Article

Hip to Sip

Armagnac

There’s a battle going on for premium position on the digestif trolley, and it’s one that doesn’t favour the little guy. Our panellists strike a blow for the underdog with a flight of 15- to 20-year-old Armagnacs. Clinton Cawood reports


Armagnac’s place on the drinks trolley is under siege. The fight for the after-dinner drink occasion is an increasingly brutal one, with more and more interest shown not only by the usual suspects, but by some new brown-spirit challengers such as rum. The brandy spirit from Gascony doesn’t even have much backing from the superpowers of the drinks trade, making it hard for it to have much impact, or to defend itself against the onslaught.

Suspecting there was life in armagnac yet, we called in a dozen representatives, each between 15 and 20 years old, to make a case for the category. Some excellent spirits were certain to be found here, very often at bargain prices, particularly when these are compared to the equivalent offerings from Cognac.

Cognac primarily makes use of quality grades such as VSOP or XO, which give an indication of minimum age, with the occasional foray into vintage releases. Armagnac producers also use the quality grades, but release single-vintage armagnac, as well as age-statement releases in the style of single-malt whisky, just as freely. Slightly confusing, to say the least. We nevertheless admitted all of these expressions to the tasting, on the condition that each was aged between 15 and 20 years.

As our tasting panel was quick to discover, the after-dinner trolley isn’t the only home for armagnac. These are spirits that might be equally comfortable on a back bar, doing service in a number of cocktails.


HOW IT WORKS

Our panel blind-tasted a selection of 12 armagnacs, all between 15 and 20 years old, either vintage, age statement or blends, and in ascending order of age. Prices were given to tasters to allow notes and scores to reflect value for money. Scores were out of 20, resulting in a percentage score for each spirit. Only those scoring over 50 are listed here. All armagnacs included in this tasting are available in the UK and all prices are given as RRP.

THE PANEL

Oliver Blackburn, The Gilbert Scott  Clinton Cawood, Imbibe  
Stefan Ravalli, Shaker & Company  Kester Thomas, The Collection  
Desmond Yatigammana, Callooh Callay

RESULTS

81 Samalens Vieille Relique 15yo
Universally loved by the panel, this armagnac was everything our tasters were looking for: complex
and interesting, with a fine balance between spice, citrus and sweetness, and with a long, rich finish. Honey, dried fruit, cedarwood and curry spice dominated on the nose, followed by harmonious toffee, chocolate, orange and vanilla on the palate, leading one enamoured taster to draw comparisons between this and Sauternes.
42% abv. £57.98/70cl. Bibendum, 020 7449 4120

74 Château de Laubade
Bas Armagnac 1991
Despite its age, this was about much more than just its oak flavours, incorporating delicate floral notes with fresh apple fruit and hints of leather, as well as dark chocolate. This was followed up on the palate by more spice and fruit – stonefruit in particular – all wrapped up with a satisfying, nutty finish.
40% abv. £81.41/70cl. Amathus, 020 8808 4181

73 Samalens Millésime 1995
Another hit from Samalens, this showed elegance and restraint, with nutty, coffee aromas combining with a character which reminded tasters of forests and cigars – not to mention apricot and peach notes. A balanced palate followed, with deep complexity and a dark, raisin character. Caramel, chocolate and vanilla elements contributed to a smoothness on the palate, while remaining quite dry.
40% abv. £62/70cl. Bibendum, 020 7449 4120

66 Baron de Lustrac 1995
Not shy in any way, this armagnac opened with big fruit and custard notes, accompanied by a hint of smoke. A rich, caramel-heavy palate followed, supported by an earthiness, as well as dark chocolate, dried fruit, and pot-pourri, moving into a vanilla and spice finish. A grown-up, elegant spirit.
42% abv. £66/70cl. Eaux de Vie, 020 7724 5009

63 Castarède XO 20yo
  This brought out the poet in more than one taster, with the nose being described as ‘ethereal’, ‘autumnal’ and ‘pretty’, with a light grassiness plus dried fruit, honey, oak and leather. A complex palate featured honey and spice, with some toasted biscuit character, and ended with caramel and citrus flavours. Warm and satisfying.
40% abv. £40/70cl. Enotria, 020 8961 4411

