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!

From Barrel To Bottle: How Wood Aging Impacts Whiskey

When you contemplate any barrel-aged spirit there are many flavors and aromas that will confuse and astound your palate. Look at any review of these products and you will get my point. A lot of the characteristics you experience come from the internal chemical and biological attributes of the wood itself. Many distillers attribute around 40% to 80% of the overall characteristics experienced in whiskies, provided it hasn’t been influenced by other means, are produced by the interaction of the spirit with the wood. To understand how the wood does this, you have to delve into the inner workings of the tree.

The main structure of a barrel is composed of multiple staves that are cut from the heartwood of a tree. There are two internal structures inside the plant’s cell wall known as hemicellulose and lignin that influence the character of the spirit. Hemicellulose is made up of organic compounds and numerous sugars that are soluble in alcohol, and with the application of heat will produce color and caramel notes. Lignin is a source of Methoxy phenols, such as vanillin and syringol. These are naturally occurring organic compounds and they change with the help of heat and acidity, creating the smoky vanilla flavors and aromas in the spirit.

Throughout the wood, there are four broad components that further influence the spirit; tannins, lactones/trans-lactones, phenolics, and acids. Tannins produce an astringent, mouth drying characteristic that creates structure. Lactones/trans-lactones create coconut, clove, and butterscotch flavors and aromas. Phenolics and acids create over 400 different flavor and aromatic compounds including Ethyl syringate (tobacco and fig), Ethyl ferulate (spice and cinnamon), Ethyl vanillate (burnt, smoky and vanilla), and Methyl salicylate, which gives off minty wintergreen notes. These components also help to create the aromatic differences found in various wood varietals. Some examples include American white oak (Quercus alba), which has aromas of vanilla, coconut, pine, cherry, and spice. European oak (Quercus robur) has aromas of dried fruit, clove, raisin, and orange peel, and Japanese oak (Quercus mongolica) has intense, perfumed notes of spice and sandalwood. All of these properties are enriched and balanced during a curing process, where the cut oak is seasoned in the elements for 1 to 3 years before use. This helps with reducing astringency in the tannins, and allows for airborne bacteria and fungi to collect and grow. These organisms help breakdown complex carbohydrates in the wood, making it easier for further chemical reactions to take place inside the barrel.

After the curing process, the wood is shaped into staves and the main body of the barrel is built, from there it is toasted and charred. This application of heat effectively changes the outer structure of the staves, and chemically changes the sugars in the wood. Toasting affects the wood in two ways; oak tannins are degraded, giving color to the spirit, and the lignin degrades, producing vanilla flavor and aroma. Charring changes things a bit further, the hemicellulose is broken down into ten simple sugars, which then caramelize into what’s known as the “red layer,” creating flavors and aromas of caramel and chocolate.

Once the spirit is in the barrel, chemical and environmental reactions begin to shape the final product. Fluctuations in temperature expand and contract the barrel, forcing the alcohol in and out of the wood, extracting flavor congeners and sweetness. During this time the alcohol passes through a thin carbon filter on the inner surface of the barrel created during the charring process, this smooths out the spirit by absorbing aldehydes and sulfur compounds. As the temperature reaches higher levels it causes the evaporation of around 3% to 10% of the liquid yearly — the famous “angel’s share.” Humidity levels during this process influence the loss of liquid and effect the alcohol percentage. Higher humidity causes alcohol to evaporate more readily than water, and decreases the level of alcohol over time. In lower humidity the water is first to evaporate, causing an increase in alcohol percentage.

