Life in a Post-Bourbon World: Predicting the Next Big Thing in Booze

It’s no secret that bourbon has been the It Spirit for a good few years now. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is how pretty much no one saw it coming. One needs to only look at the vast amount of supply shortages today to see just how unprepared most of the market was. Here’s a fun exercise. Go into your local store and ask them if they have any Weller, Eagle Rare, or even Very Old Barton. Their thousand yard stare, coupled with the nervous tick in the corner of their eye will tell you all you need to know about the current state of things.

Reports and predictions of the “bourbon bubble” bursting have so far been premature. It seems that—at least for now—for every one person who tires of the hunt, there are ten more ready and willing to take their place in line for the latest limited release. I’m not here to predict when that will end, because it’s already proven to be a pointless exercise. However, what can be a fun prediction is guessing what will follow bourbon as the almighty “next big thing.” So let’s take a look at a few spirits, and the reasons why they will — or won’t — usurp bourbon’s place at the top of the hype pedestal. For each of these four, we’re also including the all-important “Van Winkle Factor” — wherein we ask whether there is a singular product which will drive said hype train and become the bane of existence to liquor store employees everywhere.

1. Rum

For years now, rum has been talked about over and over again as being the next big spirit.

Why it Will Succeed:

Rum has a lot of crossover appeal to the bourbon fan. Many rums share a lot of the same flavor components with bourbon — vanilla, caramel, and good old-fashioned barrel spice — though with a slightly softer and sweeter side rum has the potential to appeal to an even broader audience. I have myself, and have heard many others refer to it as “summertime whiskey,” a product which delivers a lot of the same flavor notes but without the warming heat of whiskey. It’s easy and delicious. Plus, the rebirth of tiki drinks and island culture has pushed the importance of specific rum types into the minds of consumers everywhere.

Why it Won’t:

First and foremost, rum has an issue with age statements. Countries like Jamaica and Barbados require an age statement consistent with what most U.S. consumers understand, the age on the label is representative of the youngest spirit in the blend. But rum comes from so many places beyond those two countries, and in those countries age stating is much more vague. Two brands that represent this better than most are Ron Zacapa and Zaya. Ron Zacapa uses a solera aging system which puts a vague average of “23” on their entry level bottle. Zaya recently changed their bottles from saying “12 years” to now indicating that it is now a blend of 12 aged rums. It’s a clever switch of phrasing that makes marketing departments proud but makes many consumers roll their eyes. Also, and here is the obvious, rum has been talked about as the next big thing for quite a while and hasn’t really taken off. Maybe rum’s popularity as it is now is just where it is going to be. Maybe we have already reached peak rum and we are just fooling ourselves that it is going to keep growing.

Van Winkle Effect:

Does rum have that one big bottle? The one which people will wait in line for, the one which will inspire countless Instagram posts with jealous responses? It just might. The Caroni Rum Distillery has been closed or 15 years. Bottles still pop up from time to time from independent bottlers. This may be more of a correlation to a bottle of A.H. Hirsch than a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, but bottles of this rum seem to pop up and disappear quite quickly.

2. Mezcal

Why It Will Succeed:

Tequila’s funky, and smoky, compadre has been king of the mixology world for a couple years now. Not since the concept of “pre-Prohibition” have we seen such an obvious inspiration for so many new bars. In one Chicago neighborhood alone, I can count at least three new mezcal specific bars that have opened up in the last year. Yet it persists. A few weeks ago my social media feed was full of one friend’s picture of a mezcal flight, another drinking a mezcal old fashioned, and another commenting on the addition of a new bar a block from their apartment. All of this is without mentioning that mezcal has sotol and raicilla, new Mexican spirits, to bolster its rise in the same way that rye whiskey did for bourbon.

Why It Won’t:

The barrier of entry to mezcal knowledge is quite difficult for even the more advanced drinker. The variation on types of plants mezcal can use and the 8 different regions where they can all come from can create a dizzying combination of recipes and styles. While this is a wonderful thing for adventurous drinkers, it limits the amount of direct bottle to bottle comparison and debate over what is the best, which was a key component to the rise of bourbon. While mezcal may be the current king of the cocktail world, that hasn’t quite yet translated over into bottle sales.

