What's the Difference Between Cognac and Armagnac?

Here's how to tell these French brandies apart.

As Cognac continues its impressive rise in popularity and Armagnac reaches a larger market than the more niche one it has historically appealed to in the United States, exploring the differences between them has become more important. Because while they’re both brandies, and both from France, there are several key differences between them.

The main one is geographic: Both Cognac and Armagnac are protected places of origin, with specifically demarcated boundaries and rules governing production. They must come from those specifically named places to be called as such.

Their histories are different, too. “Armagnac is France’s oldest distilled spirit,” says Raj Bhakta, founder of BHAKTA Spirits, in Vermont, which specializes in it. “It’s been crafted in the same way for 700 years, since the 1300s. Consider that for a moment. What else in our day-to-day lives, or even in the world today at all, can make that claim? How much has the world changed since the Dark Ages, while Armagnac has stayed the same? This is why I deeply believe that there is true, real, literal, and actual wisdom in Armagnac. Not to mention that its paradigm of vintages is the perfect way for spirits lovers to measure and appreciate the passage of time. Armagnac is history in the bottle.”

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Both regions are quite different from one another, even though they’re found in the southwest of France (Armagnac is further south than Cognac). “We're talking about two regions of the southwest of France that are not far from one another,” explains Alexandre Gabriel, owner and master blender of Ferrand Cognac. “Cognac is more towards the seaside and Armagnac is more inland, so you're going to have a little more rain in the Cognac region than you would have in the Armagnac region.”

Their terroirs are also different. “Cognac is very chalk-based, whereas the Bas Armagnac has something called boulbènes, which is iron, sand, and clay that gives very floral notes,” he adds. “The chalk gives great deep, dry fruit notes. Cognac has a little region that has clay as well, which is [known as] Borderies,” but chalkier soils dominate in general there. “Of course, there is a slightly different climate, but we're still in the southwest of France, so [it’s] similar there.”

Cognac is officially divvied up into six individual crus, or growths; the most important two are known as Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, but don’t be confused—they have nothing to do with the Champagne region that produces the famous sparkling wine. In terms of production, there are also key differences. Cognac is exclusively distilled in pot stills, whereas Armagnac can be produced using column stills as well. As far as grapes go, Cognac leans on low-sugar and high-acid varieties, including Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Colombard, Semillon, Montils, and Folignan. Armagnac can utilize those first three, in addition to a hybrid variety called Baco 22A, as well as others.

“Armagnac can be produced from a wide range of grapes — ten total,” Bhakta notes. Many producers, he emphasizes, employ all of them. “We at Bhakta certainly do.” He explains that many variables affect the finished liquid, and he believes in taking advantage of as many as possible, from the grape varieties themselves to the “wide diversity of soil types across Armagnac’s sub-regions; distiller technique; vintage blending; vintage variation; barrel size and aging time … The complexities compound quickly.”

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You’re more likely to find specific vintages of Armagnac (in addition to blends), whereas Cognac is far more focused on blending multiple years together. Rémy Martin’s 300th Anniversary Coupe, for example, is made from a reserve of eaux-de-vie enriched over the years by generations of cellar masters, a creative process known as the réserve perpétuelle or ‘perpetual reserve.

In other words, the blend that cellar master Baptiste Loiseau finalized was drawn on the 290th Anniversary Coupe, which was nourished by the blend of the 275th Coupe, and so on. “Thanks to the preservation and enrichment of these precious eaux-de-vie, the reserve never runs dry,” he explains. “The 300th Anniversary Coupe pays tribute to the past while projecting us into the future.” And a delicious one at that: It sings with notes of marmalade, figs, bergamot, tobacco, and cedar, all of it unfolding with immense elegance and, with air, fantastic earthiness. “It is a living memory in liquid form,” Loiseau says.

This is exactly what so many of the best Cognacs and Armagnacs are, and not always in the expected ways. The Bhakta 1928, for example, was introduced to the market this past autumn. It’s a blend of rye whiskey from 2018 with Calvados, as well as Armagnacs from 1996, 1973, 1962, 1941, and 1928 (their stocks date back to 1868). The result is a phenomenally silky spirit that carries notes of dried figs, white raisins, dehydrated apples and pears, vanilla caramel flan, and cinnamon custard. It shows just how brilliantly Armagnac ages, and how versatile it is, not just on its own but also in concert with other spirits.

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