Review: A Trio of Pineau des Charentes – Tiffon, Reviseur, and Chateau de Beaulon

Pineau des Charentes is perhaps the most unique “wine” you’ll ever encounter — in part because there’s actually no wine in it. What’s Pineau? Pineau des Charentes hails from the Cognac region of France (and thereabouts), where winemakers take (typically white) wine grapes, crush them into must, then — before it ferments (and turns into wine) — add Cognac to the mix to bring it up to about 20% alcohol. Then it goes into oak barrels. Young Pineau may spend a year or two in barrel; 8 months is the legal minimum. Older ones could be in barrel for 20 years or longer. The longer it spends in barrel, as with Cognac, the darker the finished product. Most Pineau goes into bottle between 17 and 18% abv, similar with Port (to which it is invariably compared).

To complicate things, sometimes red or rose wine grapes are used to make Pineau, though as with white Pineau, it is intended to be consumed chilled.

We’ve reviewed a Pineau just once before, a 20 year old expression, in 2011. Today we have the good fortune to look at a trio of these wines, spanning a number of the above styles. Thoughts follow.

Tiffon Pineau des Charentes – Made with white wine grape must, aged at least one year. Pungent and punchy, this drinks like a young Cognac, pumped up with fresh fruit. Notes of plump table grapes, apricots, and a lingering earthiness that recalls incense, green banana, papaya, and eastern spices. A somewhat unexpected combination of flavors, with sandalwood hanging on to a lengthy finish. B / $20

Reviseur Pineau des Charentes Vieux Pineau – This Pineau is based on white grape must but is aged at least five years before release. Lightly nutty, with ample notes of golden raisins and some sherried character, there’s an austerity here, with some oxidized characters coming to the fore. The finish mixes in brown sugar, some of that spicy incense, and a sandalwood note that gives it a hint of perfume. B+ / $35

Chateau de Beaulon Pineau des Charentes 5 Years Old Rouge – A red wine-based Pineau, aged five years. The red wine grapes give this more character — not to mention a brick red color — that pumps up the body with more of a Port-like character — darker raisin and prune notes, licorice, tobacco, and plenty of baking spice. Very sweet, the finish brings on notes of cola and tea leaf, with lingering hints of cloves. One to savor. A- / $30

Review: Grand Marnier and Grand Marnier Cuvee du Centenaire

Is it possible we’ve never reviewed one of the most essential liqueurs ever produced (GM Titanium notwithstanding)? Grand Marnier, the orange-meets-brandy spirit, deserves a spot in every liquor cabinet, and I’ll tell you why in a moment.

First, what is Grand Marnier, actually?

Understand that this is a different animal than triple sec or Cointreau. While triple sec is intended as a drier style of orange liqueur, almost always made with grain neutral spirits to give it a boozy lift, Grand Marnier is technically a form of curacao, sweeter in style and, critically, blended with French brandy. In fact, Grand Marnier lists Cognac first on its label, before oranges.

As the company notes, “Created in 1880 by founder Louis-Alexandre Marnier Lapostolle, Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge is a premium blend of cognacs with wild tropical oranges from the Caribbean. Louis-Alexandre’s vision of blending the essence of wild tropical oranges with cognac from France was unconventional and truly the earliest form of spirits innovation of its time.”

There’s no information on the age of the Cognac in the blend, but later in its life, Grand Marnier pushed the brand upscale, launching its Grande Cuvee Collection, consisting of three special bottlings that incorporated increasingly rare Cognacs in the blend. Cuvee du Centenaire is, for lack of a better term, the entry level liqueur in this lineup. Cuvee 1880 and Quintessence are even more luxe.

As for Centenaire, some details: “Introduced in 1927 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of our Maison’s founding, Cuvée du Centenaire is an exceptional blend of refined XO Cognacs from the Grand Crus of Grande and Petite Champagne combined with the essence of wild tropical oranges. The cognac blends found in Cuvée du Centenaire are aged up to 25 years, which results in a perfect balance of smoothness and intense flavors with a complex, lingering finish.”