Van Winkle Effect:

Del Maguey’s Single Village series seems to be the obvious choice here. They were among the first to push mezcal as something more than just the thing with the worm or scorpion in the bottom of the bottle. Also they fully embraced the extra funk that is the pechuga style of hanging a chicken carcass in the still for some extra gameyness. To be honest though, mezcal is the current and future king of the cocktail world, but it will have a hard time transitioning into actual off-premise consumer sales.

3. Armagnac

Why It Will Succeed:

There is an old adage which states that all old punk singers become country singers. In the same way, all old whiskey drinkers become Armagnac drinkers. It turns out that while Cognac has been all the rage, it has had a southern neighbor which has offered more value for the money all along. While both Cognac and Armagnac are grape brandies, the big difference lies in the use of the Baco and Colombard grapes. Baco is a big deal in terms of difference, it is a grape variety which can only be grown in the Armagnac region and can only be used for distillation. Also, Cognac opts for double distillation while Armagnac goes for single. Just think of Armagnac as Cognac’s rustic cousin. Only in this regard “rustic” means that bottles can be packed with complex and wonderful flavor.

Why It Won’t:

It certainly doesn’t help that the average consumer still has a hard time understanding what Armagnac is. Couple that with the fact that the TV. show Chopped recently referred to Armagnac as an “apple brandy” and you get the idea of the hill this delightful spirit needs to climb.

Van Winkle Effect:

There are stores you can walk into where you can buy a Marquis de Montesquiou Armagnac which was distilled in 1865. Those types of stocks are extremely rare and should instantly spark the attention of any collector. Outside of that you have producers like Chateau de Laubade and Darroze, which have lots to offer that will happily turn heads.

4. Irish Whiskey

Why It Will Succeed:

Irish whiskey has been one of the fastest growing spirit categories in the world over the last few years — mainly because its sales started off so small. What has been a predominantly homogenized category is currently exploding with new offerings. Look no further than the style of single pot still Irish whiskey for a style of whiskey that is unique to the country that started it all. As well, there is no shortage of Jameson drinkers that are looking for something more premium and more unique. For ages all of your Irish whiskey came from one of four distilleries: Midleton, Cooley, Bushmills, and Kilbeggan. Since 2014 there are now 32 running and proposed distilleries in Ireland.

Why It Won’t:

Irish whiskey has a slight image problem. There are many consumers who have for very long looked at it as predominantly for shots. To many whiskey drinkers it can be seen as plain and boring. The heavy influx of new distilleries and producers putting out new and varying products is already starting to combat these attitudes, but it remains more a question of when change will take place.

Van Winkle Effect:

One need look no further than the relative disappearance from shelves of the Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve to see how stocks of older Irish whiskey are becoming squeezed. Releases like the Redbreast Lustau Edition and the Midleton Barry Crocket Edition are helping keep the hype chatter up.

In Conclusion:

Here is the thing with bourbon. Seemingly every major bourbon distillery is expanding in some form, be it actual distilling space or simply just more warehouses to store more barrels. According to some reports, companies like Beam-Suntory are filling almost 500,000 barrels a year, which to us means only one important thing, the big producers don’t see an immediate end in Bourbon’s expansion. In fact they are looking forward to numbers that only continue to grow. And as younger distilleries across the country are able to start bringing new and more mature products to the market the demand will be there.

So yes, maybe it is poor form to say that the next big thing after bourbon is bourbon. But I’m OK with that. Because if it’s something else it will probably be mezcal, or rum, or Armagnac, or Irish whiskey.

Understanding the Wines of France

To an average wine imbiber, a trek through the new world wine section of their store of choice is a painless ordeal; a California Cabernet has “Cabernet Sauvignon” written right there on the label. Same with an Oregon Pinot Noir, an Australian Syrah, and just about any other “New World” wine. Blends might be trickier, but oftentimes they’ll have a breakdown of which varietals they’re made of somewhere on the label.