62 Château de Pellehaut Tenareze 15yo
This armagnac drew mixed reviews, with its champions describing soft fruit (‘peaches and cream’, according to one panellist) and chocolate on the nose, with one taster likening it to a Speyside scotch. On the palate, this exhibited more fruit, as well as caramel and some mintiness. However, its detractors identified some unpleasant harshness on the palate.
40% abv. £39.99/70cl. Hercules Wine Vaults, 01304 617100

56 Marquis de Montesquiou XO Impérial
A serious spirit, with more than one taster identifying attractive medicinal notes, along with coffee, burnt spices, dark chocolate, oak and leather notes, with an overall earthiness. Its weight on the palate led one taster to speculate that this would stand up well to vermouths or even other base spirits when used as a cocktail ingredient.
40% abv. £47.15/70cl. Venus Wine & Spirit Merchants, 020 8801 0011

54 Darroze Les Grands Assemblages 20yo
A pleasant nose with aromas of maple, fruit and caramelised nuts gave way to a very oaky palate, resulting in some burnt-caramel character flavour and a dry finish. A good spirit, but perhaps aged a little longer than necessary.
43% abv. £48/70cl. Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367

52 Château du Tariquet Bas-Armagnac 15yo
At its best, this showed soft, fleshy fruit on the nose, carried by no small amount of caramel aromas, with oak, toffee and leather notes too. A rich, viscous mouthfeel complemented caramel and vanilla notes. At worst, this was thought to perhaps be a little one-dimensional.
46.8% abv. £50/70cl. France Domaines, 020 7316 1849

Also tasted: Gelas 18yo, Ugni Blanc, Château du Tariquet Bas-Armagnac Le Légendaire, Single de Samalens 15yo

Many thanks to The Coach and Horses in Clerkenwell, London, for hosting the tasting, and to Amanda Garnham of the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac for all her help in arranging the tasting samples.


CONCLUSIONS

  • Stylistically, these dozen spirits varied widely. There was a significant range in terms of quality too.
  • Armagnac’s use of three different systems for denoting age (vintage, age statement or quality grade) is confusing, with each having their advantages when it comes to selling.
  • While the armagnacs here showed some potential as cocktail ingredients, the resulting drinks would prove expensive to produce. A solution would be to use alongside other spirits.
  • Where armagnac really shows its value for money is up against equivalent products in categories such as cognac.

Panel Comments


Oliver Blackburn, The Gilbert Scott
‘Armagnac is asked for less and less. It’s quite clear that this is a category that’s misunderstood, and I think the different age statements are confusing. When people see single vintages though, that’s more desirable than a statement like VSOP. There’s real scope here for after-dinner drinks, though – you could find something here to fit anyone’s taste. And I’d be really interested to see what you would get for the money at £20 a bottle.’

Kester Thomas, The Collection
‘Armagnac is characterised by the fact that it’s mostly small, family production, so it’s tough for producers to gain any awareness. I think that, as a category, it’s under-offered. It’s good to have a selection, even if it’s just three armagnacs, for use after dinner and as a cocktail ingredient. It’s also important to have knowledgeable staff. Consumers aren’t educated enough to have direction when it comes to the category. Japanese whisky nailed it, being identified as a cross between scotch and bourbon, for example, but armagnac hasn’t managed this.’

Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘It would be fair to say that quality varied significantly throughout the flight, with the stars really standing head and shoulders above the rest. The best examples showed typical armagnac characteristics, rather than a flavour profile that drifted towards that of other categories. The vast diversity in terms of various styles here suggested some real potential for mixing. Not only that, but the prices, for what you get, were really good at this level. With some clearer labelling and communication we’d see these really earning their spot on the back bar.’

Desmond Yatigammana, Callooh Callay
‘When it comes to selling these, it really depends on the venue. Overall, I really preferred the mid-range armagnacs today. That said, they were all very good. I reckon you could definitely use these in cocktails, particularly in short, strong drinks like the Sazerac. I was really impressed with the range in flavours here,
from eaux de vie, and Werther’s Originals, to spirits with more spicy characters.’

Stefan Ravalli, Shaker & Company
‘The only time I really see armagnac in cocktails is in funky, warped versions of recipes – it’s hard to make it financially viable on a cocktail list, as armagnac is expensive, relative to other base spirits. Compared to cognac, though, you can definitely get more for your money. It’s a good dark horse to offer. These would work well in multi-spirit cocktails, blended with rum or brandy. They could also
be used as seasoning in a drink, to keep costs down. Younger armagnac would maybe work even better – older spirits tend to mellow out, and can get lost.’

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – January/February 2012

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