Both are 80 proof.

Grand Marnier “Cordon Rouge” Cognac & Orange Liqueur – So-called for the red ribbon tied around the neck of the bottle. Immediately recognizable in the glass, this is a classic liqueur from the start, lightly boozy on the nose, but redolent with sharp orange peel and some spicy elements. The palate is less intense than you’d think, definitively orange-fueled, but with plenty of brandy elements to back it up. Think more of that vanilla, some raisins, a hint of milk chocolate, and even some banana notes. More complex than you’d expect, it’s a delight on its own and when used as a mixer, adding complexity to a cocktail that triple sec just can’t provide. A- / $40

Grand Marnier Cuvee du Centenaire Cognac XO & Liqueur D’Oranges – The brandy takes more of a focus on this expression, the orange element playing less critical of a role. That said, it’s definitely an element of the nose, though here the orange peel is integrated with more exotic incense and a stronger cinnamon thread. The palate is fueled more by orange peel, more of that green banana, a touch of chocolate, and lingering spice notes — all of which is a bit less in-your-face and more elegant than you find in the standard Grand Marnier. This expression is definitely more of a straight sipper — though its use in an elevated sidecar would not be out of order. A- / $200

grand-marnier.com

Review: Hennessy Master Blender’s Selection No. 2

Give Hennessy some credit: It isn’t resting on the old school laurels of brandydom. It’s innovating and experimenting and constantly releasing interesting stuff (for better or worse).

Its latest gamble is the Master Blender’s Selection series, a line of two Cognacs — so far — that really mess with the way Cognac is supposed to be made. Hennessy Master Blender’s Selection No. 1 was a slightly overproof expression (as far as I can tell, I’ve never encountered it). Now, Hennessy Master Blender’s Selection No. 2 is out, and it ups the ante.

As Hennessy notes, here, “the eaux-de-vie are aged at least 10 years, and were each aged for 18 months in young coarse-grained French oak barrels before being transferred to old barrels for additional aging.” If you didn’t catch the nuance, it’s in the part about the young coarse-grained French oak barrels. This is new oak, not old, used barrels, that this spirit spends its first year and a half of life in. That’s unheard of in Cognac, where new oak is really never used at all. In fact, the only spirit that uses new oak to any serious degree is one that will be familiar to any Drinkhacker reader: Bourbon.

There’s a reason, methinks, why this cognac was shown off at last year’s WhiskyFest. A gateway between brandy and bourbon, its time in new oak really does a number here, starting with a nose of nutmeg, vanilla, and a sharp black pepper note — filtered through that raisiny, incense-heavy note that is immediately unmistakable driven by Cognac.

The palate is even more in line with whiskeydom, loaded up with notes of cinnamon rolls, more vanilla, and loads of cracked black pepper. There’s a tannic grip to the spirit, driven by wood, which leads to a spicy finish that one could easily mistake for rye whiskey. There’s a lingering sweetness, though, that again takes you back to France — notes of plump raisins, brown sugar, and cinnamon-spiked whipped cream reminding you that Kentucky is far, far away.

As both a whiskey nerd and a lover of Cognac, I like it a great deal.

86 proof.

A- / $90 / hennessy.com

Drinkhacker’s 2017 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

It’s our tenth anniversary, and our tenth holiday gift guide!

After more than 5500 posts — the bulk of them product reviews — we’ve written millions of words on all things quaffable, and as always, we select the cream of the crop to highlight in our annual holiday buying guide. Consider it a “best of the year,” if you’d like — though we do try to aim the list toward products that are actually attainable (sorry, Van Winkle family!) by the average Joe.

As always, the selections below are not comprehensive but represent some of our absolute favorite products. Got a different opinion or think we’re full of it? Feel free to let us know in the comments with your own suggestions for alternatives or questions about other categories or types of beverages that might be perfect for gifting. None of these sound any good to you? Not enough scratch? Teetotaling it in 2018? May we suggest a Drinkhacker t-shirt instead?

