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The past decade has been a time of quiet revolution for chronically overlooked spirits. In the world of agave, the intricate charm of mezcal has rocketed into the international spotlight, with tipplers discovering en masse its smoky appeal. When it comes to whiskey, rye is finally getting the respect it deserves, stepping outside of bourbon’s shadow with a more-than-welcome spicy bite. And now, it’s high time that the nuanced flavor of Armagnac finds its proper place in glasses and along back bars.
A centuries-old type of brandy from the Gascony region of Southwest France, Armagnac is a white-wine-based liquor traditionally distilled once using a column still known as an alembic armagnaçaise, then aged in oak barrels. The epitome of a craft spirit, the majority of Armagnac is produced by small-scale, often family-owned, operations who take a great deal of pride not only in their deeply unique versions of the spirit but the cultural importance of Armagnac to the culture of Gascony.
“[Since] Armagnac is a specific terroir in a small region in France and is made with grapes from the region, each grape brings a different style and aroma,” says Rémy Grassa, the owner of Château du Tariquet.
If cognac is the smooth and serious older brother of the brandy family, Armagnac is the spunky youngster that’s always up to something surprising. One of the biggest differentiating factors between Armagnac and its more streamlined relatives is just how complex and varied it can be, even from vintage to vintage. This diversity is due in large part to the length of time the Armagnac is aged (the longer you keep it in oak barrels, the spicier and more complicated it becomes) but also the subtle differences in terroir throughout Gascony. Also, unlike cognac, there are various combinations of A.O.C.-approved grapes that can be used to make diverse Armagnac blends, ensuring that each vintage has a little something different to offer drinkers.
While the spirit is still less widely available in the U.S., it’s quickly gaining a foothold not only as an after-dinner digestif meant to be sipped straight but as an ideal drink for pairing with everything from stone fruit to fish. It also is a fine cocktail component, adding a level of depth that’s all at once complementary to other flavors and surprisingly well-rounded.
Below are four excellent Armagnacs to sample if you’re ready to help jump-start the spirit’s rise to stardom in the U.S. Pro tip: Since Armagnacs differ so widely (even from the same producer), don’t be afraid to test them out. When sampling Armagnac, treat it like you’re trying a new perfume or cologne. Dab a little bit on the back of your hand, then take in the aroma to gather the unique characteristics of the vintage.
1. Spicy: Château de Laubade XO ($70)
The Château de Laubade XO is an ideal introductory Armagnac for first-timers, with a nuttiness and subtle back-of-the-throat heat that make it the perfect means by which to learn about the spirit. If you’re typically a whiskey drinker, swap out this XO for your nightcap once, and you may never go back.
2. Budget: Marie Duffau Napoléon ($35)
Clocking in around $35 on average, this Armagnac is created using only grapes grown without pesticides or fertilizers, leading to a flavor profile that is richly autumnal. Dried fruit and wisps of vanilla dominate the palate. It’s such a compelling sipper at such a strong price point that you might be inclined to buy a couple of bottles just to stock up.
3. Smooth: Castarède Armagnac VSOP ($60)
There’s something inherently warm about this Armagnac, with baking spice and caramel notes that taste like drinking dessert. Don’t let its gentility and well-roundedness fool you, though: It also lingers on the tongue long after you’ve emptied your glass.
4. Fruit-Forward: Delord Blanche ($37)
While Armagnac is a spirit that’s been sipped and swirled for centuries throughout the French countryside, blanche Armagnac is a relative new kid on the block. A crisp, zippy eau-de-vie, the clear spirit received its official A.O.C. just over a decade ago and entered the U.S. market shortly thereafter in 2008. Only a handful of versions are imported to the states today, including Delord’s, which is not only a brilliant pairing with caviar but a solid jumping-off point for experimenting with Armagnac cocktails.