This is not so for the labels from most wine-producing countries in Europe, which to the uninitiated can seem maddeningly confusing and needlessly opaque. How can someone tell what is in a bottle of Les Cadrans de Lassegue Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, for instance? The answer is that, while French wine labels might be vague, France’s wineries are dominated by the governmental body Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or AOC (with France’s entry into the EU, technically the term is now AOP, but many wineries still use the designation AOC). The AOC’s laws are very, very strict about what grapes can be grown in what region of the country, in order to maintain the terroir, or the individual taste of a wine region, and so by knowing how these grapes and regions match up, you’ll always have at least a basic idea of what to expect in any bottle of French wine. Join us today to take a whirlwind tour through four of France’s top wine regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, and the Rhône Valley.

Bordeaux is the most famous of France’s wine regions — perhaps of all of the world’s wine regions — and is the region that most people think of when they think of French wine. Located just inland from the Atlantic Ocean on France’s southwest side, split in two by the Gironde estuary, some of the most expensive wines in the world come from Bordeaux, including the several-thousand-dollar Château Cheval Blanc, which featured heavily in the movie Sideways. The grapes most regularly used in red Bordeaux wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carbernet Franc, but of course it can’t be so simple as to just say that and call it a day. The split in the region caused by the Gironde also causes a split in the varietals of grapes used in the wines: on the left bank of the river, including areas like Médoc and Graves, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the wines, whereas on the right bank, typified by areas like Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, are heavily Merlot-based wines. White Bordeaux blends are typically made between the two rivers that form the estuary, and are blends of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle. Thanks to Bordeaux blending processes, a good Bordeaux can be endlessly complex, with fruit notes subordinate to tastes and scents like pencil lead, flat stone, loam, and others, depending on which grapes are used. They can be intimidating for new wine drinkers, but a Bordeaux blend has incredible aging potential and can continue to surprise you with new flavors and aromas hours after it’s been opened.

Across the country from Bordeaux, nearing the central east of France, is the region of Burgundy. The regional names you’ll see on the label for Burgundy include Chablis, Macon, and Beaujolais, but unlike Bordeaux, things are simpler here: With one exception, all red Burgundy is made with Pinot Noir grapes, and with no exceptions, all white Burgundy is made with Chardonnay grapes. So why not just slap the grape name on the bottle? Because terroir is still strongly in effect within Burgundy, and white Burgundies made in different regions, for instance, can taste completely different. A white Burgundy from Chablis, for instance, usually tastes very dry, with a white stone minerality, not at all like a Chardonnay someone used to California butter bombs like Rombauer would expect, whereas white Burgundies from Pouilly-Fuisse tend to be more woody and creamy. The one exception to the Pinor Noir-based red Burgundies are the wines from Beaujolais. As you may know if you join in the tradition of opening a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau around Thanksgiving, Beaujolais is made with the Gamay grape, which is more fruit-forward and immediately ready to drink than a drier, earthier Burgundy made from Pinot Noir.

North of Burgundy, in the upper northeast of the country, right on the border with Germany, lies the region of Alsace. In the history of the two countries, Alsace has always been a point of contention, and it has changed hands between the two countless times; this gives the region a strong German influence that is shared with their wines. Alsatian wines are made almost exclusively with white grapes, especially Riesling and Gewurztraminer. They’re made in a more dry, mineral-forward style than someone used to United States Riesling and Gewurz might expect, but like an Italian Pinot Grigio, they’re very refreshing and go great with food. Alsatian Rieslings especially also have excellent aging potential among white wines due to their acidity, and in good conditions can continue to age well for decades.

Too cold up in Alsace? Head south, starting in the Swiss Alps and ending at France’s beautiful eastern Mediterranean coast, near Italy, where you’ll find the wine-growing region of the Rhône Valley. For someone used to a more fruit-forward style of red wine like those found in California or Australia, the wines from the Rhône area might be a good jumping-off point into the world of French wines. The primary grapes used in Rhône blends include red grapes like Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault, as well as white grapes such as Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier, though AOC allows additional varietals to be blended into the wines in more prestigious regions. Starting up in the north of the Rhône, around the Swiss Alps, you’ll find regions like Crozes-Hermitage that make spicy, savory Syrah that will age wonderfully for years. Further south you’ll find more of an influence of Grenache and Mourvèdre in the wines, from inexpensive Côtes-du-Rhône, to pricier, more complex Gigondas and Vacqueyras, to gorgeous, sumptuous blends from around the former Papal enclave of Avignon, called Châteauneuf-du-Pape. While the northern Syrahs tend to be savory and meaty, the climate of southern Rhône produces rich blends with a perfect balance of berries and the natural terroir that French wine strives for.