After evaporation has occurred the headspace created in the barrel is replaced by oxygen. This enters the barrel through pores in the wood and dissolves into solution with the spirit, this forms esters, aldehydes and acids that create fruity, nutty and vanilla flavors. At this point in maturation the flavors and aromas continue to concentrate in the reduced volume of spirit. During this period the spirit’s natural characteristics start to diminish, and the complex flavors and aromas of the wood start to take over; this is controlled by the length of maturation, climate and the size of the barrel. Typically, you will see barrels that range from the standard american 53 gallon barrel, all the way up to the 132 gallon sherry butt. The spirits matured in these larger barrels tend to take longer to appreciate in complexity because of the higher volume of liquid and the larger vessel. Aging in smaller barrels allows for more play between spirit and wood, due to an increased surface to volume ratio. In these small barrels, characteristics of the wood such as a darker color and oaky vanilla flavor and aroma are more readily infused in a shorter period, but the uptake of other components such as tannins which can quickly overpower the spirit is also accelerated.

The use of smaller barrels has been popularized within craft distillation because of their ability to produce a richly flavored and colorful product in a shorter period. A lot of these products can be quite vibrant and complex, yet some experts argue against their ability to create a well aged spirit. They propose that the longer periods of maturation are integral to the formation of flavor and aromatic compounds. While there is some validity in that statement, many aged craft spirits on the market today have shown great promise and continue to gain in popularity.

The act of aging spirits in wooden barrels has been a tradition for a long time, and has inspired some of the most sought after bottles in the history of alcohol production. The complexities brought forth from the interaction between spirit and wood will continue to astound and perplex the senses, creating a want for more experimentation. We are now seeing a multitude of new techniques being applied in wood aging: Different types of wood, re-use of barrels, and experimental maturation processes continue to create varied and expressive end products. Because of this, it is essential to educate yourself on the inner workings of wood, allowing for a greater understanding of what you are experiencing. Although this only scratches the surface of how wood influences alcohol, I hope it makes things a little easier the next time you pour a dram.

Do Sulfites in Wine Give You Headaches?

For many wine drinkers, one of the first things they consider when buying wine is whether their bottle contains headache-inducing sulfites. But are sulfites as bad as they are painted out to be? Do they really cause headaches, and if so, how does one avoid them?

The term “sulfite” refers broadly to a group of chemical compounds that contain sulfur in them, the most common being sulfur dioxide, SO2. Sulfites are found everywhere, in nature and in manufacturing; among many, many other things, they develop naturally in the human body, are used in drying fruit, and most importantly for our purpose, are used as a preservative in wine. Sulfites are added to nearly every commercially available wine to protect against oxidation, and to prevent bacteria from forming in the bottle. Sulfites occur naturally in wine during fermentation, but in most wines, additional sulfites are added to safeguard against spoilage. While wines labelled as “sulfite-free” do exist, it’s worth noting that the label is not technically true; a wine can be labelled sulfite-free if it contains less than 10 mg of sulfite per liter, and it would be incredibly difficult to fully remove sulfites from wine, if it’s possible at all.

So sulfites are everywhere in what we consume — does this mean you should just stay home and hide to avoid those uncomfortable allergic reactions? Probably not. While an unlucky few with sulfite allergies certainly exist, the FDA notes that sulfite sensitivity is much rarer than many realize. If wine is giving you headaches, it’s likely not from the sulfites, but instead from the histamines which also naturally occur in wine, which have been shown cause headaches by way of dilation of the carotid artery, which leads to a drop in blood pressure. There are no histamine-free wines, but if you regularly get headaches after having a glass, talk to your doctor, and maybe she could suggest an antihistamine to take before drinking. And of course, wine has alcohol in it, which has a dehydrating effect. Dehydration is a big part of what causes a hangover, which are typified by — of course — bad headaches.

Still not convinced? Though as we’ve noted there’s no such thing as a sulfite-free wine, by buying organically-grown wines you can at least have a bottle with no sulfites added. Be aware that when picking up such a wine, you’ll have to drink it sooner than you would a sulfite-laden Cabernet. Without the preservative effect the sulfites give, a wine will spoil and become undrinkable quickly. And it’s worth noting that, at least in our experience, organic bottles don’t tend to be especially impressive wines.

