I’m sure we can all agree that we, drinkers, can get obsessive compulsions about numbers on booze sometimes. For example, I know oenophiles look for wines with vintages that coincide with their birth year and/or their children’s birth year. You also get whisky drinkers who want to drink whisky as old as them. So, I’m snickering as I’m going to talk about a brandy which I will be as dirty with by the time this piece comes out.
I‘ve been fascinated with Armagnac for a few years now. But despite the rising popularity of non-whisky spirits such as sugarcane spirits and agave spirits, Armagnac is still a niche product. Living in Asia means it’s very hard to come by. I’m not saying the Philippines is completely devoid of Armagnac. We get a few of the better-known Armagnac brands like Labaude and Delord. Still, the American and European market gets the better stuff. I remember first hearing about it in The Sopranos. Arty loaned a huge sum of money from Tony as he was told it would be the next big thing. Which it didn’t. It wouldn’t be about another decade later when I would hear of it again as I was listening to the K&L Spirits Journal Podcast. Being new to the more technical aspects of spirits then, I didn’t understand the geekier details. But the main point I got from it was it’s a brandy, whisky geeks should explore.
This was about 2014 or 2015 when the geekery online was still not that strong. Aged pot-distilled spirits like Japanese single malt, Scotch single malt and, to a point, Cognac were all considered kings then. So there was a belief that pot-distilled spirits are always best. Then came Armagnac, which is currently mostly column stills. Yes, mostly. While Armagnac distilleries are known for their use of column stills, apparently pot stills are allowed. But they are very rare.
After all, Armagnac came before Cognac. The pot still also came before the column stills. Column stills only came into existence in the late 1800s. A Chateau Laubade rep said the earliest records of Armagnac was a receipt from the Pope in 1310. This means the early forms of Armagnac were all pot distilled. For some added context, he said the earliest records of whisky was during the late 1400s. While the earliest records of Cognac were 1549.
Side note. The proper dichotomy for the types of distilling is batch and continuous. Pot, column and hybrid stills aren’t accurate due to the numerous designs of stills out in the world now. Pot stills can only do batch distilling while continuous stills can do both. Armagnac, Bourbon, Rye and most Agricole rhum, which use traditional column stills, can batch distill. This results in flavorful spirits. While Bacardi and vodka producers use multicolumn stills that are distilled continuously. This continuous distilling with multicolumn stills results in pure ethanol. This means the vodka brands aren’t lying when they say their vodka is pure alcohol. Because pure alcohol means no flavors. The flavors in spirits come from other compounds such as oils, congeners and acids.
Because this is my first review of Armagnac on Malt, I should add a bit more general information on the brandy. The region of Armagnac is divided into three growing regions. Bas-Armagnac is the best known and said to make the best Armagnac. It’s said that the sandy, fine and silty soil here is the reason. Then there are Tenareze and Haut-Armagnac.
Like Cognac, only certain grape varieties can be used to make Armagnac. The main varieties are Ugni-Blanc, Folle Blanche, Baco (which only Armagnac has) and Colombard. But unlike Cognac, Armagnac can only be aged in oak from Gascogne. The trees are at least more than 120 years old when they are turned into casks that can hold 400+ liters. The color of the wood is grayer and gold.
Now a bit of info on Dartigalongue. They are apparently the oldest house in the region. They began distilling in 1813 but don’t own any vineyards. Like many French brandy houses, they source their grapes. Their family motto is “My Armagnac, my strength”. During 1838, the reign of Louis Phillipe, that Pascal Dartigalongue moved to Nogaro in the Gers and founded his Maison d’Armagnac. He quickly realized that Armagnac could be a successful export product. Despite many difficulties, he managed to send oak casks of Armagnac to Bayonne where they would be shipped to Holland and England. Today, Dartigalongue is one of the highest quality blenders and bottlers of Armagnac.
I bought this in K&L wines for $110. Bottled at 43%, this is the lowest cask strength spirit I’ve had. This is my first bottle of Dartigalongue Armagnac as I solely bought this bottle for the age. So, sadly, I can’t compare this with their more regular releases. If you’re wondering why the abv is so low, Armagnacs are only distilled once. So, the distillates usually come out at 50+% abv.
Dartigalongue 1986 30 year old “Celebration Collection” Barrel Strength – review
On the nose: There’s a persistent astringent smell accompanied by dry wood, shiitake mushrooms, peaches, apricots and golden kiwi. After the fruits are a wave of burnt caramel, burnt wood, undertones of honey, lavender and undertones of muscovado sugar. A slightly dry and floral scent comes out at the end. It makes me think of peaches, nectarines and marzipan.
In the mouth: Initially bitter. Then some dry and meek tastes of toffee, burnt caramel, honey, coconut sugar syrup, butterscotch and lavender. Then I get slightly more pronounced tastes of chestnut and buckwheat honey with burnt BBQ sticks. After those are hints of vanilla, golden kiwi, marzipan, canned peaches and shiitake mushroom.
This is something you have to take your time with. Being 30 years old with a low abv, despite being bottled at cask strength, makes this very delicate. The flavors don’t jump out at you. Each flavor also doesn’t last as long, but each flavor takes its turn presenting themselves to you.
This isn’t amazing in the grand scheme of spirits. I’ve enjoyed cheaper and younger Armagnac but bottled at a higher abv. But, despite being 30 years old, the wood hasn’t taken over the flavor of the distillate. There’s still a certain balance. I should have given this a six, but I gave it a plus one due to the affordability.
hi John. (I’m not stalking, it’s just your posts keep turning up under my search terms today, namely ‘toffee’ and ‘folle blanche’). My special bottle of Armagnac is Boigneres Folle Blanche. It’s seriously pricey (£250-ish), but we try and make it last the year! The mid-80s bottles are very very good. There’s a Clos Martin Folle Blanche for about £60 that ain’t half bad.
Hi Rob, I dont mind being stalked by someone from Matchbox 20. I haven’t tried any from Boigneres nor do I know much about them. If you’re trying to make it last the year then it must be hard to not drink it all asap. The fact that that vintage from the 80s and even earlier is not that pricey is one of the best things about Armagnac!