Americans drink thirty-five million bottles of cognac each year (we're the world's No. 1 consumer by far). That's a lot of cognac, and most of it isn't particularly good. To meet growing demand, cognac producers have shifted to mass production, and today the typical bottle of cognac is one-dimensional, industrial and boring.
But hope is not lost for lovers of fine French brandy. As with many French wine-and-spirits designations, cognac is the name of a place, and just to the south of Cognac, in Gascony, is Armagnac. There you'll find true artisans making brandies of far superior quality on a much smaller scale. And it costs less.
What is Armagnac?
Armagnac (like cognac) is distilled from white wine grapes, namely the Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc and Colombard varieties. After distillation, it's aged in casks made primarily from local Monlezun black oak. The key technical difference between Armagnac and cognac is that the latter is distilled twice, whereas the former is distilled only once. This means more time in the oak for Armagnac; the extra patience required rewards a brandy with more finesse and roundness.
Though some Armagnacs are vintage dated (such as the wonderful brandies of Domaine Boingneres), most Armagnac is a blend of vintages. In blended Armagnac, the label indicates the age of the youngest wine in the blend (there are usually many older vintages mixed in as well). A label that says VS means the Armagnac has spent a minimum of two years in cask; VSOP and Reserve labels indicate five years; XO and Napoleon are aged six years; and Hors d'Age means ten years or more. Typically, the older Armagnacs are better, more complex and more expensive, but it's also important to choose Armagnac from a good producer. I recommend the Larressingle VSOP and XO bottlings, which are widely available at New York's better wine shops.
Just like scotch and bourbon, Armagnac stops aging once it's removed from its wood casks and placed in glass bottles. No matter how long you save grandpa's special bottle of XO, the liquid in the bottle will never improve. This remains true even when you pull the cork -- Armagnac is stable enough that oxygen won't harm it, so you can open it and leave it in the credenza indefinitely. There's only one thing you must do when storing Armagnac: Keep the bottle standing up, not lying on its side, since Armagnac will spoil if it comes in prolonged contact with its cork.
Believe it or not, the traditional snifter is not the ideal choice of stemware for the enjoyment of fine French brandy. The best glass for this purpose has a rounded belly with a tapered chimney. If you don't have glasses like this, use a tulip-shaped champagne glass, not a snifter. It may feel strange at first to drink your Armagnac from a champagne flute, but you'll be rewarded with a better drinking experience.
Appreciating the bouquet is the first critical step in the enjoyment of this most beguiling libation, but please don't go sticking your nose right in the glass and inhaling deeply. All you'll do is singe your nasal passages with powerful alcohol esters. Instead, hold the glass at chest level and let the delicate fragrances waft up. In a minute or so, your senses will be luxuriating in a cloud of vanilla, toffee, nougat, pepper, rose and chocolate. Now bring it a little closer, maybe to chin level, and you'll begin to see what Armagnac is all about.
What's next is a trick I learned from the brandy professionals. Stick a finger in the glass and then dab the liquid on the back of your hand -- just as you would a perfume sample. Your body heat will cause the alcohol to evaporate, leaving behind only the essential aromas of the Armagnac. After about a minute, smell it up close. The Armagnac will no doubt remind you of dried fruits like apricots, prunes and figs, and you may also detect butterscotch, licorice and flowers.
Now take the tiniest sip of the Armagnac -- about a half-teaspoonful. Roll the liquid around your tongue, your cheeks and your gums. Drinking it this way, you'll see why people love this stuff.
As the evening progresses, cradle the glass in your hand to gently warm the Armagnac. As its temperature rises, it will release new aromas and its flavor will change. Keep sipping slowly, contemplating and relaxing. Before you know it, you and your glass of Armagnac will have spent the night together.