Again, happy holidays to all of you who have helped to make Drinkhacker one of the most popular wine and spirits websites on the Internet! Here’s to the next 10 years of kick-ass drinks reviews!

And don’t forget, for more top gift ideas check out the archives and read our 20162015201420132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

Bourbon – Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon 2017 “Al Young 50th Anniversary” ($500) – I’m not the only one to have fallen in love with Four Roses’ one-off Small Batch bottling, which was made in honor of longtime employee Al Young and his 50 years on the job. While this exquisite small batch hit the market at $150, you’re more likely to find it at triple the cost… which means you can expect triple the thank yous should you buy one for a loved one. If that’s not in the cards, check out this year’s Parker’s Heritage Collection Single Barrel Bourbon 11 Years Old ($300+), A. Smith Bowman Abraham Bowman Sequential Series Bourbon ($40/375ml – hard to find), Wyoming Whiskey Double Cask Limited Edition ($55), or Hirsch High Rye Straight Bourbon Whiskey 8 Years Old ($40). All of these will make for unusual, but highly loved, gifts.

Scotch – Kilchoman Red Wine Cask Matured ($110) – So much good Scotch hit this year that it’s hard to pick a favorite, but for 2017 I simply have to go with the magical combination of Islay peat and red wine casks that Kilchoman just released. It’s an absolute steal at this price; buy one for your best bud and one for yourself, too. Of the many other top bottlings to consider, the ones you should be able to actually find include: Caol Ila Unpeated 18 Years Old Limited Edition 2017 ($100), The Balvenie Peat Week 14 Years Old 2002 Vintage ($93), Bunnahabhain 13 Years Old Marsala Finish ($80), and Glenmorangie Bacalta ($89).

Other Whiskey – Kavalan Amontillado Sherry Cask Single Malt Whisky ($400) – I’m not thrilled about dropping another multi-hundred dollar whiskey in this list, but Kavalan hit it out of the park with its finished single malts, the top of the line being this Amontillado-casked number, which is as dark as coffee in the glass. Also consider The Tyrconnell Single Malt Irish Whiskey 16 Years Old ($70), Amrut Spectrum 004 Single Malt Whisky ($500, apologies again), and the outlandish Lost Spirits Distillery Abomination “The Sayers of the Law” ($50, but good luck).

Gin – Cadee Distillery Intrigue Gin ($36) – It’s been a lighter year for gin, but Washington-based Cadee’s combination of flavors in Intrigue are amazing. A close second goes to Eden Mill’s Original Gin ($40), which hails from Scotland.

Vodka – Stateside Urbancraft Vodka ($30) Philadelphia-born Stateside Urbancraft Vodka was the only new vodka we gave exceptional marks to this year. Is the category finally on the decline?

Rum – Havana Club Tributo 2017 ($160) – As Cuban rum finds its way to the U.S., your options for finding top-quality sugar-based spirits are better than ever. Start your collection with Havana Club’s Tributo 2017, which you can now find for much less than the original $390 asking price. More mainstream options: Mezan Single Distillery Rum Panama 2006 ($43), Maggie’s Farm La Revuelta Dark Rum ($35), Cooper River Petty’s Island Driftwood Dream Spiced Rum ($32), or, for those with deep pockets, Arome True Rum 28 Years Old ($600).

Brandy – Domaines Hine Bonneuil 2006 Cognac ($140) – Hine’s 2006 vintage Cognac drinks well above its age and is just about perfect, a stellar brandy that any fan of the spirit will absolutely enjoy. Bache-Gabrielsen XO Decanter Cognac ($100) makes for a striking gift as well, given its lavish presentation and decanter.

Tequila – Patron Extra Anejo Tequila ($90) – No contest here. Patron’s first permanent extra anejo addition to the lineup hits all the right notes, and it’s surprisingly affordable in a world where other extras run $200 and up. Siembra Valles Ancestral Tequila Blanco ($120) is actually more expensive despite being a blanco, but its depth of flavor is something unlike any other tequila I’ve ever encountered.

