Thursday, January 3, 2013

The World of Brandy Producers

For Scotch fans used to the idea of single malts vs. blends, we need to adjust our thinking when thinking about brandy.

Cognac is filled with small and medium sized grape growers, many of whom grow grapes and then hire someone to come and distill their grapes into brandy. Very few of these growers market their own brandy. Instead, the big brands have contracts with these small producers to buy their brandy for use in their brands, much like a blended Scotch whisky, though the term "blended" doesn't seem to be used in brandy. While some of the big name houses have distilleries, most of those in-house operations produce only a fraction of their brandy; they buy the rest from smaller growers. Even many smaller, more upscale brands, like Delemain, are blenders who buy brandy on contract.

Unlike Scotch, in which many distilleries make a single malt as well as selling their whisky for use in blends, most of the small growers don't sell their brandy under a private label. It all gets sold to the big houses.

In Cognac, which is dominated by the four big houses of Remy Martin, Hennessy, Courvoisier and Martell, this system can deter more innovative approaches. As brandy importer/bottler Nicolas Palazzi told me:

Right now in Cognac, there are small guys who would want to go fully on their own but are kind of split because keeping contracts with big houses makes the future more secure. But a younger generation is taking over their families' estates and seem to be more in tune with the drinkers so this will help.

This is another aspect in which brandy today is comparable to whiskey 15 or 20 years ago. The Scotch export market was almost all blends until the 1980s, when single malts started creeping in. Palazzi and a few others are acting as independent bottlers and releasing some of this grower-produced brandy that otherwise only goes into blends. Another way to taste smaller producers is through Armagnac, which has fewer big blenders. Starting next week, I'll be sampling some Armagnacs from K&L's exclusive small producer bottlings as well as some other interesting brandies from smaller producers.


Numen said...

Hi Sku, I love the blog. You mention more whisk(e)y drinkers going for Armagnac than Cognac (of the French brandy varieties), and I get that. Armagnac also differs a bit in that, to some extent, there is so much difference between vintages and estates. Certain grapes from certain areas tend to have certain flavors, but there is a lot of variation (even on the same label) due to the preponderance of vintage Armagnac releases.

The differences in distillation also produce significant differences between the two, and have a profound impact on the way that they age.

Though Cognac and Armagnac typically are both 'fruity' in profile, they are not always as well-tied to the grape (in profile) as Calvados is to its source fruit.

I could go on further, but I do think that there are some Cognacs out there that stand up well in terms of spice and heft. Palazzi's imported stuff is great. I'd also recommend Daniel Bouju's Brut de Fut offerings if you can find them.

sku said...

Numen, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. You are absolutely right that there are many differences between Cognac and Armagnac, one of the most significant being that Armagnac is made using continuous stills while Cognac is made in pot stills.

I didn't mean to suggest that whiskey fans might not be interested in Cognac, though I do think the dry, spiciness of Armagnacs will appeal to rye whiskey fans in particular.

I'm a big fan of Palazzis Cognacs and have reviewed some of them in the past, and I'll be tasting some Daniel Bouju Brut de Futs as part of this series...stay tuned!

Numen said...

Sku, you're probably right on the Armagnac to Rye Whiskey drinkers. I suspect that they'd tend to prefer Armagnac dominated more by Ugni Blanc, which tends to be a bit spicier than Bacco (pruneau/plum), Folle Blanche, or Colombard. It's a lot of fun to see how various grape varietals change flavors over periods of time!

Chateau de Laubade is also a great Armagnac producer, though the house brings the stuff down to 40%. Laubade tends to go toward some of the darker flavors. Not trying to steal your thunder! I love whiskies, but adore brandy, and it's not often that folks chat about it.

If you're looking for samples of stuff, I'm always happy to share.


sku said...

Well, part of my goal here is to get more people (or at least more whiskey people) chatting about brandy. I'm still a relative noob, so I'm pleased for any insight you can add to any of the posts over the next few weeks!

Feel free to send me an email if you want to talk samples:

Anonymous said...

Of course, Driscoll's series from France for K&L is definitely worth the time to read in its entirety. Here is the start, you just have to work your way back up the tree from there:

patrick bateman said...

i've heard, since the nineties, that armagnac is a "better buy" than cognac.
that is, you get more bang for your buck, so to speak; a higher quality of product at a lower price.
granted, these things are subjective.
i look forward to reading your further columns to see if this is so.

Justin Victor said...


I look foreward to reading more about brandy on your blog. As a whiskey lover, I do appreciate a good brandy every now and then. My problem in OK is that the selection afforded me is quite small. You mentioned the big producers of Cognac? Thats about all I can get.

Interesting to me though is that I actually prefer some VS Armagnacs I have purchased out of state as compared to some VSOP and XO congnacs I have had.

acme said...

How do i tell if it is "caramel colored, flavored with wood pulp (boise)" chill filtered and the like.

Also, what is the alcohol percentage limit for the spirit upon barrel entry for both Cognac and Armagnac?

Virtually all bottlings I see are at 40%. But isn't Armagnac usually distilled only once and therefore is not that much stronger?

Numen said...

Hi Acme, some Cognac and Armagnac producers will state, openly, that they do not use any additives (other than, perhaps, some water). For instance, Francis Darroze does not use any in the Armagnacs that he bottles under his own label.

As for ABV of the distillate hitting the barrel, Charles Neal gives a pretty good answer in his book, and it usually exits the still between 52 and 60% (for Armagnac). Cognac, I think, is closer to 70% upon exiting the still.

