There’s a lot to be said about Armagnac, the low-key relative of Cognac. While it’s common knowledge that Filipinos love to drink Cognac or brandy in general (sort of associated with your fathers’ and uncles’ drink of choice during reunions/wakes, or something to sip after a long, hard day), not a lot of people know about Armagnac. Manila is starting to come around and paying attention to this previously overlooked member of the brandy family. Let me give you a bit of a primer on it.

cognac-3404
Filipinos love to drink Cognac or brandy

It’s often described in relation to Cognac, and since Filipinos already have a firmer grasp on what Cognac is, let’s start by comparing the two. Both Armagnac and Cognac come from grapes in France (Cognac from the northern part of Bordeaux, Armagnac from the southwest region in Gascony). The differences in weather and soil varieties come into play in differentiating one from the other. Cognac is made with one primary grape variety, while Armagnac has four primary grape varieties. Cognac is usually distilled twice while Armagnac is distilled once – which gives Armagnac a more robust flavor profile and body, and is why it is aged longer than Cognac, so the flavors can have time to combine and have whatever remaining impurities removed. This also means longer time in the oak for Armagnac; the extra patience required rewards a brandy with more finesse and roundness.

The production volume of Cognac is significantly greater than that of Armagnac. This is why the world consumes more Cognac (produced more for export), as Armagnac is usually consumed locally. Although when Armagnac finds its way into a restaurant’s menu, it lends a certain level of connoisseur air that Cognac doesn’t (or can’t) do. While Cognac is better known and has a larger consumer base, Armagnac production predates Cognac making by around 150 years! I heard somewhere that Cognac is like tequila, and Armagnac is like mezcal. Another amazing fact about Armagnac is that it is a lot cheaper than Cognac.

Château de Laubade, France’s premier Armagnac makers, conducted a private Armagnac tasting event in Manila recently and the regional brand ambassador Mr. Aymeric Dehont conducted the class. Château de Laubade estate was built way back in 1870 and has grown to be one of the premier Armagnac companies in the world (and they have a multitude of awards to back up that claim).

Dehont was knowledgeable and approachable, something that was a welcome surprise. For a brand of this stature, I was expecting someone in his fifties, who commanded serious attention, instead a young (boyish looks, I would approve my younger sister to date) very pleasant, passionate man, shared his love for Armagnac. Armagnac is not easily available in Manila, but thank God for companies like AWC that are helping us Filipinos drink better by bringing in high quality spirits and wines. Manila really is catching up! I thank them for introducing Château de Laubade to my world; my drinking has never been the same. Their brands made such an impact on me that for the next month, single malt will not be cutting it for me, like I have been converted! I’m definitely getting my hands on more Armagnac brands.

Different expressions from Château de Laubade
Different expressions from Château de Laubade

AWC, like other Armagnac houses, produce their own grapes, so they have full control over the quality of their product from start to finish. Unlike the mass-produced Cognac, Armagnac making remains in the hands of small producers. (I am amazed that they are left untouched by big corporations despite having been around for hundreds of years. Bravo! I hope it remains that way.)

Armagnac can be divided into two main categories: vintage and non-vintage. Vintage ones are distilled from grapes grown in a single year (with the year displayed on the bottle). For non-vintage Armagnacs, the age statements refer to the youngest blend it contains (like blended whiskies): VS (minimum two years), VSOP (at least four years), XO (more than six years, and Hors d’Age (10 years plus). They make it like perfume, mixed to find that defining taste for each of the types.

Château Laubade VSOP is the brand's entry level Armagnac
Château Laubade VSOP is the brand’s entry level Armagnac

I’ve gone on and on giving a background on Armagnac and differentiating it from Cognac. The most distinctive thing about Armagnac is the way it tastes. Appreciating the bouquet is the first step towards entering the captivating world of Armagnac. Smooth, velvety, fruity (think dried fruits… apricots, prunes), vanilla, chocolate, toffee, nougat, pepper on the nose. (Don’t stick your nose in right away as you will only inhale alcohol esters! Instead, approach with patience and finesse.) Then you take a sip. It is a joy to the senses: the golden or amber hue of the liquid is clear and inviting, the aroma pleasant and intoxicating, the mouth-feel is well balanced, elegant, persistent. A long finish. Your eyes will close… You’ll hear yourself moan a little bit once you’ve taken a sip and rolled it in around your mouth. I also found that my eyes rolled in delight. A thought bubble with the word “mind-blowing!” We also mixed up a few amazing cocktails with it, courtesy of my amazing bartender Jay (also an expert on Armagnac which just happens to be his favorite drink). I’ve found a new love!

Armanac
Cocktail from the class made with the Armagnac–French Royalty, 40ml Armagnac, 20ml lemon, 20ml Cassis 20ml honey served in coupettes and Sazerac served in glen cairn

In many ways, Armagnac is a boutique spirit: obscure, small batch, artisanal. It hasn’t been in a hit show (*cough* Mad Men *cough*) that generated an interest in a classic spirit. It sounds like a hipster’s drink of choice; though I sincerely hope that it doesn’t become the go-to drink of “trying hard to be trendy millennials” discovering something non-mainstream – because that would do the Armagnac a great disservice. It is an exceptional spirit; rooted in tradition, elegance, quality, and excellence that we, as imbibers, should be able to recognize and appreciate.

Restaurateur, expert drinker, creative proprietor of steam punk bar Hooch, SMITH Butcher and Grill Room, Ebeneezers, Poulet Manille, and Ampersand. She wrote The Standard newspaper’s Tipple Tales cocktail and spirits column and co-hosted the Manila episode of the Travel Channel show Booze Traveler with cocktail connoisseur Jack Maxwell. She is DrinkManila’s resident mixology expert.

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