Yolanda Shoshana (aka Shoshi) is a witch (yes you read that right!), lifestyle expert, wine/spirit concierge, writer, and brandy conoisseur. Read on below for Shoshi's excellent '101' on Cognac and Armagnac, and some great picks on which bottles to start with if you're a brandy novice.
Break Out The Brandy: Cognac and Armagnac '101'
by Yolanda Shoshana
There was a time when if you mentioned brandy, everyone would think of an older gentleman in a paisley robe sitting by the fire sipping a glass. Due to bartenders using brandy in their cocktail recipes, the spirit is hotter than ever. It’s regained its reputation as a smooth and sexy spirit.
Brandy is made in various regions all over the world. Two of the hottest brandies right now come from France: Cognac and Armagnac. This is probably not a coincidence... the French are a culture to that loves good food and drink. Both of the brandies are perfect for the holidays and a great way to stay warm during the winter months. Let’s take a closer look.
This is brandy from a village in France with the same name. Thanks to brands like Hennessy and Remy Martin, Cognac has consistently been a part of pop culture. There are quite a few people who are surprised that Cognac, France is actually a place. It’s about 3 ½ to 4 hours outside of Paris, located in the countryside of France. Most of the 22,000 people who live in the town work in the Cognac industry from wine production to bottling the spirit. Cognac is made from Ugni Blanc white grapes from the Charente region in France that goes through double distillation. This makes what is known as eau-de-vie meaning “water of life” in French. The eaux-de-vie is then blended to make Cognac.
There are three designations for Cognac:
-V.S. (Very Superior): Cognac aged less than 4-1/2 years.
-V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale): Cognac aged between 4-1/2 and 6-1/2 years. Also called V.O. (Very Old) or Reserve.
-X.O. (Extremely Old)
Cognacs to try this season:
Hennessy X.O, $89-$199- This smooth Cognac has aromas of cinnamon, chocolate. It’s a blend of over 100 eaux de vie. It’s one smooth character. Drink it neat or on the rocks. If you are into cigars, they would pair perfectly. A stunning and elegant brandy for special times. It will get a party feeling real good, just blame it on the Henny.
Camus V. S. Elegance, $47- A family owned cognac house that doesn’t get the same attention, but definitely worth a taste. The aromas are white flowers, iris, and fruit. Drink on the rocks or in a cocktail. It can even be mixed with green tea.
Remy Martin V.S.O.P, $39.99- This Cognac is #1 with women. Could it be because Remy’s current cellar master, Pierrette Trichet, is the first female and only cellar master at a cognac house? Probably not, but something to consider. This sensual brandy has aromas of vanilla, baked apples, and floral goodness. Rock it out or add a touch of it to sparkling wine.
**While I recommended cognacs from well-known brands, there are 93 cognac producers so be on the lookout for smaller cognac houses who are turning out this delicious juice.
On the flipside, a brandy that is starting to get some much deserved recognition is Armagnac. Think of it as Cognac’s little sister who is a cheaper date, yet just as sexy. Armagnac production began two hundred years before Cognac. You will even find that more people in France drink Armagnac than Cognac.
While the Cognac and Armagnac are very similar a few things set them apart. Of course, one is location, the brandy is made in the Gascony, Southwest part of France in a town with it’s namesake. Beside being made with Ugni Blanc grapes, three other grapes varieties can to be used to make the eaux-de-vie and it’s only distilled once. The spirit does however have the same designations as Cognac, but is higher in alcohol. There are also big Armagnac houses, most are family owned because production is low. Think of it as a French craft spirit.
Armagnacs to try this season:
Marie Duffau Napoleon Bas, $36.99- Looks like maple syrup, but tastes like chestnuts, baked pear, and spices swirled together. This 6 year old brandy is a favorite to drink on it’s own or in a cocktail. The kind of brandy that whiskey lovers would enjoy.
Comte de Lauvia V.S.O.P., $45 - The perfect Armagnac to sip as an introduction to the spirit. It’s a traditional style of the brandy at a very affordable price. It’s great with cocktails or to use when making a boozy sauce for a soiree.
Chateau de Laubade XO, $70-$89- Great for after dinner or when you simply want to chill and chat with family and friends. The award winning brandy is a blend of Armagnac aged 15- 25 years. A bit smoky and smooth on the tongue.