Liqueur – Luxardo Bitter Bianco ($28) – Who says amaro has to be dark brown in color? Luxardo’s latest is as bitter as anything, but it’s nearly clear, making it far more versatile in cocktails (and not so rough on your teeth). I love it. For a much different angle, check out Songbird Craft Coffee Liqueur ($25), a sweet coffee liqueur that’s hard not to love.

Wine  A bottle of wine never goes unappreciated. Here is a selection of our top picks from 2017:

Need another custom gift idea (or have a different budget)? Drop us a line or leave a comment here and we’ll offer our best advice!

Looking to buy any of the above? Give Caskers and Master of Malt a try!

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2017

San Francisco’s WhiskyFest seemed as popular as ever this year, kicked off with the stampede to the Pappy Van Winkle booth that always marks the start of the show.

As always, there was plenty to enjoy at this year’s event — both new expressions and classic old friends ready for tasting. Here’s a full rundown on everything I tried.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2017

Scotch

Alexander Murray & Co. The Monumental Blend 18 Years Old / B+ / a touch hot for a blend
Alexander Murray & Co. Braes of Glenlivet Distillery 1994 21 Years Old / B+ / bold, spicy, with lots of oak
Alexander Murray & Co. Strathmill Distillery 1992 24 Years Old / B+ / lots of nougat, more granary note than expected; citrus on the back end
Alexander Murray & Co. Bunnahabhain Distillery 1990 26 Years Old / B+ / earthy and unusual, big wet mineral notes
Alexander Murray & Co. Linkwood Distillery 1997 19 Years Old Cask Strength / B / a bit simple
Alexander Murray & Co. Glenlossie Distillery 1997 19 Years Old Cask Strength / B / old bread notes dominate
Alexander Murray & Co. Bunnahabhain Distillery 1988 28 Years Old Cask Strength / B+ / overpowering sherry, but ample fruit
Bruichladdich Black Art 5 / B / sugar cookie dough, lots of vegetation
Laphroaig 25 Years Old / A+ / drinking absolutely gorgeously today, smoke and sweetness in perfect proportions
Tomatin 1986 / A- / bold cereal and malt notes, challah bread; cherry on the back
The Macallan Classic Cut / A- / the first cask strength Macallan in the U.S. in four years; bold and punchy; honeyed
Compass Box Phenomenology / A- / a mystery blend of five whiskeys; Compass Box will reveal their identity at the end of the year; this is a soft, lightly grainy whiskey with ample honey notes
Compass Box No Name / A- / this one is 75% Ardbeg, but the peat is light and quite floral; a really fun one
Highland Park Fire Edition / B / heavy grain and punchy alcohol today, not my favorite tonight
Highland Park Ice Edition / A / a massive step up, gently minty and cereal-infused; soothing
BenRiach 25 Years Old / A- / lemon is heavy on this light bodied 25
Shackleton Blended Malt (2017) / B+ / the third edition of the Shackleton is unrelated to the bottlings that Richard Paterson pulled together; this is a much cheaper blend in simpler packaging; for what it’s worth, it’s soft and simple inside, too, without much complexity but easy to enjoy
Glenlivet 21 Years Old / A / fully firing, lush with fruit and toast notes
Auchentoshan 1988 Wine Cask Finish / B / 25 years old; 17 of those years in Bordeaux casks; bold and spicy, but the finish is off
Bowmore 25 Years Old / B / lots of potpourri and perfume here, overly floral on the finish

Bourbon

Elijah Craig 23 Years Old / A- / drinking well, lots of wood and baking spice folded together
Stagg Jr. / B / over-wooded, with licorice and cloves; really blown out (don’t know the release number)
W.L. Weller 12 Years Old / A / a classic wheater, with ample butterscotch and toffee; really worthy of its praise
Calumet Farm Single Barrel / B+ / a big undercooked for a single barrel, somewhat thin
Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Cherry Wood Smoked Barley 2017 / B+ / corn and barley only; very gentle with the smoke, understated but with a true, fruity complexity; full review in the works
Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition “Al Young” / A / gorgeous, a vanilla powerhouse; a favorite of the night