This is of course only very a basic overview of France’s four best-known wine regions. Whole books have been written about each of these, and there are many more lesser-known regions within the country, like the Loire Valley and the Languedoc-Roussillon. Hopefully this overview will help you try a new French wine or two, and discover the wonders that the country has in store for a curious drinker.

A Field Guide to the Agave Used For Mezcal

Agave angustifolia (Espadin)

A. karwinskii (Madrecuixe)

Mezcal is the precursor spirit to modern day tequila; it has been produced since the mid 16th century, and many distillers still use ancient techniques for much of it’s production. Unlike tequila, which can only be made from the Weber blue species of agave, mezcal is produced with multiple species that are either cultivated or foraged from the wild. Each individual species varies in flavor and aroma complexities depending on their specific region of growth, which are spread between the eight mezcal producing regions of Mexico: Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, and Michoacan.

A. capreata (Paplometl)

The laws that regulate the production of mezcal, known as NORMA, designate five species of agave that are used for its creation: Agave angustifolia (espadin), A. asperrima (maguey de cerro), A. weberi (maguey de mezcal), A. petatorum (tobala), and A. salmiana (maguey verde o mezcalero) — but it also states that any agave with the proper sugar content that grows within the eight regions of production can be used as well. There are over 200 known species of agave that grow within Mexico, and around 30 to 50 of them are believed to be used to produce mezcal.

A. marmorata (Tepextate)

The dominant species that is used is the A. angustifolia (espadin) species that makes up 90% of mezcal production. It is the genetic parent of the A. tequilana (weber blue) species that is used for tequila, and it shares some of the floral and tropical flavors of its offspring, which can vary depending on its region of growth. It is harvested at around nine years old, and it is both cultivated and grows wild throughout Mexico.

The more elusive bottlings of mezcal use wild species that fall into a category many producers are calling “vino de mezcal.” Most of these agaves that are used usually grow in hard to reach places or are semi-cultivated within certain regions. These agaves are also harvested much later in their growing cycle and can be up to 25 years old. As a result, they tend to be more complex in flavor and aroma. Some examples of these species are the A. marmorata (tepextate) that has tropical, floral, and spicy notes, the A. karwinskii (madrecuixe) that is vegetal, fruity, and herbaceous, and the A. capreata (paplometl) that is earthy, fruity, and meaty.

A. petatorum (Tobala)

A more easily found example of the wild species in the A. petatorum (tobala). Know to many as the “king of mezcals,” the tobala is described as being vibrant and complex with earthy, tropical, sweet, and spicy characteristics. This species grows at higher elevations (around 5000 ft), and prefers rocky canyons that have plenty of shade. It is much smaller in size than traditional agaves at a ratio of eight tobala to one normal sized agave, and it is harder to procure because it does not produce offspring on its own. Instead, this species relies on animals to spread its seeds, which makes its placement sporadic throughout each region.

There are many other wild agaves that are used in mezcal production, but a complete list doesn’t really exist. Some experts and connoisseurs have taken it upon themselves to try an create such a thing, but information is scarce. On the plus side, there is an increasing interest in mezcal here in the states, and we are now seeing more producers that use the wilder species taking the time to educate the drinker on what specific agave species are used and where they comes from.

With more than 1000 distilleries making mezcal throughout Mexico, you’ll find plenty of wonderful examples of espadin mezcal available, and companies such as Del Maguey, Wahaka, Mezcal Mayalen, Ilegal, El Jolgorio, Real Minero, Mezcales De Leyenda, and Mezcal Vago also have wonderful portfolios that include many of the wild growing species. Most of these producers can be found around the U.S., but be warned that the rarer the species, the higher the price tag.

All photos courtesy of Del Maguey and Sazerac.

