° and 32°. It is again loaded into the still for a second distillation. The fractions of the beginning (“the heads”) and the end of distillation (“the tails”) are discarded. The “heart” of the distillation, i.e. the distillate that flows between the two, comes out of the still at 72° of alcohol. It is then stored in an oak barrel where it is enriched with the aromas of the wood to become Cognac.
2. ARMAGNAC VS COGNAC : #ARMAGNACISNOTBRANDY
“Armagnac seems to be part of the brandy culture. I think it is part of the wine culture”. Patrick de Montal
Armagnac is the spirit closest to wine. It is the only spirit that can truly magnify with age because it preserves the living organic matter of the fresh wine from which it is made. This particularity gives Armagnac a real singularity, that of being able to evolve over time like a great wine.
This “living” brandy reflects the expression of a year. This is why Armagnac is the only brandy that can fully justify the vintage. Its aging contributes to give it a unique complexity. This is what links it to the culture of wine and distinguishes it from other brandies, “burnt” brandies (Cognac titling at 72°), or “dead” brandies (Gin and Vodka titling at 90°).
3. ARMAGNAC VS COGNAC : The aging
When they leave the still, Armagnac and Cognac brandies are stored in oak barrels. The principles of aging are similar. Armagnac and Cognac evolve in new or old barrels, alternating between dry and wet cellars. During the aging process, exchanges take place between the oak and the brandy, developing the aromas and allowing the natural coloring.
While Armagnac comes out of the still at 56° of alcohol, Cognac comes out at 72° of alcohol. However, both are consumed at 45° alcohol. The natural evaporation of alcohol during the aging process allows Armagnac to slowly tend towards its 40-45° when sold, with a slight addition of distilled water when necessary. Some Armagnacs, known as “cask strength”, are made without the addition of water. Cognac is gradually diluted with distilled or demineralized water to reach its 40-45° for sale.
The aging of Armagnac highlights the “living” wine still present in the brandy. The influence of the wood is monitored so that it does not overpower the natural aromatic power of the wine. On the contrary, the aging of Cognac, like that of Whiskey, is centered on the aging of the wood aromas.
The Cellar Master defines the maturation period of the brandy, leading them through their aging to the flavors that determine their signature.
Armagnac and Cognac are not artificially flavored. They derive their flavors exclusively from the distilled wine and the oak in which they age. This distinguishes them from industrial spirits (Gin, Vodka), neutral grain spirits characterized by the natural or artificial addition of flavors.
Once bottled, Armagnac and Cognac cease to age.
4. ARMAGNAC VS COGNAC : AGE COUNTS
Cognac is a blend of brandy of different ages. Its label indicates the aging period of the youngest brandy used in the blend.
Cognacs are classified by age of aging according to standardized terms controlled by the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessional du Cognac):
- VS : at least 2 years of aging in wood
- Superior : at least 3 years of aging in wood
- VSOP : at least 4 years of aging in wood
- Vieille Réserve : at least 5 years of aging in wood
- Napoleon : at least 6 years of aging in wood
- XO : at least 10 years of aging in wood
Behind these acronyms, however, are the specific aging characteristics of each producer.
Armagnacs, which can be blended or vintage, are not subject to the age count standards like Cognac. And for good reason!
- Like Cognac, Armagnac can be made from a blend of brandy of different ages. Its label then indicates an “age count” (7, 12, 18, 30 years…) which attests to the duration of aging of the youngest brandy in the composition of the blend. This similarity with Cognac explains why some Armagnac houses choose to borrow the names of Cognac (XO, VSOP…) for their blends, a practice tolerated by the BNIA (Bureau National Interprofessional de l’Armagnac).
- Unlike Cognac, Armagnac can be vintage: the vintages are then made from a single year of distillation. Thanks to the singularity of the Armagnac still, which allows Armagnac to exalt the flavor of the wine from which it is made, the imprint of the year, the signature of the terroir, and the taste of the grape variety remain present in the brandy. Armagnac is vintage, like a great wine, to reveal this unique aromatic palette linked to the evolution of the wine still alive in the oak barrel where it rests. Vintage Armagnac sometimes comes from a single barrel. It is then called “Rare Single Cask” or “Unique piece”. The date of the vintage (year of the grape harvest), more significant than the length of aging, is written on the label, as it is for wine. The aging period of vintage is not regulated by a specific age count. Most Armagnac houses publish vintages that have aged at least 10 years. At Domaine d’Arton, we publish very young vintages because our unique terroir allows it. We believe that the quality of Armagnac does not depend on its age, but rather on the mastery of each stage of its elaboration from the vine to the wine, and from the wine to the Armagnac.