Other Whiskey

John & Allisa’s 2 Month Aged Tennessee Whiskey / NR / this is a preview from the as-yet-unnamed Tennessee distillery that Sazerac got when it purchased the assets of Popcorn Sutton; it’s always fun to taste near new-make, but today it’s all corn, all the time; try us again in 4-6 years
Westland Distillery Peat Week 2017 / B+ / soft for a “peat bomb,” with minty notes on the back end and some stewed prunes
WhistlePig Boss Hog IV: The Black Prince / B / way overoaked, antiseptic at times; full review of this is coming soon
Bushmills 21 Years Old Single Malt / A- / very heavy maltiness, big body, lots of heather and a lovely depth

Cognac

Hennessy Cognac Master Blender’s Selection No. 2 / A- / 18 months in virgin oak, then 10-20 years in used casks; a wood-forward, domineering blend with tons of dried fruit to fill the palate

Review: Merlet Cognac XO and Soeurs Cerises Cherry Brandy Liqueur

Two new releases from Merlet, which makes both cognac and a selection of liqueurs. Today we look at the new XO cognac release, and a brandy-based liqueur infused with cherries. Let’s dive in!

Merlet Cognac XO – This XO is a multi-cru blend with components at least six years old (and likely much more). A bit thin on the nose, without the massive depth of flavor one expects from an XO cognac. What is there is studded with chocolate, some cola, and a modest hit of dried fruit. The palate is equally delicate, almost floral with backing notes of cocoa powder, vanilla cookies, and spice, layered atop that gentle, lightly raisiny core. It’s altogether one of the quietest XO cognacs I’ve encountered, and while that’s not a put-down, it is missing the bold body that I’d normally like to see from this style. 80 proof. B / $125

Merlet Soeurs Cerises Cherry Brandy Liqueur – This spirit is a liqueur made from multiple types of cherries (primarily Morello) macerated in neutral alcohol, then blended with “a touch” of Merlet’s cognac. Beautiful black cherry — almost blueberry at times — fills the aroma of this heavily fragrant and fruity concoction, which is ultra-sweet to the point of pushiness on the palate. There’s no real sense of the cognac here — perhaps a little vanilla and a touch of raisin if you go searching for it — but that’s no big loss. The cherries are the star of the show, showcased here with a touch of violets on the back end, so keep a bottle on hand for when a Singapore Sling or a Blood and Sand is in order. 48 proof. B+ / $25

distillerie-merlet.com

How Is Brandy Made?

“Claret is liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.” – Samuel Johnson

So you understand what different kinds of whiskey are called and why, and you can name the aromatics used in gin without a second thought, but brandy is still a spirit that eludes you. You know that there are brandy-based cocktails, like a sidecar, but if asked you couldn’t tell someone what brandy exactly is, let alone what it’s made out of. If you’re a brandy novice, please follow along, as we drink deep of this lesser-understood spirit, and attempt to suss out just what makes brandy, brandy.

To start: What exactly is brandy? The term can be traced back to our old friends the Dutch, who started making brandewijn, or “burnt wine,” in the 12th century. Distillation, instead of fermentation, had just began to take off as an industry, and so the Dutch began making liquor distilled from wine. Like India Pale Ale, this wine liquor was originally created to better survive the Dutch merchant ship voyages to the many colonies under the country’s control, and it was only with time that liquor began to be appreciated on its own merits. So as we can see, wine or grape brandy was the first form that brandy took. The most famous brandies in the world, like Cognac and Armagnac, are distilled from wine, and there are many traditionalists that would scoff at the notion of brandy being made from anything else. Napoleon was a famous advocate for Cognac; the legend goes that in 1811, the then-Emperor Napoleon I visited the Courvoisier warehouses and was so taken with the product that he decreed French troops would receive a measure of Cognac in their field rations. Another grape brandy you might recognize is pisco, a South American product made in Peru and Chile that has carved out its own little niche of late in the world of cocktails. But most brandy cocktails are made with grape brandy: famous examples include the Sidecar and the Brandy Alexander, and adding a half ounce of Cognac to a glass of Champagne is a painless and delicious,= simple drink.

