What Bartenders Should Know about Armagnac
Not all bartenders may come across Armagnac. Armagnac, though less well-known than cognac, is France's oldest brandy and has been produced continuously since the 15th century (as early as 1422). It's distilled from premium white wine grown in the Armagnac region of southwest France.
How armagnac is made
Armagnac is a distillate produced from the continuous, or single, distillation process. Neutral white wine registering about 9 to 10 percent alcohol is heated in a traditional copper alambic pot still at a relatively low temperature. The vapors pass through the swan neck coils and produce a spirit of no more than 63 percent alcohol.
This combination of low temperature and lower alcohol produces a spirit that retains more flavor and aroma elements in the brandy. The clear brandy is then put into casks traditional to the region — handcrafted 400-liter barrels made from Armagnac or Limousin oak. The aging process begins and can last from 1 to 50 years.
The spirit takes on flavors of the wood and other special nuances as it matures, creating a brandy of complexity and distinction. It's then up to the cellar master to blend the separate barrels into a harmonious whole to create the full range of armagnacs.
How to read the label
The French government regulates armagnac labeling. The following designations are used:
V.S. or Three Stars: The youngest brandy in the blend is at least 3 years old.
V.O. (Very Old), V.S.O.P. (Very Special Old Pale), and Reserve: The youngest brandy in the blend is at least 4½ years old.
Extra, Napoleon, X.O., and Vieille Reserve: The youngest brandy is at least 5½ years old.
Unlike cognac, armagnac products may carry a vintage date. All nonvintage armagnacs contain much older brandies than indicated on the labels. Vintage armagnacs are the unblended product of a single year's production.
Armagnac Lapostolle X.O. is matured for more than 30years.
Janneau produces V.S.O.P., Selection (aged 8 to 10 years), and Reserve de la Maison. A 1966 vintage is also sold.
Sempe produces 6 year old and 15 year old varieties. Its Xtra Grand Reserve is a blend of brandies aged from 35 to 50 years.