When reaching for a delicious brandy to make cocktails like a Sidecar or to sip after a meal, overwhelmingly people will plump for Cognac, but France has another great brandy which isn’t quite so well-known, Armagnac. They’re both made from grapes, they’re both from France, and they’ve both aged in oak casks, so what’s the difference?
What’s the difference between Armagnac and Cognac?
Cognac and Armagnac are both places in Western France. Cognac is on the Atlantic coast north of Bordeaux whereas Armagnac is inland to the west of Toulouse. Armagnac claims to be the older of the two brandy-producing regions with records showing distillation stretching back to 1411, according to some sources. This would have just been an eau-de-vie (white spirit – perhaps flavoured with herbs) and not very much like the present day wood-aged brandy.
Recent history is more instructive because the Cognac region was developed because of its proximity to ports at La Rochelle and Bordeaux and has always been export-led. Indeed, many of the businesses were founded by foreigners in the 18th century: Hennessey from Ireland, Martell from Jersey, and Hine from England. In contrast, Armagnac is inland and traditionally most of the production was consumed within France.
Cognac has a maritime climate which means that it is cooler in the summer but not too cold in the winter. Armagnac is further south and inland, and it has a continental climate which means hotter summers but colder winters. Broadly speaking, grapes will be fresher in Cognac and riper in Armagnac.
Something like 90% of Cognac is made from one grape variety, ugni blanc (aka trebbiano), whereas Armagnac has more varied viticulture with four grapes dominating: folle blanche, ugni blanc, colombard, and baco.
Cognac is distilled twice in pot stills as with malt whisky though the stills are smaller and always direct-fired. The resulting spirit will be about 70% ABV, smooth and fruity. Most Armagnac is distilled in a column still but these aren’t the enormous columns of grain whisky distilleries which turn out high-strength alcohol, Armagnac stills are much smaller with fewer plates and produce a pungent spirit of between 50 and 60% ABV.
Both are aged in French oak, though traditionally Armagnac was aged in local oak and Cognac from oak grown further north. Most Cognac is blended and sold according to designations such as VSOP or XO. Armagnac is also sold by these designations but a large amount is sold unblended from a single vintage.
Most Cognac is made by the big four houses: Hennessy, Remy Martin, Martell, and Courvoisier which are owned by multinational companies. They buy in spirit both aged and unaged as well as producing it themselves. The region produces about 180 million bottles a year and exports 98% of production.
In contrast, Armagnac produces only six million bottles a year, about half of which are exported. A lot of the production is in the hands of independent farmers who also grow tobacco, raise livestock, and make wine. The bigger brands include Janneau, Delord, Château du Tariquet, and Baron de Sigognac but these are tiny by Cognac standards.
Armagnac tends to be pungent and often a little wild (though that’s not to say rough). Perhaps because of the more varied grape varieties, you get a great variety of flavour in Armagnac from the highly-flavoured and spicy, to the light and fruity.
Cognac, in contrast, tends to be smoother and more elegant. Having said that, you do get Cognacs from small producers that are every bit as idiosyncratic as Armagnac, and Armagnacs that are as polished as the fanciest XOs from Cognac.
So that’s Cognac and Armagnac – both regions make superb brandies – and we couldn’t pick a favourite. Please don’t make us choose!