The past decade has witnessed a quiet revolution for chronically overlooked spirits. In the world of agave, the intricate charm of mezcal has rocketed into the international spotlight, with drinkers discovering its smoky appeal en masse. When it comes to whiskey, rye has stepped outside of bourbon’s shadow, with its spicy bite finally getting the respect it deserves. And now, it’s high time that the nuanced flavor of Armagnac finds its proper place in glasses and along back bars.
A centuries-old type of brandy from the Gascony region of Southwest France, Armagnac is a white-wine-based liquor traditionally distilled once using a column still known as an alembic armagnaçaise, then aged in oak barrels. The epitome of a craft spirit, the majority of Armagnac is produced by small-scale, often family-owned operations that take a great deal of pride not only in their deeply unique versions of the spirit but the cultural importance of Armagnac to the culture of Gascony.
“[Since] Armagnac is a specific terroir in a small region in France and is made with grapes from the region, each grape brings a different style and aroma,” says Rémy Grassa, the owner of Château du Tariquet.
If cognac is the smooth and serious older brother of the brandy family, Armagnac is the spunky youngster that’s always up to something surprising. One of the biggest differentiating factors between Armagnac and its more streamlined relatives is just how complex and varied it can be, even from vintage to vintage. This diversity is due in large part to the length of time the Armagnac is aged (the longer you keep it in oak barrels, the spicier and more complicated it becomes) but also the subtle differences in terroir throughout Gascony. Also, unlike cognac, there are various combinations of A.O.C.-approved grapes that can be used to make diverse Armagnac blends, ensuring that each vintage has a little something different to offer drinkers.
While the spirit is still less widely available in the U.S. than other brandies, it’s quickly gaining a foothold not only as an after-dinner digestif meant to be sipped straight but as an ideal drink for pairing with everything from stone fruit to fish. It also is a fine cocktail component, adding a level of depth that’s complementary to other flavors and surprisingly well-rounded.
Since Armagnacs can differ significantly, even from the same producer, don’t be afraid to test them out. When sampling Armagnac, treat it like you’re trying a new perfume or cologne. Dab a little bit on the back of your hand, then take in the aroma to gather the unique characteristics of the vintage. These are five excellent and varied armagnacs to try now, broken down by flavor profile.
1. Budget: Marie Duffau Napoléon ($35)
Clocking in around $35 on average, this Armagnac is created using only grapes grown without pesticides or fertilizers, leading to a flavor profile that is richly autumnal. Dried fruit and wisps of vanilla dominate the palate. It’s such a compelling sipper at such a strong price point that you might be inclined to buy a couple of bottles just to stock up.
2. Fruit-Forward: Delord Blanche ($37)
While Armagnac is a spirit that’s been sipped and swirled for centuries throughout the French countryside, blanche Armagnac is a relative new kid on the block. A crisp, zippy eau-de-vie, the clear spirit received its official A.O.C. just over a decade ago and entered the U.S. market shortly thereafter in 2008. Only a handful of versions are imported to the states today, including Delord’s, which is not only a brilliant pairing with caviar but a solid jumping-off point for experimenting with Armagnac cocktails.
3. Smooth: Castarède Armagnac VSOP ($58)
There’s something inherently warm about this Armagnac, with baking spice and caramel notes that taste like drinking dessert. Don’t let its gentility and well-roundedness fool you, though: It also lingers on the tongue long after you’ve emptied your glass.
4. Spicy: Château de Laubade XO ($70)
The Château de Laubade XO is an ideal introductory Armagnac for first-timers, with a nuttiness and subtle back-of-the-throat heat that make it the perfect means by which to learn about the spirit. If you’re typically a whiskey drinker, swap out this XO for your nightcap once, and you may never go back.
5. Rich: Chateau de Lacquy XO 17-Year-Old ($117)
Founded in 1711, Chateau de Lacquy claims to be the oldest operating family-owned Armagnac estate. Three centuries of experience are evident in this XO bottling, which features 60% baco, 30% ugni blanc and 10% colombard grapes. The result is a rich, round flavor profile that’s full of oak, vanilla, dried fig and chocolate. All that leads to a long and creamy finish that lends itself to comfortable chairs and having nowhere to be.