5 Scotch Whiskies for Celebrating Burns Night

January 25th is Burns Night: a yearly celebration of the life and words of Scottish poet Robert Burns. Traditionally it is celebrated with a supper full of haggis, speeches, the occasional bagpipe, and of course, Scotch. While any Scotch will work, here’s a look at five whiskies you can use to toast the birthday of Robert Burns, drawing inspiration from his own words.

The golden Hours on angel wings
Flew o’er me and my Dearie;
For dear to me as light and life
Was my sweet Highland Mary.

Royal Brackla 12 Year Old

The majority of this distillery’s production ends up in the Dewars line of blends. For much of the time single malts were hard to come by and expensive through independent bottlers. Thankfully this was released as part of The Last Great Malts series. A lovely and accessible, golden-hued highland malt. Notes of poached orchard fruits and soft, sweet, malted chocolate lead into a finish of heather honey and gentle spice. An incredibly accessible and complex whiskey, a great choice for everyone at the table.

Gie me ae spark o’ Nature’s fire,
That’s a’ the learning I desire.

Kilchoman Impex Cask Evolution 01/2016

The youngest distillery on the beloved island of Islay is also the first new one since 1881. Part of the Impex Cask Evolution series, this release was aged in an Oloroso Sherry hogshead which gives the whiskey a wonderfully red hue. At only 5 years old, this whiskey uses its youth as an advantage. It is big and bold with smokey citrus at the forefront. A little bit of water will bring out some more fruit and spice flavors, but this one really is at its best when left big and fiery.

I’ll toast you in my hindmost gillie,
Tho’ owre the sea!

Old Pulteney 17 Years Old

Searching for the perfect dram to toast those who have moved away? This malt is richly lush and dense. Oak and butterscotch lead the way and then open up to some light brown spice and almond. The finish seems to stick around forever with the slightest touch of caramel, brine, and a very faint but present smokiness. The perfect dram for a wistful toast along the seaside.

Wi’ tippenny, we fear nae evil;
Wi’ usquabae, we’ll face the devil!

Compass Box The Peat Monster

If you are going to steel yourself to face the devil, you may as well have a monster at your side. John Glaser’s Compass Box turns out so many coveted and fantastic limited releases that sometimes it’s easy to forget just how good the standard line is. The Peat Monster is a near perfect showing of balanced complexity. Earthy smoke and brine lead the charge with touches of savory herbs and a slightly medicinal, oaky touch. The finish brings in a lingering sweetness which has become a bit of a Compass Box trademark. A cacophony of flavors which somehow meld together in a bold and extremely drinkable manner.

Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow—
Let us do or die!

Bunnahabhain 25 Years Old

Whether in moments on revolution or celebration, sometimes it is important to remove all caution and just go. The Bunnahabhain Distillery produces one of the milder single malts on Islay. While they forgo some of the intensity of their neighbors, they excel in balance. First impression of this beauty is all leather and spice. Tannic cinnamon and clove mingle with a hint of fig and other stewed fruits. The finish is tremendously long.  So long in fact, you will be discovering new and lingering flavors well into an encore performance of Auld Lang Syne.

Now Shipping: 2017 L.A. Burdick Robert Burns Chocolates

We all drink whisky on Robert Burns’ birthday (January 25), but if you really want to wow folks, get your hands on a box of L.A. Burdicks’ Robert Burns Chocolate collection, which is available only during this time of the year.

Each box of about 36 bonbons (1/2 a pound) includes multiples of seven different items, each made with a different whisky. Those include Lagavulin, Macallan, Talisker, Springbank, Highland Park, and Glenfarclas. A final chocolate is a whisky honey truffle made with an unspecified whisky.

These are some amazing chocolates and, even though mine got a little freezer burned during shipping thanks to some unseasonably cold weather, they are absolutely delightful and totally worth getting. Order now in time for Burns Night!

More specific reviews and ratings of the individual chocolates can be found here.