Another, much lesser-known, style of brandy is pomace brandy. Unlike grape brandy, which is made from wine, pomace brandy is perhaps best described as brandy made from every part of the grape except for the fruit itself. Pomace brandy is typically made with the grape’s skins and seeds, and sometimes they even include the stems. As you can imagine, pomace brandy is a very different beast than grape brandy is, having a more bitter, vegetal, and funky quality that is probably a more acquired taste. You won’t see any pomace brandies being advertised as such; the most famous brandy in this style is undoubtedly Italian grappa, and since there’s a chance you’ve never even heard of grappa, it shows how much smaller of a market there is for pomace brandy.

Outside of grape and pomace brandies, there is the general, broad term fruit brandy to denotate brandy made with pretty much anything else. Fruit brandies are wide-ranging and come in many different styles all over the world: some of the most famous are French apple brandy called Calvados, German cherry brandy called Kirschwasser, American apple brandy called Applejack, and Slivovitz, a plum brandy made in many Eastern European countries like Croatia and Slovakia. This is only a small sampling of the fruit brandies of the world, of course, and you can make brandy out of pretty much anything that ferments, including apricots, raspberries, pears, even unexpected items like walnuts or juniper berries.

As you can see, brandy has a long and storied history, and though these days it’s not as popular as, say, bourbon or rum, it’s an incredibly versatile liquor that can find a place in almost any situation. Let us know in the comments how you like your brandy! Grape or fruit? Are you a grappa aficionado? What brandy cocktails do you prefer?

Review: Pierre Ferrand Reserve Double Cask Cognac

The latest from Pierre Ferrand is Reserve Double Cask — not to be confused with Pierre Ferrand Reserve Cognac — which is finished for a year in Banyuls wine casks, the fortified wine that is France’s answer to Port. Some additional detail from the distillery:

Long ago, Cognac producers used a variety of casks to create a fascinating range of taste and complexity. Crafted in the innovative but methodical manner that is Alexandre Gabriel’s hallmark, Pierre Ferrand Reserve Double Cask single-handedly revives one of the vanished traditions of Cognac: maturing the spirit in different types of casks to enrich flavor and deepen complexity. With this lost tradition in mind, Pierre Ferrand Reserve Double Cask is made of Cognac that has been matured 7 to 10 years in small oak barrels kept in seven different aging cellars (some dry, some humid), which is then blended with 20 year old Cognac. Once blended, the Cognac is placed in rare Banyuls casks and aged in one of Pierre Ferrand’s humid cellars for one year.

The brandy is extremely fruit forward on the nose, with some toasty wood notes alongside classic brandy notes of raisin and incense. The palate continues the theme, with an attack of fresh fruit, apricots, lemon, and green apple. Soon after the initial fruit rush comes the spicier and more savory notes — dusky wood, dried fig, cloves, and some licorice. The finish is heavy on baked apple notes, though there’s a bit of a camphor character that bubbles up here too. While none of this is particularly reminiscent of Banyuls (or any other sweet red dessert wine), it is nonetheless an engaging and approachable spirit that’s definitely worth exploring.

84.6 proof.

B+ / $80 / maisonferrand.com

Review: D’usse Cognac XO

I didn’t find much to love in D’usse’s inaugural Cognac, a VSOP, but this upscale update, an XO, has a whole lot more to recommend. All the eaux de vie in the finished product are at least 10 years old — and the black bottle is arguably even cooler than the one used for the VSOP.

