The mere mention of Cognac or its close spiritual relative Armagnac, brings to mind mahogany furniture, swirling snifters, and other such high-end iconography. It has a reputation, and that reputation makes it easy for many to walk past the numerous bottles sitting on the liquor store shelf. But Cognac and Armagnac are more affordable and more accessible in the age of whiskey, with some truly great bottles coming in at under $50. Yes, Cognac brands retain their rep as a posh after dinner indulgence because they’re great for sipping as a digestif. But Cognac and Armagnac are also fantastic cocktail ingredients, ideal for the Sazerac, the sidecar, or the Vieux Carré.
So, what is Cognac exactly? Well, it is a type of brandy, which means it is a type of distilled wine. Brandy can be made anywhere in the world, from any fruit juice and still be called brandy. But to earn the title of Cognac, said brandy must be double distilled in pot stills from mostly Ugni Blanc grapes in the Cognac region of France. Similarly, Armagnac is made in its namesake region but requires different grapes and only needs to run through a column still once.
Because of those production differences, Cognacs are typically lighter with subtler flavors and Armagnacs have a thicker mouthfeel and more dramatic profiles. The sipping cousins are labeled in the same way in terms of age:
VS = Very Special (aged a minimum of two years for Cognac; one year for Armagnac)
VSOP = Very Superior Old Pale (at least four years old)
XO = Extra Old (minimum of 10 years in a barrel)
So, there you have it. And if you’re interested in trying a great bottle or just want to add some sophistication to your liquor cabinet, here are eight of the best Cognacs and Armagnacs to buy right now.
Remy Martin VSOP is a fixture on our bar, for sipping after dinner, of course, but also for tasty aperitifs. A nice nap in French Limousin oak barrels gives the spirit a wealth of flavor. It’s fruity, floral, well balanced and affordable.
Yeah, this one slaps. It’s the first single batch by Hennessy’s eighth-generation master blender Renaud Fillioux de Gironde. It’s soft and supple in the mouth with an unexpected brightness. Nutty and sweet, the fruit and grape notes shimmer while subtle oak and spice bring complexity and balance.
For those looking to splurge, Tesseron’s Lot No. 53 is an enchanting indulgence. Beguilingly dark in the glass its stunningly blended to harmoniously bring together notes of chocolate, figs, dried berries and wood, with a herbaceous undercurrent. It’s truly within a snifter of perfection.
New to the US market, this one might be a bit tricky to find, but if you see a bottle you should take a risk. Larsen is the first maker to use steam-toasted barrels. They take French oak casks and saturate them in hot water and then flame toast them three times. The apropos name means ‘water’ and ‘fire’ in Latin. It’s a lovely spirit, notes of chocolate, plum, spiced almonds, coffee and citrus make it a great sipper but adventurous drinkers might use it as a fun cocktail base.
This bottling from a sixth generation family owned producer is a jaw dropping blend of 30-plus year old spirits. Simply sumptuous, the Chateau de Montifaud XO is robust, loaded with notes of dates, vanilla, wood, and a whiff of spice, with a reverberating finish.
At eight years old this VSOP Armagnac is aged twice as long as the rules require. The family-owned maker, which is helmed by Florence Castarède, the sixth generation operator, has been making spirits since 1832. This expression is replete with notes of fresh herbs, citrus, vanilla, coconut and baking spice. It’s an easy sipping introduction to Armagnac that will please most palates.
This 25 year old expression is a much loved classic from one of the biggest names in the style. Notes of rich dark cacao nibs, honey soaked prunes, roasted nuts, oak spice and vanilla work in perfect harmony with a buttery finish.
Another 25 year-old XO Armagnac from a major label, this delectable sipper is easy on the wallet and makes a perfect gift for any brandy lover you want to impress. Brown sugar, spice, chocolate, and coffee play off hints of citrus to create a dynamic glass.