Is Armagnac The New Bourbon? Or Is It The New Mezcal?
by Jason Wilson, 10 nov. 2023 EVERYDAY DRINKING
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Reference to Domaine d'Espérance on the bottom of this page
People often ask me, “What’s the difference between Cognac and Armagnac?” (Yes, I exist in incredibly nerdy spaces). To be honest, there as many similarities as differences. They’re both brandies made from grapes, often the same grapes. They’re both made in southwest France, less than three hours drive from one another. At the top end, they’re both expensive. But there are key differences, both technical and cultural.
More than anything, Cognac is bigger than Armagnac. Much bigger. Cognac represents a $4 billion market global market, with 225 million bottles sold each year. Meanwhile, Armagnac sells around 5 million bottles in a year. That means you don’t have huge multinational players like Hennessy or Rémy Martin in Armagnac. Instead, it’s mostly smaller family estates. Most don’t even own stills, but rely on itinerant distillers going from house to house after harvest and fermentation. There simply isn’t as much Armagnac in the world.
That scarcity and local grassroots production is why people often make this analogy: Armagnac is to Cognac what mezcal is to tequila. In the craft spirits world—where mezcal has cool, trendy, insider buzz—that’s not a bad place for Armagnac to be.
That seems to be what some in the industry are banking on. For instance, in late 2021, the venerable brand Marquis de Montesquiou, one of Armagnac’s largest producers, was bought from Pernot Ricard by Alexander Stein, the entrepreneur who created Monkey 47 Gin—which Stein had previously sold to Pernod Ricard. “He thinks Armagnac is the new mezcal,” said Jean-Francois Bonnete, the president of BCI, which imports Marquis de Montesquiou. It will be interesting to see how the brand, which has slipped in quality, will evolve under Stein.
Nicolas Palazzi of PM Spirits, which imports a number of top Armagnacs, summed up the current market like this:
“There’s more Armagnac being sold, but it’s a very specific kind of Armagnac sold to a specific kind of buyer. We’re talking about Armagnac that’s very extracted, heavier on the wood, more powerful, more vanilla. So it’s not very different than the whiskey that people are drinking. We’re selling a lot less classical Armagnac.”
In other words: Armagnac that tastes like bourbon. Still the big question for Armagnac in the U.S. is whether or not whiskey drinkers—tired of ridiculous bourbon prices—will embrace brandies they likely can’t pronounce.
Armagnac 101: A Quickie Refresher
Armagnac may be the most wine-like of spirits, in that both terroir and grape variety are important. A key difference between Armagnac and Cognac is how the wine is distilled. Almost all Armagnac is single distilled in column stills that run continuously at low temperatures. In Cognac, on the other hand, double distillation in pot stills is the norm.
The appellation is split into three sub-regions: Bas-Armagnac, Ténarèze, and Haut-Armagnac. Bas-Armagnac, whose capital is Eauze, accounts for more than half of the vineyard land, much of it planted in sandy, silty soils. A group of villages including Labastide d’Armagnac, Arthez d’Armagnac, Le Frêche and several others, with their iron-rich sables fauves soils, are the prime area once called “Grand Bas-Armagnac” or the “Golden Triangle,” which many believe produces the finest brandy in the entire appellation. Not everyone agrees with this traditional bias.
Beyond terroir, grapes matter in Armagnac. Officially, ten grapes are allowed—but in practice only four are mostly used: ugni blanc, colombard, folle blanche and baco. In Cognac, those first three of these grapes are allowed, but most Cognac is made solely from ugni blanc. In Armagnac, the focus is more on blending several of the grapes.
Finally, On To My Bottle Picks!
A quick note on price and “value.” Be warned: the spirits I’m recommending here are not cheap. I would categorize these as “holiday splurges”—perhaps a special gift for the spirits aficionado in your life. Still, all of the bottles I’m recommending offer the elusive concept of value. As I’ve said before, pricey spirits offer a much better value than pricey wines, based on the simple fact that a spirit can be opened and consumed slowly over a long period of time. A 750-milliliter bottle of spirit has 25 one-ounce pours within. You can do the math. A $200 bottle of spirits works out to $8 per ounce. Now think about how much a pour of middling spirits or cocktails at your local craft bar costs you.
> among Six Vintage Picks
Domaine d’Esperance 2001 Folle Blanche #75, $200
Folle blanche makes beautiful Armagnac that often can be enjoyed at a younger age. This 21-year-old is so pretty, with a nose full of flowers, herbs, and tobacco, and a palate with layers of maple, baking spice, tobacco, and clay, and a finish of elegant cigar smoke. It’s all balanced by a delicate brightness. (52% abv.) Brand new in the U.S., so check with importer PM Spirits for more info on where to find it.
> among Four Classic Blends Under $150
I’ve liked this expression for a number of years and was happy to see it finally available in the U.S. late last year. It’s still a go-to pick for me. Bright nose of dried cherry and pastry, and layers of pepper and spice on the palate: nutmeg, Sichaun peppercorn, green tobacco. Mellow, but packs a sneaky punch, and has a crazy long finish. Pour this for a rye whiskey fan and watch them convert to Armagnac before your eyes. (48% abv.)