The ABV for Armagnac depends on the environment, age, and the usual sorts of impact on spirits. Depending on the chai, the frequency of racking, or exposing the spirit to air, an Armagnac with 20-25 years may be close to 43-44% ABV. Another producer may have a bottle around 30 years that's around 48-50%. When producers have bottles around 40% for everything, they're obviously adding water.

Getting back to the issue of additives - you can tell that additives are used if the master blender did a poor job integrating them into the spirit. You can usually assume that the major houses (e.g. Remy Martin, Martell, Hennessy, and Courvoisier) will be more inclined to use them in their 'younger' blends (VS, VSOP, and probably XO level -- rather than the 'prestige' bottlings) to try to achieve a consistent house style for mass consumption, and to keep the most generally preferred style (sweet), which is usually used for mixing drinks anyway. The easiest way to tell, by taste alone, is to drink a bunch of stuff that you know has no additives, and then go back and try things that you suspect. Often, you can taste the difference once you know what it really can be like.

sku said...


1. Unfortunately, there's not always a sure way to know if there is caramel, pulp or chill filtration. As with Scotch, if the bottle doesn't say they don't do these things, I assume they do.

2. I believe maximum alcohol percentage for Cognac is 72.4% and for Armagnac is 72%, though I believe that Cognac usually goes into the barrel at just under 70% and Armagnac usually goes in closer to 60%.

3. Yes, Armagnac is distilled only once so is generally going to have lower abv, but not 40% low. Cask strength Armagnacs seem to run from the high 40s to the low 50s.

sku said...

Thanks Numen, for beating me to it with a very complete and informative answer!

BMc said...

Hey everyone,
Do you know if the big producers have changed their styles in the past 30 or so years? Bourbons from the 80s and earlier are unrecognizable, and many scotches, too, have different profiles, though for different reasons. I ask because I have a Hine VSOP bottled in the late 70s that is pretty good, but I have no idea how it compares to today's Hine, as I haven't seen it around.

FWIW, I get juicy grapes with appealing and long-lasting sandalwood notes from the old Hine. To be honest, it tastes a lot like a 5 year port from a very active cask.

NP said...

Big houses have specific "house tastes" for specific markets. Depending on the country things can be darker, sweeter etc... That can be a factor.

As it happens with whisky, since VS/VSOP/Xo are blends which only have to be more than 2/4/6 years old, flavor profiles can change depending on the ingredients available to be blended.
The cognac market is very cyclical. 4/5 years ago was a down. Right now bulk prices are crazy and even batches of faulty cognacs find buyers.Therefore at some point in time, VSOP material can be scarce (lack of anticipation from the negociants/big houses which did not stock enough/foresee the direction the market was taking, conjunction of high demand for year X & low yields year X-4, etc...). Different age range might be used which can induce a slight change in flavor profile.

Now additives might very well be the main difference that one can taste when comparing bottlings of a same product.

Their nature/composition/origin can play a major role. Making boise is a business. Techniques improve, process change. The final product evolves accordingly.

Finally a long time ago, when volumes sold were no as big as they are now, some companies used to have/take more time to prepare commercial batches by for example aging those additives. They woud also be able to take time after having incorporated them in blends before bottling the product. Therefore the final product would taste more "integrated".

Note: this is just food for thought. Not saying this applies to the Hine VSOP you are referring to.

BMc said...

Thanks NP - the variable quality of supplies is particularly interesting, because it's not really something you have to think about in the bourbon world.

I was wondering more about deliberate changes in the profiles over time. Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker - these labels have been consistent for decades, while other labels have completely changed.

Numen said...

BMc, I haven't had enough older generation bottles of similar expressions (e.g. VSOP) next to current releases from the same houses to say whether the styles have changed. Marketing and target audiences have, I think, increased the number of expressions that houses release.

I think that NP's comment about the bulk of the stuff sold/produced suggests that there is a conscious decision to alter the flavor profile of current expressions simply to keep pace with demand. As a result, VS, VSOP, and (probably) standard XO expressions probably show more obvious signs of additives (esp, probably, the sweeteners).

Anonymous said...

Numen, NP - thanks so much for adding a very necessary perspective into what to me is a totally foreign world!

I've noticed my Hine (the only cognac experience I've ever had) to have changed a lot after opening. There's some debate as to whether this sort of thing is all in the mind, but for a second, suppose in this case it's real. Do you guys notice substantial changes after oxidation in brandies?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Numen and NP - you've given me a good perspective on what to me is a totally foreign world!

One more question - do you notice substantial changes in brandies after lots of airtime? My wife noticed that our bottle has changed since its opening, though a lively debate exists as to whether effects of oxidation are all in our heads :)

Gino said...

hey, ahhh... brandy is all good for some of the lesser humans, but can you get back to bourbon?

sku said...

Gino, we'll be back to whiskey soon enough, but we are going to take a little brandy break.

Matt L said...

I dig the brandy break Sku! Just tried my first Armagnac from K&L, wow, awesome stuff. Bourbon drinkers will love it. Guess I'll have to go buy some more before you tell everyone how great it is...

sku said...

Great to hear Matt. Which one was it?

fussychicken said...

Hey Sku, I've got a couple of Daniel Boujus if you are looking for more for tastings. I was so excited when I found a cask strength Cognac 5 years ago, I bought more than a couple!