Holiday drinking is like a train: loud and fast, rolling through the night and then disappearing. The rails cool and the mad rush fades. January is the time for warm wool, comfortable chairs and good books. The perfect libation for such pipe-and-slippers moments is armagnac.
The spirit comes from a small region in southwest France (the entire appellation contains less than 10,000 acres) that is home to 500 independent brands and 300 co-ops producing about six million bottles per year. (Compare that to nearby Cognac, where a few huge brands produce the vast majority of the roughly 150 million bottles sold per year.)
Armagnac can be made from 10 different types of grape, but four are the most common: ugni blanc, Baco blanc, folle blanche and colombard. The first two varieties make up nearly 90 percent of the harvest, but the latter two bring a lot to the final blend. Folle blanche is very acidic, which can turn into floral and fruity notes in the glass; colombard is spicy and vegetal.
Armagnac is distilled only once in small, continuous column stills, named alembics Armagnacais, which run just during the winter. The eau-de-vie is then usually aged in oak barrels. After a year of maturation, it’s called VS; after four, VSOP; after five, XO; and after 10, Hors d’Âge.
All these grapes and ages make the taste of armagnac incredibly variable. Some bottles, like the Armagnac de Montal VS ($28), have hints of fresh fruit and flowers, while others, like the Chateau de Laubade XO ($70; pictured above), offer black pepper, wood and saddle leather. As it gets older, the liquor can develop big aromas of nuts, mushrooms and cheese. In very mature expressions, such as the Delord 25 Years Old ($70), you may find truffles, fur, stables and richer flowers including carnations.
Although wonderful sipped neat, armagnac contributes luxuriousness and fruit-forward flavors to cocktails. Two of my favorites are The Nippongi-San, created by top bartender Toby Cecchini, and the Winter Wassail, created by talented mixologist Jeff Bell. Fix one tonight between chapters.
Contributed by Toby Cecchini
- 2 oz XO armagnac
- .5 oz Cointreau
- 1 oz Lemon juice
- .5 oz Almond orgeat
- 3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters or The Bitter Truth Creole Bitters
- Garnish: Orange twist
- Glass: Coupe or cocktail
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a coupe or cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
This recipe is based on Jerry Thomas’ Japanese Cocktail.
Contributed by Jeff Bell
- 1.25 oz Tariquet VSOP Armagnac
- .5 oz Kronan Swedish Punsch
- 1 tsp St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram
- 4 oz Wassail,* warm
- Garnish: Cinnamon stick
- Glass: Mug
Add the armagnac, punsch and allspice dram to a preheated heatproof mug. Top with the Wassail and garnish with a cinnamon stick.
- 64 oz Breezy Hill Orchard Hudson Valley Cider
- 16 oz Orange juice
- 4 oz Lemon juice
- 12 Cloves
- 4 (3-inch) Cinnamon sticks
- .5 tsp Ground ginger
- .5 tsp Ground nutmeg
- 4 oz Armagnac
Add all the ingredients except the armagnac to a saucepan and simmer over medium-low heat for 45 minutes. Fine strain into a clean 1-gallon bottle and let cool. Add the armagnac and store in the refrigerator until needed.
Max Watman is the author of Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine.