Words by: Simon Difford
The wine must be distilled by the end of the April following the harvesting of the grapes but by operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, most distilleries finish distillation by early February. The Armagnac Appellation dictates that distillation must be completed no later than 31st March.
The wine is most often distilled at the vineyard's cellars, usually by the cellar master in the property's own still but sometimes by roving distillers who travel from cellar to cellar distilling growers' wines according to their specification. Some winemakers take their grapes to local cooperatives for processing and distillation.
Traditionally distillation takes place in a simple continuous still specific to Armagnac called an Alambic Armagnacais. This consists of a small boiler and the vapour from this rises though a short column with seven to nine plates. The wine is continually fed into the still but en route is used to cool the condenser: heat exchange takes place with the condensing spirit warming the wine and the cool wine causing the spirit to condense.
Due to the fact that Armagnac is distilled only once at a low strength (52-60% alc./vol., compared to over 70% alc./vol. for Cognac), it retains earthy and fruity flavours in the finished spirit. Supporters of single continuous distillation (and I'm one) also maintain that reactions with the wine as the vapour bubbles up through the plates of the still is also an important contributor to flavour.
Most Armagnac, certainly over 95%, is made in these traditional continuous stills. However, since 1972, Arab's Head pot-stills typical of Cognac, have also been permitted in Armagnac, and along with them double pot distillation. The double distilled distillate will typically be 70-72% alc./vol. when it leaves the pot still.
To purists, the best Armagnac will always be single distilled in a traditional continuous Alambic still. A new rule introduced ensures that if a distillery has only the double pot distillation, it will be obliged to also have a traditional continuous Alambic Armagnacais as well before 2019.
Less than a handful of Armagnac's 250-odd distillers use double pot distillation and even these agree that prolonged aging in single continuous stills produces the best Armagnac. However, double distilled brandy requires less aging, so its few supporters use double distilled Armagnac blended with single distilled Armagnac to make young three star and V.S.O.P. Armagnacs.
It's worth noting that the first brandies made in Armagnac, as early as the 1400s, were made using pot stills rather than single continuous distillation which did not emerge until the first half of the 19th century. (Some claim the first patent for an Armagnac continuous still was registered in 1818 but it's unlikely that Armagnac was a full ten years ahead of Robert Stein's 1828 invention.) Mobile continuous stills became commonplace in the region from the mid-19 century and this style of still and the brandy it produced quickly became synonymous with Armagnac.
Single distilled Armagnac spirit is very fruity and floral, particularly Folle Blanche distillate which is sometimes bottled without aging as Blanche Armagnac. However, this product is more reminiscent of Pisco than Armagnac and accounts for less than 1% of production. Most Armagnac is aged in oak casks, much of it for over 20 years, transforming it from a clear fiery distillate to a luxurious brandy.