Armagnac has come into wider use lately, as many bartenders prefer this brandy’s boldness and uniqueness in cocktails over the easily overpowered subtlety of cognac. But what’s the best and quickest way to describe it when the bar is three deep on a Friday night?
Of course, the Monday afternoon answer is that Armagnac is a French brandy like cognac but made in a different region from a wider variety of grapes and distilled to a lower flavor-retaining proof, usually in a small column still. Its flavor profile is typically more singular, rustic and forest-like than the blended elegance and delicacy of the lighter, floral cognac.
Bartenders who serve Armagnac lent me their shortcut descriptors for the Friday night crowds. Ezra Star, the general manager of Drink in Boston, calls it an “earthier French spirit. Cognac is often a house style, while Armagnac is the taste of one farmer at one time.”
Several bartenders used family-member analogies to describe it in relation to cognac. John Codd offers seven Armagnac cocktails on the menu at Gaspar Brasserie in San Francisco, so he’s used to filling customers in on the deets. He describes it as the “older, redheaded smaller-production stepchild of cognac.”
Adam George of Areal in Santa Monica, Calif., serves Armagnac in an adaptation of Tony Conigliaro’s drink Spitfire and says, “It’s bigger, spicier, a little rough and tumble, and more interested in asserting itself than its cognac cousin.”
Terry Williams, the general manager of Houston’s Anvil calls it “cognac’s wilder, hotter sister,” while Kaleb Cribb of Atlanta’s Holeman and Finch says it’s “the cooler older brother to cognac that taught him about rock ’n’ roll.”
Other bartenders use comparisons to other spirits. “It’s in some ways the mezcal of France, made in many different ways by many different people attempting to get to a flavor of the region,” says Star.
George describes it to patrons as “the rye whiskey of the brandy world,” usually following up with “no, for the love of God, it’s not sweet.”