Reconsidering Armagnac, the Rebel of Brandy

Though it's been a part of Gascogne's culture for over seven centuries, Armagnac has barely aged a day. Wayne Curtis on why this dark horse brandy is poised to be the spirit of the next 200 years.

armagnac producer tariquet

Last fall I was visiting Château du Tariquet, a winemaker and Armagnac distiller set amid 2,200 acres of vineyards about two hours northwest of Toulouse, France. I’d just toured the gleaming winery, bottling plant and warehouse, all of which was Ikea-sleek and spotless, done up in pale grey with accents of royal blue. Efficient conveyors zipped bottles and pallets around without a calorie of wasted effort.

And then we walked a couple hundred yards to a smaller, rather less polished building. Inside a narrow room, sat a compact column still atop a flatbed trailer, its rubber wheels fully inflated, as if packed and ready to head off for a vacation in the Pyrenees. It was a bit like finding a sooty locomotive idling at the departure gate at Charles de Gaulle Airport.

An older man smoked a cigarette at the door. Every 20 minutes or so he’d grab some four-foot wooden posts culled from rotting vineyard trellises, then heave them into the firebox that boils the stillage and keeps the distillate dripping out of a copper spout.

This is how Tariquet makes its Armagnac—a brandy from the Gascony region of France. (Like Cognac, it must be made in a specific region to be so labeled.) And it quite neatly sums up the state of the Armagnac industry today: It’s got one foot in the future, with pretty much everything else in the past.

Which is exactly where it should be. After all, Armagnac embodies authenticity and heritage—it’s been made for at least seven centuries in this part of France—combined with a DIY attitude and a huge flavor. In short, it’s everything discerning drinkers seem to be looking for in spirits today.

Armagnac is among the most historic of liquors, with records showing that brandy has been made in this part of France for at least seven centuries, predating Cognac—which is made in the Charente Valley three hours to the north—by a century and a half. And unlike Cognac, which has a somewhat confused public image (part patriarch in velour smoking jacket; part hip-hop star with gold grill), the idea of Armagnac is still largely unformed in the American mind, mostly because it’s rarely attracted the attention of the conglomerates and their sizable marketing budgets. (Among the major players, only Pernod-Ricard has a stake in Armagnac with its Marquis de Montesquiou.)

Because of this agreeable inconsistency, Vogler likens Armagnac and its kin to something more agricultural than industrial, like scotch, tequila or rhum agricole. It has the ability to convey a sense of place and the things that place grows and produces.

“Armagnac is like the rebel of brandy,” says Kelvin Uffre of New York’s The Eddy, underlining the pliability of Armagnac’s image. There he serves a 7th Regiment Punch, a vintage drink from the golden days of Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson, in which he uses Marie Duffau Napoleon Bas Armagnac.

Armagnac is often described as Cognac’s rustic country cousin—the mezcal to Cognac’s tequila, the broadcloth to Cognac’s silk. Yet it’s produced following many of the same AOC rules, and generally from the same grape varietals as in Cognac: ugni blanc, colombard and folle blanche. Its distinctive character lies in the specificity of its terroir and distillation.

The region around Armagnac has a unique microclimate, shaped in part by the Pyrenees to the south, extensive forest to the east and nearby ocean. It swelters during the summer days, but has chilly nights that help preserve the grapes’ acidity. Within the region, sub-zones represent further variations and resulting characteristics. The Bas Armagnac region, for example, produces spirits redolent of prunes, while those from Ténarèze can evoke violets. Barrels also play a supporting role. Local oak used in cooperage tends to have more tannins than the Limonsin oak favored by Cognac makers, and this introduces a nutty flavor to many Armagnacs.

Stills used to make Armagnac also grew out of their own tradition, separate from Cognac. It’s now made mostly on small continuous column stills, which run nonstop for a week or two at a time, and produce a low-proof spirit that’s run through the still only once. This is in contrast to Cognac’s batch-process alembic pot stills. Here, the distillate is typically distilled twice, emerging at a higher proof (around 70 percent, compared to around 52 percent for Armagnac).

“You get a real sense of the base material,” says Thad Vogler of Bar Agricole and Trou Normand in San Francisco. Vogler has long been an advocate for French brandies, and—for his bars—purchases individual casks of Cognac, Armagnac, and calvados that represent some of the best of the distiller’s stock. He especially likes their subtle variability, and the fact that small producers handcraft them. “Ingredients for food are usually much more variable [than for spirits], and you can end up with something interesting and compelling [when cooking],” he says. “I’m looking for that sort of component in cocktails, and Armangac makes for a great ingredient.”

Because of this agreeable inconsistency, Vogler likens Armagnac and its kin to something more agricultural than industrial, like scotch, tequila or rhum agricole. It has the ability to convey a sense of place and the things that place grows and produces.

Dan Nicolaescu, a bartender who’s worked at Dead Rabbit and Dirty French in New York, agrees. “Cognac can be very good, but it’s a spirit that makes friends with everybody. Armagnac, from my point of view, has more a rustic character and personality. It’s not the most popular guy in the room.”

The still at Tariquet, while no longer setting out on road trips, is part of a long tradition of roving stills. These would transit from vineyard to vineyard during the season (October to March), converting wine to Armangac for a week or two, then moving on to the next farm, or setting up in the village center, where farmers could bring their wine for distillation. While not quite as common a sight on back roads, there are still five licensed mobile stills, which produce roughly 20 percent of all Armagnac today.

Part of Armagnac’s pleasing gravitas has to do with its enduring connection to the past. While visiting another family-run distillery, Château de Laubade, in Sorbets, owner Denis Lesgourgues showed me through the property’s 1899 manor house and the outbuildings where his Armagnac is distilled and some 3,000 casks quietly age.

At one point we stood outside on a low rise overlooking 250 acres of grapes and the snow-capped Pyrenees beyond. Nearby were pallets of staves taken from oak trees that had been hand-selected by the cooper and Lesgourgues’s father. These would age for three years in the open air before being sent off to a small cooperage where they would become barrels (the only Armagnac house I experienced that takes this step). “We think it’s the only way to make the best casks,” he said.

Lesgourgues then pointed in the distance to a small patch of young trees amid the vineyards. The slope and soil wasn’t suitable for grapes there, he said, so they decided to plant oak for barrels. I asked when they would be ready to be harvested. “In about 230 years,” he replied.

Perhaps the best way to become the drink of the moment is to make it for the ages.