Armagnac, like Cognac, is an eau de vie created from wine aged in oak barrels. The two are produced from grapes. Seasonality is a constraint for producers of both Armagnac and Cognac. They are dependent on the calendar, following the seasons, which gives a rhythm to the work of the vine, the harvests, the winemaking and distillation processes. As a rule, this final step in production must be completed by the 31st of March in the year that follows the harvest.
Whisky, on the other hand, is an eau de vie made from cereals and aged in wooden barrels. It is produced from grains (generally barley). Similar to other industrial spirits like gin, vodka or rum, it can be distilled at any time of year.
Armagnac vs Cognac - A Comparison
Armagnac and Cognac are French eaux de vie under the AOC designation, which means that they cannot be produced outside of the region which bears their name. 300 km separates the two territories. Cognac is the northernmost of the two, including the Charente, Charente-Maritime and a little part of the Dordogne and the Deux-Sèvres departments. The terroirs are distinguished by their soil composition and their climate, giving each eau de vie its own specific characteristics. The Cognac soil is made up of a majority of limestone, whereas the soil of the Armagnac region is sandy, with clay-silica and clay-limestone properties. The Armagnac region also has a dryer, sunnier Continental climate with harsher winters than its Cognac counterpart, which is considered to have an Oceanic climate.
Cognac is produced from the Ugni Blanc white grape variety exclusively. Armagnac is produced from 10 different varieties of grapes fixed by the AOC, including the Ugni Blanc (55%), the Folle Blanche, the Baco and the Colombard. The Ugni Blanc comes from the Cognac region initially. It was adopted in Armagnac largely after the phylloxera crisis in the early 20th century. The diversity of the grape varieties found in Armagnac is due to the winemaking tradition in the region, which also produces a wine meant for consommation. The Cognac region only produces wines meant for distillation.
The Copper Columns and Continuous Distillation of the Armagnac Still
Armagnac and Cognac are also differentiated by the still used in the distillation process.
The “Armagnac” still features copper columns and provides a continuous distillation. The steam from the heated wine mingles with the cool wine — this intermingling is specific to the process of Armagnac distillation. The wine is distilled only once, permitting a better conservation of the grape essence and the aroma of the wine.
The “Cognac” or “Charentais” still features a basic design, made from copper. It uses a double heating distillation method that creates an eau de vie with a higher alcohol content.
Armagnac is the Spirit Closest to Wine
After distillation, Armagnac carries an alcohol content of 54% ABV, making it the spirit the closest in alcohol levels to wine, while Cognac carries 72% ABV. The evaporation of the alcohol during aging permits Armagnac to obtain the commercial alcohol content of 40% ABV-45% ABV. Cognac, however, is progressively diluted with water in order to reach the same level of 40%-45% ABV.
After exiting the still, eaux de vie like Armagnac or Cognac are kept in oak barrels. The aging process is very similar for the two, though the barrels for Cognac must be new, while those of Armagnac move from new to old during the process. During aging the oak and the eau de vie are in constant contact, exchanging components that develop the aromas and create the distinct coloration of the finished product.
Armagnac is a “living” eau de vie, evolving with time. Its aging process gives it its singular complexity. It is this aspect of its character that allows it to be attached more to wine culture than other brandies. Like wine, Armagnac can be made into a vintage to reflect the expression of one particularly good year. It dedicates itself to the prolongation of vine cultivation. The vintage is a specific characteristic of Armagnac that we do not find in Cognac because a brandy that is “burned” by alcohol cannot evolve with time.
Armagnac, A Little-known French Treasure
Armagnac and Cognac have two distinct historic trajectories that influence their modern popularity. Armagnac was developed under a French model of conservation while Cognac was established under an export model more along the lines of the Netherlands or England. Historically Cognac wine was distilled for conservation purposes: long voyages demanded a wine that would not “turn” upon arrival. It was thus the Dutch who began exporting it in Northern Europe, to begin with to ports along the Atlantic coastline like La Rochelle, while the English still controlled the Bordelais ports. Upon arrival, the brandy was diluted in order to be consumed like wine. Cognac in its modern form didn’t emerge until the 17th century, with the appearance of the double distillation process borrowed from Whisky. It was conceived for an export market while both the economic growth and the English demographic were experiencing an alcohol shortage. Merchants from the across the Atlantic set up trading companies in the Cognac region, specializing in the production of Cognac. In 1860 under Napoleon III, a commerce treaty was signed between France and England to facilitate the exportation of Cognac. Today 98% of its production is exported.
Armagnac is the oldest French eau de vie, a treasure of Gascony’s culinary heritage, carried on by the legend of d’Artagnan. Its more intimate artisanal production perpetuates an ancestral know-how. Its prestige emanates worldwide among connoisseurs.
Armagnac, like Cognac, is not flavored. It is thus distinguished from other, industrial eaux de vie like gin or vodka which are characterized by the inclusion of additives. Armagnac retains an authentic, traditional and artisanal character making it an exceptional product.