Armagnac, Cognac and Whisky are brandies made by distillation and then aged in barrels. In the Anglo-Saxon culture, all three are called “brandy”. But this is their only relationship.
Armagnac, like Cognac, is a regional white wine brandy aged in oak barrels. Both are made from grapes. They depend on a calendar, that of the seasons, which gives rhythm to the work of the vineyard, the harvest, the vinification and the distillation, the latter having to take place before March 31 following the year of the harvest. This seasonality obliges the producers of Armagnac and Cognac.
Whisky is a grain brandy aged in wooden barrels. It is produced from grains (barley in general). Like industrial spirits such as Gin, Vodka or Rum, it can be distilled all year round.
Armagnac vs. Cognac: the terroirs
Armagnac and Cognac are French AOC eaux-de-vie, which means that they cannot be produced outside their eponymous region. 300 km separate the two territories, the Cognac region being located further north (Charente, Charente-Maritime and 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 mostly limestone, whereas the Armagnac soil is sandy, clayey-siliceous and clayey-limestone. The Armagnac region has a continental climate that is drier and sunnier in the summer and harsher in the winter than the Cognac region with its temperate oceanic climate.
The AOC designation implies that these eaux-de-vie are produced in compliance with regulated specifications guaranteeing their origin and authenticity.
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%), Folle Blanche, Baco and Colombard. 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 variety making up 98% of the Cognac vineyard.
The diversity of grape varieties used in Armagnac is due to the viticultural tradition of the region, which produces above all a wine intended for tasting. The Cognac region produces mainly wine for distillation.
Armagnac vs Cognac : distillation
Armagnac and Cognac brandies are produced in two very different stills. This is a fundamental difference because the Armagnac eau-de-vie, which has a lower alcohol content than the Cognac eau-de-vie, draws an incomparable aromatic richness from its still.
The “Armagnac” still is a copper column still with continuous low degree distillation. The vapors of the heated wine meet the fresh wine, this process of impregnation making the specificity of the distillation process of Armagnac. The wine is distilled only once, allowing for a better preservation of the essence of the grape and the aroma of the wine. After distillation, the Armagnac brandy has a titre of 54°.
The “cognaçais” or “charentais” alembic is a basic copper alembic with double heating. The alcohol is distilled twice. The wine is brought to the boil, the vapors escape and condense progressively in contact with cold water. This liquid (27-32°) is loaded into the boiler for a second distillation. The fractions at the beginning (too rich in alcohol) and at the end of the distillation are discarded. The “heart” eau-de-vie, the one that will be called Cognac, has a strength of 72°.
The distillation period for Armagnac and Cognac spirits is set by the AOC and extends from the harvest to March 31 following the harvest.
Armagnac, a spirit in the culture of wine
Armagnac is the closest spirit to wine! It is the only spirit that can truly become more refined with age because it retains enough of 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. It 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°).
Armagnac vs. Cognac: 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, travelling between dry and wet cellars. During the aging process, exchanges take place between the oak and the eau-de-vie, developing the aromas and allowing the natural coloring.
The Cellar Master defines the maturation period of these eaux-de-vie, leading them through their aging to the flavors that determine its signature.
The natural evaporation of alcohol during aging allows Armagnac to reach its 40-45° when sold. Cognac is gradually diluted with distilled or demineralized water to reach its 40-45° on sale.
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 brandies (Gin, Vodka), neutral grain spirits characterized by the natural or artificial addition of flavors.
Armagnac vs. Cognac: age counts
Armagnac is blended (like Cognac) or vintage (like wine). The label does not bear the same ageing information.
The composition of a blend may include different grape varieties, different origins (all AOC) or different ages. The ageing indication on the label corresponds to the age of the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend. The ageing count starts on April 1st following the distillation. The date of bottling may be indicated on the back label.
Vintage Armagnac comes from a single year of distillation, sometimes even from a single cask. It is then called “single cask”. The date written on the label is that of the vintage, that is to say the year of the grape harvest. The ageing period of Armagnac is not regulated.
Cognac is a brandy made from a blend of brandies of different ages or vintages. It is rarely vintage, this practice being highly regulated by the BNIC. Its label mentions the date of bottling and the ageing period of the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend. The counting of the ageing period begins on April 1st following the distillation.
Cognacs are classified by age of aging according to standardized terms controlled by the BNIC: VS (at least 2 years of aging in wood), VSOP (at least 4 years of aging in wood) and XO (at least 10 years of aging in wood). Behind these acronyms, however, are the specific aging characteristics of each producer.
Armagnac vs Cognac: two French eaux-de-vie, two histories
Armagnac and Cognac have two singular historical trajectories that influence their current reputation. Armagnac was developed on a French consumption model while Cognac was established on an export model to the Netherlands and England.
Armagnac is the oldest French brandy! Its production is attested since 1310, when it was made for medical purposes. It is only a century later that this apothecary’s remedy became a “marvelous” drink appreciated for its gustatory qualities, a precious brandy elaborated in margin of the wine production of the region.
The origin of Cognac brandy is quite different. In the 16th century, Charente wine was exported by the Dutch to Northern Europe from the ports on the Atlantic coast (La Rochelle) while the English controlled the Bordeaux region. It was distilled to be preserved and travel without arriving “piqué” at its destination. On arrival, this eau-de-vie was diluted with water to be consumed like wine. 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.
Armagnac is a treasure of the gastronomic heritage of Gascony, carried by the legend of d’Artagnan. Its more confidential artisanal production perpetuates an ancestral know-how. Today, its prestige is known worldwide among connoisseurs. It retains an authentic, traditional and artisanal character which makes it an exceptional product.