On Toasts and Irish Whiskey for St. Patrick’s Day

Life gives us precious few moments for a proper toast anymore. St. Patrick’s Day remains as one of the few times when you stop and hold a room’s attention long enough to actually raise one. Or rather, what I wonder is often the case in my experience, enough time for your friends and family to at least pretend to be giving you their full attention.

There are very few rules to a good toast, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Brevity is your best friend. Three or four lines is ideal. It’s important to remember that wedding toasts are usually speeches, so don’t go by those rules. In the bar, each extra word has a direct negative correlation on how your toast will be received.

Tone is the second most important aspect of a great toast. Joyful sincerity is the target. The best toasts quickly reflect and uplift. It should be something everyone can latch onto. Short, simple, and earnest.

If you can’t come up with the words on your own, it’s fine to take a good quote and cannibalize it for your own purposes. Luckily for us, the Irish have a long history of being good with words.

It’s also important to note that the best accessory for a toast is a good rocks glass. While it feels great to raise a beer to the person doing the toasting, the temptation to use a pint glass as a microphone is strong — but whiskey is always best. While you can toast with any beverage, remember it is bad luck to toast with an empty glass — but it is the best luck to toast with whiskey, particularly Irish whiskey on St. Patrick’s Day.

Ready to make a memorable toast? This evening, try on some of these… each paired with the perfect glass of Irish whiskey.

Powers John’s Lane

He was not sure what idea he wished to express but the thought that a poetic moment had touched upon him took life within him like an infant home. He stepped onward bravely.

James Joyce said he sought to capture the entirety of Dublin in his writing so that if the city ever disappeared it could be rebuilt from his books. Single pot still whiskey and its mix of malted and unmalted barley is the one style unique to Ireland. If every other Irish whiskey were to disappear from the face of the earth, Powers John’s Lane, with its incredible mix of nuttiness, malted chocolate, and delicate floral touches would stand well as its last remaining representative. The fact that it also has an inspiring finish which seems to push the limits of time itself certainly doesn’t hurt.

Tyrconnell 10 Year Old Madeira Finish

The only way to atone for being occasionally a little overdressed is by being always, absolutely over-educated.

Oscar Wilde is the undisputed king of the bon mot. Pretty much everything he ever said and wrote can be easily turned into a wonderful quote. This one works beautifully with the Tyrconnell Madeira Finish. Irish whiskey tends to begin its life in such a light and delicate state that too much barrel trickery can easily overwhelm and overdress a beautiful drink. Thankfully those behind this whiskey are smart enough to know right where that edge of perfection is. This whiskey jumps right off the palate with some bright citrus and then softens to a nutty and sweet finish. It is impeccably balanced and also happens to be one of my all time favorites.

Teeling Single Grain

Better pass boldly into that other world, in full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.

We return to the inspiration of James Joyce. For those ready to embrace and celebrate forward momentum, one whiskey that answers that call is this single grain offering from Teeling. While grain whiskey may be looked upon by stubborn single malt purists stuck in the world of 1980s advertising as the component of blended whiskey that ruins single malts, us open minded imbibers can rejoice. Teeling is one of a few companies (See also: Compass Box and Girvan) doing wonderful things with this overlooked style. Raise a glass to the impassioned and be thankful they keep giving you wonderful things to drink.

Green Spot

As long as I have a want, I have a reason for living. Satisfaction is death.

George Bernard Shaw was never one to shy away from an opinion. What used to be scarce and highly sought after outside of Ireland is thankfully now regularly available. Green Spot is another single pot still whiskey which is helping to carry the torch for that wonderful and particularly Irish style. It is rich and dense with notes of roasted caramel, chocolate, and a hint of citrus. It also doesn’t hurt that the whiskey comes with a lovely story of a family purchasing unaged distillate from Jameson and aging it in a varying range of sherry barrels from their wine import business. It’s a perfect whiskey to honor those who embrace the idea of always reaching for more.

Redbreast 12 Years Old

May the road always rise to meet you, May the wind be always at your back, May you be in heaven an hour before the Devil knows you’re dead.