$42 / burdickchocolate.com

A Tour of Scotland: Understanding Scotch Whiskies

Even to a whiskey drinker comfortable with bourbons and Irish whiskeys, Scotch can seem like a whole different world. Due to the varied climate of Scotland, from the wind-buffeted western islands to the famous highlands, Scotch can be incredibly different from distillery to distillery. So join us now for a whisky tour of Scotland, where we will see what makes this noble dram so unique.

Perhaps the most recognizable Scotch whiskies come from Speyside, a small but densely-packed region in northeastern Scotland named after the river Spey that runs through it. Despite being a smaller region than its neighbors, Speyside has more distilleries than the others by an order of magnitude; ask your average tippler their favorite Scotch and there’s a good chance you’ll get a Speyside distillery named, and if you’ve ever picked up a bottle of Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Aberlour, or countless others, you’ve experienced Speyside. Speyside Scotches are generally light on smokiness, and may be aged or finished (after an initial run in old bourbon casks) in casks that once held wine or other spirits, and these traits give them a sweeter, more easygoing nature that is attractive to a Scotch neophyte. Distilleries like Glenfarclas and Macallan mostly use sherry wine casks to impart flavors or orange peel, almonds, and cloves, while others like Balvenie use casks that contained the likes of rum, port, and Madeira to give its Scotch different levels of sweetness and spiciness to stand out from the crowd.

Surrounding Speyside are the imposing Highlands, which take up nearly half the island and as a consequence contain the most varied styles of Scotch in the country. Glenmorangie drinks like a Speyside Scotch, especially its trio of casked expressions like the port-casked Quinta Ruban, or the Sauternes-casked Nectar D’Or. On the other hand, Oban is dense and heavy with peat and smoke, and would be a shock to anyone who has only experienced sweeter drams. The famed Scottish moors dominate the landscape, which provide the variance in wind and temperature that effects Highland barley so differently. There is a style for everyone within the Highlands, and even seasoned Scotch connoisseurs will come back to their favorite Highland bottle.

South of the Highlands are, of course, the Lowlands. Like Speyside, Lowland Scotch can be a great place to start with Scotch whisky, because the whiskies that come out of the region are easily approachable. Lowland Scotch would be an especially easy entry into the whiskies of Scotland for those who are ardent fans of Irish whiskey. Like Irish whiskey, Lowland drams like Auchentoshan can be triple-distilled, which gives them that characteristic citrusy fruit taste that anyone who cut their teeth on Green Spot or Redbreast would recognize. Notes of ginger, toffee, and lemon custard are all easy to recognize in a glass of Lowland Scotch, and its light sweetness on the palate makes it easy to like.

The western coast of the country is a long island chain called the Hebrides, and generally the climates of each island are the same: very cold, very windswept, and very barren. These conditions combine to make some of the roughest, brambliest whiskies in the world, of which the island of Islay is a shining example. Deep in the southwest of the Hebrides, Islay dominates the western whisky regions in Scotland, and brings us monstrous drams bathed in the taste of peat, impregnated into the barley from the burning of said peat during grain malting, and sea salt iodine from the cold maritime air around the island. Islay is a style on the rise, and even those who have not tried any Islay whiskies may recognize names like Laphroaig, Ardbeg, or Ron Swanson’s favorite Lagavulin. Like French wine, Islay Scotch can be imposing and alien to the uninitiated, but also like French wine, getting a handle on the style reveals untold complexities within each glass, as the peat and smoke and salt complement and flatter the barley. Islay Scotch lasts forever on the palate, with each minute revealing to the imbiber a new facet that was initially hidden under that ruggedness.

Islay is the most famous of the Hebrides, but many of the other islands in the chain house distilleries as well. Talisker and Arran are both easy enough to procure, and like Islay Scotch, these islands produce whiskies that are as rough and powerful as the land they are made on, with notes of the briny sea salt characteristic to all of the islands, as well as heather and ash.

