Sipping a glass of French brandy is a simple and classy way to treat yourself. One of the most well-known types of French brandy is Cognac. While it may sound esoteric, it’s widely distributed–and often inexpensive. Don’t believe us? If you’ve ever tried Hennessy, you’ve tried Cognac. But Cognac isn’t the only great French spirit out there. If you’re really looking to get into the wonderful world of French brandy, make sure you don’t deprive yourself of another goodie: Armagnac.
To start with, both Cognac and Armagnac are both varieties of French brandy. To be reductive, brandy is distilled wine (just like whiskey is distilled beer). Though you can also make brandy out of other fruits, “properly” it’s made from grapes, and this is the case for both Cognac and Armagnac.
Cognac is brandy made in the Cognac region of Southwestern France. Cognac is mostly made from three major varietals of grapes that you rarely see in wine: Ugni blanc, Folle blanche, and Colombard, as well as smaller percentages of a few other grapes like Sémillon. These grapes, if fermented, would make a wine that is extremely acidic and often unpalatable, but when distilled makes for a spirit that is unparalleled in aging and blending potential. Distillation takes place in copper pot stills, which are regulated in size and shape by the French government. Once distilled, Cognac is stored in French oak barrels to age. All Cognacs are blends of various barrels, and each individual Cognac in a blend is referred to as eau-de-vie or ‘water of life.’ The age statement on a bottle of Cognac is an indication of how old the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is, and for really exclusive bottles, the other Cognacs in a blend can be over a hundred years old. Cognac doesn’t usually carry direct age statements like a bottle of whiskey, however; Cognac aged up to two years is listed as VS or ‘very special’, aged up to four years it’s called VSOP or ‘very superior old pale’, and aged up to eight years it can be called either XO for ‘extra old’ or Napoléon. In 2018, the XO minimum age rule goes up to 10 years, though typically XO cognacs are considerably older than this.
Armagnac is brandy made in the Armagnac region in Gascony, further south than Cognac. Armagnac uses Ugni blanc, Folle blanche, and Colombard grapes like Cognac does, with the addition of Baco blanc, a grape that outside of Armagnac isn’t used for much of anything. Instead of Cognac’s copper pot stills, Armagnac is typically distilled in column stills similar to American bourbons,, Armagnac is only distilled once instead of twice in the case of Cognac. The single distillation and the column still combine to make Armagnac generally a more aromatic and brooding spirit than Cognac, perhaps a better entry into French brandies for someone used to bourbons. Armagnac uses the VS/VSOP/XO designations for age as Cognac, but the ages don’t match up perfectly; the youngest eau-de-vie in a XO Armagnac only has to be aged six years instead of eight. Also important for the imbiber more conscious about how much they’re spending on alcohol, as Armagnac isn’t as well-known outside of Europe, old Armagnac tends to be cheaper than similarly-aged Cognac.
We cannot define absolute criteria for what is the best brandy. It's not the amount of sales that determine the quality: Armagnac and cognac embody what is most noble in spirits. In both cases, one can but notice the quality of workmanship and the pursuit of excellence that are the source of the charm of French terroirs.
Remember to use a tulip glass to taste your spirits. Now it's up to you to determine which of the two spirits you prefer!