A personal combination of a couple of classic Irish toasts. In honor of the classics you can do no wrong with the Redbreast 12 year old. A delicate mix of tropical fruit, vanilla, and cinnamon, this Irish whiskey is often the first one many people see as truly special. It’s a classic for a reason and a perfect companion for a classic toast. If it’s available, do yourself a favor and spend the extra money on the cask strength version. It’s one of the best whiskeys on the market.

So there you have it.  Embrace the toast and make the most of it. If all else fails just raise your glass, thank your friends and family for being there, and wish them all the best in the future. Just remember to end it all with a hearty sláinte.

Lager? Ale? Beer? What’s the Difference?

To begin with, it’s all beer. Budweiser, Guinness, Paulaner, Sapporo, Sam Adams, Pilsner Urquell, Chimay, and all their varieties are beer. Which is kind of funny since I remember saying, long ago, that I wanted something better than beer, I wanted an ale. But all ales are beer. I simply didn’t know better. The basic ingredients for beer, enshrined in German purity laws that go back to 1516, are hops, barley, water, and yeast. That’s it. Even though many beers no longer follow the austerity of traditional German brewers, these ingredients remain the primary components.

This brings us to the next step: virtually all varieties of beer can be divided into two types: ales and lagers. Pilsner, bock, dunkel, and Octoberfest beers, among others, are lagers. Amber, ESB, IPA, Porter, Stout, and Belgian Trippel are part of the ale family. All these varieties can be made using just the four basic ingredients of beer. The key differences between lagers and ales lies in the yeast used. Lager yeast works best at a lower temperature, around 45° to 55° F. Ale yeast works best at 68° to 72° F. Also, lager yeast is supposedly “bottom fermenting,” laying on the bottom of the vat during fermentation, while ale yeast is “top fermenting,” but if you get the chance to see either in action, you find that the yeast moves around quite a bit during the process either way. Lagers are matured for a longer time and in cold storage (the word “lager” comes from the German word for warehouse). Ales, on the other hand, are matured for a shorter time in a warmer environment. Lagers tend to have lower alcohol content due to the yeast’s lower alcohol tolerance.

So what does this mean for taste? Well, in the past, ales were described as heartier and fruitier, while lagers were described as smoother, cleaner, and crisper. These broad distinctions may continue to hold true for some German and English beers that have proudly brewed their beer the same way for generations. But in America, where innovation often overshadows tradition, the issue of taste isn’t so clear cut. There are varieties of lagers that are undeniably fruity and very hearty. I can recommend few hoppy beers more highly than Jack’s Abbey’s Kiwi Rising, an India Pale Lager that bursts with fruit and boasts a wickedly high abv. On the other hand, there are ales that are crisp and smooth. Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale is so clean and refreshing that it could be mistaken for a fantastic pilsner.

So which should you drink, lagers or ales? The answer is obvious: beer!

Editor’s Note: As an aside, this is our 5000th post here at Drinkhacker. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned throughout 2017 for some great contests and giveaways as we approach 10 full years of bringing you discriminating drinkers the best that the booze biz has to offer!

Pappy Van Winkle Gets Older, Releases 25 Year Old Expression

Almost three years ago to the day, we were reporting on a Van Winkle 28 year old blend lurking in the cellars of Sazerac. Sadly, this expression was never to see a full release, leaving us no choice but to remain content with thousands of articles about the 23 and 20 year old varieties and nationwide frenzy of lotteries and raffles in an effort to obtain the precious gold.

Fast forward to yesterday, when the announcement broke regarding a 25 year old Pappy coming out of the woodwork. From the press release:

Each decanter is packaged in a handmade wooden box crafted in North Carolina by James Broyhill II of Heritage Handcrafted. The lid is constructed using the oak staves from the 11 barrels that held this bourbon. The outside of the box bears a metal plaque with the Old Rip Van Winkle logo and states “asleep 25 years in the wood.”

This batch came from 11 barrels, resulting in 710 bottles overall. Buffalo Trace has put a suggested retail pricing of $1,800 per 750ml bottle, a well-intentioned recommendation which will no doubt be adhered to by non profit-minded shopkeepers lucky enough to get their anti-capitalist hands on one. It’s looking like the new Pappy has a shipping date of April, so start camping out at your local store now before it’s too late!

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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