The Three Musketeers—easily one of the most exciting and shamelessly melodramatic books ever written—introduced me to the greatness of armagnac. Alexandre Dumas was a well-known drinker, so it’s no coincidence that his hero, D’Artagnan, hails from the heart of this great brandy-making region. Brandy is produced by distilling wine and then aging it in oak. Cognac is the emperor of brandy—fabulously rich, intense, and sometimes embarrassingly corpulent. Armagnac is its leaner artistic cousin. This means top-end bottles are blessedly affordable, often thousands of dollars less than a qualitative peer from Cognac. While cognac is made from a single grape using a traditional still, armagnac is made with as many as four different grapes using a more elaborate “column” still, which yields a purer product. Upshot: Armagnac possesses nuance and elegance unlike any other brandy—it can be moody, rejuvenating, and velvety, sometimes all at once.
Many of the finer restaurants in town (Boca, Bouquet, and Jean-Robert’s Table , to name three) stock excellent armagnacs, but it helps to know the lingo. VS grade is usually best for cocktails, while older armagnacs—labeled as VSOP, Napoleon, Hors d’Age, XO, or with specific ages—are best on their own. I am a big fan of the de Montal VS ($7, Bouquet), and I recommend their Sidecar for a thrilling example of that venerable classic. The Larressingle VSOP ($19, Boca) is earthy and ideal for a chilly evening. Once you’ve become a fan, head out to buy a bottle of Château du Tariquet 12-Year ($53, The Party Source). It has a completely different aura—tensile yet rich, with a lemon curd zip and a bracing finish.
Because armagnac, unlike cognac, remains the domain of small family enterprises, it’s relatively easy to find single-year bottlings. The Baron de Lustrac 1986 ($95, The Party Source) is endowed with a glorious floral backbone for broader flavors of dried fruit and buttered rum. It’s an introspective yet charismatic brandy, perfect for the young D’Artagnan—and for you—while reflecting on a day of crossed swords.