The armagnac still in its most used current form is a relatively recent invention, first perfected by a local peasant known as Verdier, who gave it it’s name in the 19th century. Rather like cognac, a super heater is used to warm the wine before it passes into the top of the still, to pass down over the plates until it reaches the bottom one. The spirit rises back to the top and is passed back to the condenser or super heater where it passes through coils, warming the wine as it goes. It is of course a very efficient way of turning wine into brandy.
Armagnac is such an awkward raw material, needing such careful handling after distillation, that the conditions in which it matures and perhaps more importantly, the age at which it is sold, matter more than any other brandy. Armagnacs made in the traditional way, with the lower than cognac distillation range, will retain more of the character of the original wine. There is however a price to pay. The richness consists of impurities which are unappetizingly raw for a longer time than spirit distilled by other methods. In the past, long maturation was necessary because the old stills were rarely cleaned, which increased the impurities in the spirit and the potential richness. A spirit for drinking in less that seven or eight years in wood, must be distilled to a much higher degree than is possible in a small old fashioned mobile still. Indeed many of these old spirits are incomparable - but only as they have been kept for perhaps thirty or forty years in oak barrels.
Unfortunately, armagnacs can be sold even younger than cognac, at a mere 18 months of age. In the 1960’s this created a price over quality battle, and many armagnacs were sold far too young (some as little as three or four years old). Regulation changes made in 1972 allowed the use of the Cognac. A few of the bigger houses installed the cognac stills, which requires the spirit to be distilled at a higher range than is traditional. It soon became clear that the cognac method of distillation was perfectly suitable for armagnacs destined to be sold young and whilst some people find these new spirits acceptable, most still prefer the more traditional spirits produced by the traditional methods. But the Armagnaçaise are cautious people and were wary of using other methods for cheaper brands, as Armagnacs distilled in this way taste rather harsh on the palate, short and not as complex as the “real thing”.
The variations in distillation styles have inevitably confused some customers. The Scandinavians, who are good customers for the cheaper armagnacs, reject the new style spirits, preferring the wider variation in flavours between armagnacs and cognac. The existence of a rival system spurred the traditional distillers into finding ways of improving their formulae. The first problem was to reduce the queues, the heavy and low strength aroma products. They can be filtered out on the distillation column by introducing a condenser above the still, or by adding more plates above which the wine flows. All these adjustments, combined with increasing the strength of the new armagnac to between 66 and 68 percent - close to that of raw cognac - reduce the quintessential richness of the spirit but do make it more commercial. Interestingly, some of the bigger houses have refused to move down this line and armagnac sales from these houses have improved.
Armagnacs are usually stored after distillation in new oak barrels of around 400 litres. The process accelerates the process of oxidation. For reasons the locals find difficult to explain, the alcoholic strength of armaganac diminishes more slowly in cask than does cognac.