Cask Curriculum: Bienvenue to Armagnac

As a whisky drinker, I’ve always appreciated the diversity of styles and flavours offered by Scotch. From the sweet, fruit-forward Speysiders to the bold, smoky Islay malts, it is nearly impossible to find a whisky that won’t match with a given palate. When I first decided it was time to get “serious” about whisky years ago, I quickly fell in love with the fact that there was so much to explore. With every dram came a new adventure and with each new adventure came a broadening of my own perspective. In many respects, the simple act of discovering new flavours was often equally if not more exciting than each whisky itself. 

Today, with a bit more experience (and quite a few drams) under my belt, I am no longer the novice whisky drinker I once was. Yet even so, my desire for discovering new experiences in the world of spirits has never been stronger. As I’ve expanded my journey beyond Scotch whisky, I eventually began exploring other spirits including gin, rum and Cognac, all wonderful spirits in their own regard. But of all the spirits in the world, there is just one that so easily managed to capture my heart and soul anywhere near the degree that whisky has. That spirit is Armagnac.  

Armagnac is, to me, the hidden gem of the spirits world. It’s a unique style of brandy produced in the Armagnac region in Gascony, France, just south of the highly-popularized region of Cognac. It is technically the oldest spirit distilled in France, dating all the way back to the 14th century, and in many respects offers the same dedication to quality production and diverse tasting experiences that I have come to love about about whisky.

As a type of brandy, Armagnac is made by distilling wine (made from white grapes) and maturing in oak casks for an often-considerable length of time. While brandy is generally known as being a light and fruity spirit, Armagnac is distilled just once, making it far more rustic and robust, offering unique characteristics similar to a rich malt whisky. Relative to Cognac, which is regularly produced by big-name luxury brands and consumed all around the world, Armagnac is usually distilled by small producers, the majority of whom are virtually unknown (for now). This means there is amazing value in Armagnac today and it’s no surprise that whisky drinkers are finally beginning to take notice.

As a Society member interested in exploring Armagnac, where should you begin? If you’re new to the spirit, it’s hard to look past Cask A4.3 ‘A slice of Gascony as an ideal starting point. As a 2004 vintage, A4.3 falls on the brighter and livelier end of the spectrum. It was distilled from the local Baco grape, which gives it a well-balanced and overall easy-to-enjoy profile of orange zest, butterscotch and worn leather. Another great option is Cask A5.3 ‘Fully loaded sweet trolley’, a 1997 vintage Armagnac from the same grape, which offers a wonderful “old-world,” classic profile with hints of cedar wood, dried tobacco and baked custard at a staggering 65% ABV!

If you’re looking to sweeten things up a bit , Cask A5.1 Fruit Shop Raid, a 1989 vintage made from the rare Colombard grape offers an exhilarating array of toasted caramel, cinnamon and Muscovado sugar. An ideal dessert pairing if there ever was one! Also, the special-occasion Armagnac that I would gladly drink every day, Cask A3.1 Gravitas and sophistication, a 1987 vintage Armagnac offering tantalizing notes of polished wood, fid, molasses and orange oil. And lastly, perhaps the master of them all, Cask A2.2 ‘Enchanted woodland stroll’, distilled in 1974 (45 years ago!). This one offers an old-world array of spicy wood, orange crème brûlée, and barley sugar, along with an exotic note of cardamom and turmeric. A real stunner in every sense of the word.

Exploring Armagnac has not only unearthed an array of unique flavour experiences for me, it has enhanced my fundamental understanding of whisky itself. I find that exploring a new spirit helps put things into perspective, offering a unique comparable that can be enjoyed equally. If you’re feeling ready for a challenge, one that will take your sensory experience to unchartered depths, you won’t want to pass up Armagnac. Just be careful, you may fall in love.

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