And that brings us to the last region in Scotland, Campbeltown. Far to the southwest, near the coast of Ireland, Campbeltown was once known as “The Whisky Capital of the World”, but those days are long gone, and now Campbeltown has within its region only three distilleries: Glen Scotia, Glengyle, and Springbank. Like the Highlands, Campbeltown thrives on variety, and its whiskies are an interesting mingling of the salt and smoke of Islay and the sweet simplicity of the Lowlands; Springbank’s Hazelburn is triple-distilled and fruity, while Longrow from the same distillery is peated and briny.

As you can see, Scotland’s whiskies are as varied and complex as the most daunting European wine regions. This is a topic that could require research to fully grasp, and we hope that we’ve managed to make things more clear to those curious.

Understanding Different Types of Whiskey

Overwhelmed by the complex world of wines, beers, and spirits? You’re not alone. Today let’s look at one of the most common questions that we receive day in and day out: What the heck is the difference between all these different types of whiskeys? Today’s the day to find out. Join me in a brief tour of the whiskeys of the world, a primer of all things whisk(e)y.

The most noteworthy style of whiskey, or in this case spelled whisky, is Scotch. Scotch whisky comes from Scotland, and we could (and probably will) write another whole article on the complexities of the terroir of the country. Scotch is divided into two main styles: Single malt Scotch (like Macallan) is made entirely from malted barley and is produced at a single distillery, whereas blended Scotch (like Johnnie Walker) is made from a blend of malted barley and various others grains, which are distilled separately, sourced from all over the country. The taste of single malt Scotch can vary widely depending on the region in which it is made: Scotch from the briny Islay region can take on a smoky, iodine quality, akin to a campfire by the ocean, while Scotch from Speyside can be more sweet and sumptuous, with notes of vanilla, apricot, and honeysuckle.

Bourbon is American whiskey that is frequently produced in Kentucky, but which can legally be made anywhere in the U.S. The name bourbon has a strict legal definition, which dictates, among other rules, a base grain mixture of at least 51% corn and the use of unused, charred-oak barrels for aging. These requirements give bourbon a characteristic sweetness compared to Scotch, with notes of vanilla-covered cherry, woody oak, and butterscotch. Of course, just like Scotch, the taste of bourbon can vary quite a lot; compare sweet, vanilla-laden Maker’s Mark with burly, brambly Hudson Baby Bourbon. Jack Daniel’s is a bourbon as well, though it doesn’t say so on the bottle, preferring the term Tennessee Whiskey to give it a local identity.

The names of most other whiskeys aren’t as opaque as Scotch and bourbon. Canadian Whiskies like Pendleton are blends that usually contain more rye than bourbon does, giving them in general a spicier taste; think cloves, toffee, and chocolate. Irish Whiskey is, typically, distilled more times than a Scotch is, which removes more impurities and giving the whiskey its characteristic lightness and fruitiness: Green Spot is warming with a taste of honey and chocolate. Most Irish whiskeys are blends, though there are quite a few single malt Irish whiskeys out there. Japanese Whiskies can be as varied as Scotch; Toki is light and delicate, with notes of white flowers and melon, while Hakushu is bolder and smoky, like a good Islay Scotch. Some Japanese distillers also use unusual grains in their blends: Kikori uses rice to make its whisky.

At least one category of whiskey is known based not on the region in which it is made but the primary grain used to make it: Rye. This booming category of whiskey is made from 51% rye but can be wildly different from a stylistic perspective. A Kentucky-made rye like Rittenhouse will be pungent with baking spices, which a Canadian rye like Crown Royal Northern Harvest might find a more apple-heavy fruit note. Note that a whiskey, like the above Crown Royal example, can be both a Canadian Whisky and a rye, simultaneously.

Hopefully this brief overview of whiskey gives you a better idea of the various styles of spirits out there. There are plenty of other whiskey manufacturers in the world of course, in Australia, Germany, India, and elsewhere, but this should give you a solid base from which to build, and to start exploring the wonderful world of whiskey.

Any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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