The structure of our range of Armagnacs bears witness to our purist vision, a vision that has become our signature. We believe that the best Armagnac is the one that requires no blending. This is why we publish our “Pièce Unique” vintages. These are the most natural and authentic expressions of our terroir, grape variety, and harvest year. Our mastery of the entire production chain “from the vine to the wine and from the wine to the Armagnac” allows us to reach this level of excellence.
The selection of these Unique Pieces is rigorous and demanding and follows a meticulous tasting process that lasts 10 years.
- Year 00: we distill our Blanche Armagnac. A part of this Blanche is bottled under our brand Fine Blanche®. The rest is put into barrels.
- Year 06: after tasting, we destined certain barrels for our “La Réserve®” blend. These barrels did not show enough potential to be vintage. The other barrels continue their maturation.
- Year 10: after tasting, the most remarkable barrels are selected to become “Pièces Uniques”. The others are blended to form our “La Flamme®” vintage.
5. ARMAGNAC VS COGNAC : THE TERROIRS
Armagnac and Cognac are French AOC brandy, which means that they cannot be produced outside their region.
300 km separate the two territories. The Armagnac region is located in the province of Gascony (Gers, East of Landes and South of Lot-et-Garonne). The Cognac region is located further north (Charente, Charente-Maritime, part of the Dordogne and Deux-Sèvres). The terroirs are distinguished by their soils and climate, giving the eaux-de-vie their own specific character. The Cognac soil is homogeneous, mostly limestone, while the Armagnac soil is sandy, clay-silica, and clay-limestone. The diversity of Armagnac soils, divided into three terroirs – Haut-Armagnac, Ténarèze and Bas-Armagnac – gives the Gascon brandy a great variety of nuances that mark its originality.
The AOC appellation requires that this brandy be produced in compliance with regulated specifications, guaranteeing their origin and authenticity.
6. ARMAGNAC VS COGNAC: THE GRAPE VARIETIES
Armagnac is a white wine from Gascony, distilled and heated in an Armagnac still, then aged in oak barrels. It is made from different grape varieties (10 grape varieties fixed by the AOC) including Ugni Blanc (55%), Baco (30%), Colombard (5%), Folle Blanche (5%) and the old grape varieties: Blanquette, Mauzac white and rosé, Clairette de Gascogne, Meslier Saint François, Plant de Graisse The Ugni blanc comes from the Cognac region. It was widely planted in the Armagnac region after the ravages of phylloxera in the late 19th century.
Cognac is made from white grapes, mainly from Ugni Blanc. This grape variety makes up 98% of the Cognac vineyards.
The diversity of grape varieties used in Armagnac is due to the viticultural tradition of the region, which primarily produces a wine for drinking. The Cognac region produces mainly wine for distillation.
7. ARMAGNAC VS COGNAC : TWO FRENCH BRANDIES, TWO HISTORIES
Armagnac is the oldest French brandy! Its production is attested to since 1310 when its therapeutic virtues were praised by the prior of the town of Eauze. Within a century, this apothecary’s remedy became a “marvelous” drink appreciated for its gustatory qualities, a precious brandy produced alongside the region’s wine production.
Cognac has a very different historical trajectory, which influences its current reputation. While Armagnac was developed on a French consumption model, Cognac was established on an export model to the Netherlands and England. In the 16th century, while the English controlled the Bordeaux region, Charente wine was exported by the Dutch to Northern Europe from the ports on the Atlantic coast (La Rochelle). It was distilled to be preserved and travel without arriving “sour” at its destination. This brandy was then diluted with water to be consumed like wine. But Cognac as such only really emerged in the 18th century, with the appearance of double distillation borrowed from Whisky and aging in oak barrels. It was conceived for an export market at a time when English economic and demographic growth was causing a shortage of alcohol. Merchants from across the Atlantic set up trading companies in Cognac, specializing in the production of Charentais brandy. Under Napoleon III, a trade treaty signed between France and England (1860) boosted the export of Cognac. Today, 98% of its production is exported.
8. AN EDUCATIONAL BOX
To know everything about Armagnac, buy this initiation box
This unique collection reveals the gustatory nuances of Armagnac, from the still to the +10 year old vintage.
Château Arton Haut-Armagnac in the Gers, owner, and harvester since 1991, in conversion to biodynamic farming and permaculture.