The spirit of Christmas

Have you ever wondered what the difference between Cognac and Armagnac is? Apart from the spelling that is and just where does the word Brandy come from?

For many, Brandy is the revitalising liquid contained in a small barrel hung around the neck of a St. Bernard dog. Whilst for others it is an Edwardian vision of aged, whiskered gentlemen slumped in deep leather armchairs next to a warming fire in a private members club in London. These chaps are casually sipping snifters from large bowl-shaped glasses and putting the world to rights.

Ever since Charles Dickens wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1843, the ceremony of Christmas as we know it has been entrenched in our festive traditions. The ceremony of anointing a dried fruit and nut-based pudding with brandy then setting fire to it, has been with us for hundreds of years.

“blazing in half of half a quarter of ignited brandy” (A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens).

But today, hardly anyone drinks Brandy, Cognac or even Armagnac anymore. In France for instance, whisky sales now outstrip both of the national products. There are a few of us connoisseurs left out (more for us that’s what I say!). Brandy is that poor spirit which you have lurking at the very back of that dusty old drink’s cabinet. It has been sitting there all year since you last dug it out to help put a flame to the Christmas pudding and the same thing will probably happen again this year?

Almost all wine producing countries will produce a version of brandy but it is France that undoubtedly produces the very best. French brandies include both Cognac and Armagnac. Cognac is to be found in the départemants of Charente and Charente – Maritime these are usually considered to be the very best examples of brandy.

The word Brandy comes from an old Dutch word, ‘Brandewijn’ roughly translated as “burnt wine”, which refers to the heat produced in the distillation process. Brandy is a catch all name for Cognac, Armagnac, Pisco, Calvados, Grappa and fruit flavoured eau de vie.

Stories abound as to how this fiery liquid found fame. The origin of brandy dates from around 1540 after a certain Chevalier du Maron took two casks of the newly distilled spirit to a local monastery close to the port of La Rochelle. It was here that the monks initially tasted one of the casks and declared that it was too fiery and tasteless to be drank so they forgot about the other cask. Many years later they found the forgotten cask and upon opening it they found the contents had matured and were exceedingly agreeable. They then named the spirit after the town that it had originated from, Cognac.

“The most sensible thing to do to people you hate is to drink their brandy.” Elizabeth Taylor

There are about ten permitted grapes allowed to be used in the production of either Cognac or Armagnac. In Cognac the producers are restricted to the Ugni Blanc grape. However, in Armagnac, they are allowed to use amongst others Folle Blanche, Colombard, Baco, Clairette de Gascogne and of course Ugni Blanc.

The Armagnac region in Gascony can be divided into 4 distinct districts, Bas-Armagnac, Armagnac-Tènaréze, Haut-Armagnac and Blanche d’Armagnac. Traditionally Armagnac is aged in oak barrels then blended and is sold as a vintage. The vintage being defined as the youngest Armagnac in the blend.

Armagnac likes to pride itself as France’s oldest spirit, predating Cognac by some 150 years. It is distilled only once unlike Cognac which is double distilled. This single distillation is considered by the vignerons in Armagnac superior to that of Cognac. This single distillation is thought to add more character, depth and complexity to the finished product.

You see, the more you distill a spirit, the more you will find that you strip it of those vital complex flavonoids, (the bad stuff that makes it taste so damn good!). The more you distill the more you take away in flavour, this is why vodka is more subtle in flavour than Armagnac, Cognac and Whisky – mainly because it has gone through a more extensive distillation and filtration.

Where Cognac needs to be aged for at least a minimum of 2 years in order for it to be called Cognac, Armagnac can be aged for a minimum of only 1 year. Cognac can only be aged in either Limousin or Tronçais oak. Armagnac can be aged in oak from these two areas as well but it may also be matured in oak from Gascony.

“To get over the guilt of drinking, take your Brandy in milk. This way, it becomes medicinal”

Catherine Cookson

Cognac is the 2nd largest wine producing region after Bordeaux and its vineyards can be simply divided into six crus. Borderies, Bons Bois, Fins Bois, Bois Ordinares and Petit Champagne and Grand Champagne. Once the grapes have been harvested there is a race to complete the fermentation process. This is because it is stated by the AOC law that the spirit must be distilled by no later than March 31st the end of the Cognac year.

I would like to point out that the use of the word ‘Champagne’ has nothing to do with the other wine producing region famous for its sparkling wine. The word Champagne is a corruption of the French word for country, ‘campagne’ (just thought that I should clear that up!).

Cognac just like the majority of whiskies available is a spirit that has been double distilled. The new make spirit is distilled to 72.4% which allows for more character and ensures that it is packed with complex congeners that will react differently during maturation. The spirit is then left in barrel for at least 2 years to build its own unique personality and intricacy.

Due to its high alcoholic content, Cognac has been used in the preservation of foods such as meats and fruit. The ancient term of ‘plumming’ refers to the soaking of raisins in brandy. So enamoured was King George 1 with this process of preservation, that in 1714 he ordered his plum pudding be served to him at his Royal Christmas feast flaming before it was served.

Alright Colin, so what is the difference between VS and VSOP Cognac?

Basically, VS stands for Very Special, it is sometimes also called 3 star Cognac. To achieve VS status the new make spirit must have been matured in oak barrels for at least 2 years.

VSOP dates back to the time of George IV, it means Very Superior Old Pale. Back then they termed this category of Cognac ‘Cognac Pale’, in other words a Cognac that has not been sweetened or coloured by the addition of either sugar or caramel. This is a blend where the youngest brandy involved in the blend must have been aged for a minimum of 4 years. Many of the other component wines involved in this may well indeed be much older but, it is the inclusion of this younger brandy wine that determines that actual quality of the VSOP.

“Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy”.

Dr Samuel Johnson

Now it may sound a bit strange but, some of the very best brandies that we know and love today were founded by people who came not from France but the UK. Hennessey was established in 1765 by the Irish Jacobite Richard Hennessey. It accounts for around 46% of all Cognac production.

Jean Martell was a wine merchant who originated from the Island of Jersey. Martell has a 300 year history and is France’s longest continually operating distillery.

Hine cognac was established by Dorset born Thomas Hine shortly after his arrest during the French Revolution.

So, what are the differences in taste between Martell and Hennessey?

Martell matures their cognacs in expensive fine grained Tronçais oak. The use of Tronçais oak in the ageing of the spirit imparts more floral and spicy notes in the finished product. Martell also distill without the lees (the sediment of residual yeasts lying at the bottom of the barrel).

Hennessey on the other hand makes full use of Limousin oak. The barrels made from this wood has a wide grain in it, it is this grain that allows the spirit to develop unique flavour characteristics such as caramel, vanilla, wood, toast and deep citrus fruit notes.

If, however you prefer some French heritage and wish to imbibe with something of a Gallic lineage then look no further that Remy Martin. Remy Martin prides itself upon only using the finest grapes sourced from the Petit Champagne and Grand Champagne regions. They also distill their new make spirit on the lees thus imbuing the resultant Cognac with excellent finesse, body and an elegant, sophisticated character.

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