The nose is incredibly sultry and aromatic, offering aromas of dark wood, cinnamon sticks, cloves, currants, and a sharp coffee note that lingers for awhile. Fruit is dialed back in favor of duskier notes, spices and toasty wood being the primary elements. On the palate, the coffee and cinnamon meld into a mocha character, quite chocolate-heavy with overtones of toffee, coconut, and a lingering note of burnt sugar and torched banana.

Well-rounded and full of character, this is a Cognac that plays down fruit in favor of more dessert-focused notes — emphasizing the more exotic elements of brandy instead of the lithe sweetness this spirit can often exhibit. It’s a change of pace from what most Cognac fans will be familiar with, but it’s definitively worth exploring.

80 proof.

A- / $230 / dusse.com

Review: Martell VS Single Distillery Cognac

Ready for something new in the world of Cognac? Check out this new idea from the House of Martell. Allow them to explain:

The iconic House of Martell unveils Martell VS Single Distillery, a cognac from a sole distillation source, offering an exclusive new profile to the Martell family of expressions.  This innovative blend unites eaux-de-vie from a single distillery, drawing the same sensorial profile and flavor characteristics for a richer expression of the Martell style. The eaux-de-vie come together in perfect harmony, resulting in an even smoother cognac with an elegant, fruitier profile.

So, in a nutshell, it brings the single malt whisky idea to France, with all the brandy in the bottle coming from a single distillery.

I feel like this experiment would be more intriguing if the brandy was allowed to age a bit more. The nose initially shows the hallmarks of youthful brandy — too much alcohol, some granary character, a little too much wood. The palate finds things softening up, with ample fruit — apple and some citrus — showing itself, along with some traditional raisin and gingerbread notes. That said, it still feels rustic, its various flavors never coming together quite perfectly.

That said, there’s still a lot to like here, and as it opens up with air time, its charms start to deepen, revealing some interesting pineapple and gingerbread notes — but only after awhile. It’s a brandy that merits taking the time required to show itself more clearly, though it never approaches the complexity you’ll find in an older Cognac.

Impatient? Give it a try in a brandy julep.

B+ / $32 / martell.com

Review: Domaines Hine Bonneuil 2006 Cognac

Hine’s Bonneuil 2005 was a standout Cognac from 2015. Now the company is back with another expression in this series of single estate, single vintage Cognac: Bonneuil 2006. In case you missed it, these Bonneuil limited-edition releases are named after the Bonneuil Village where Domaines Hine’s 297-acre estate, located in Grande Champagne, can be found. This expression is limited to 19 casks and consists solely of eau-de-vie from ugni blanc grapes.

A pretty, dark gold color opens the door to a lighter, very floral style of Cognac. The nose is lovely with lavender, jasmine, light brown sugar, and golden raisin notes. Light as a feather, it segues into a palate rich with golden syrup, toasty pastry crust, brown butter, vanilla, and a very restrained (plump) raisin character. The finish sees some baking spice, particularly nutmeg, coming to the fore, rounded out with buttery vanilla character.

It’s a gorgeous release on the whole. I loved the 2005 Bonneuil, and the 2006 — while surprisingly different — is equally enchanting.

86 proof.

A / $140 / hinecognac.com

What’s the Difference Between Cognac and Armagnac?

Even if you’ve got a pretty good handle on the world of spirits, Cognac can come across as opaque. It can be hard to tell where Cognac fits into the broader spectrum of spirits, and that’s even before you’re introduced to Armagnac, Cognac’s lesser-known sister spirit. So what are you actually getting when you buy a bottle of Cognac or Armagnac, and what’s the difference between the two? Read on.

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.

So to summarize, Cognac is distilled twice in copper pot stills, and Armagnac is distilled once in column stills, and the grapes used can be a bit different. Ready to go use your new knowledge and pick up a few bottles? Try some of our favorite Cognacs, like Gilles Brisson VSOP or Martell Blue Swift, or Armagnacs like Chateau du Tarquiet or Marquis de Montesquiou!

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