In Western France, the regions of Cognac and Armagnac produce some of the world\u2019s most venerated grape brandies. Although they share proximity\u2014Cognac against the Atlantic, north of Bordeaux, about an hour-and-a-half from landlocked Armagnac to the south\u2014they produce two very different styles of brandy distinguished by history, grapes, soil, technique and aging.\r\nWhat is Cognac?\r\nCognac is a brandy specifically made from wine in the Cognac region of France. The primary grape used to make Cognac is Ugni Blanc, though smaller amounts of Folle Blanche (also called Picpoul) and Colombard are allowed.\r\n\r\nBecause it borders ocean ports, brandy from Cognac has always been more popular and commercially available. England was an important early destination for the spirit in the 1700s. Many of the legacy brands in Cognac are named for foreigners like Richard Hennessy, an Irish trader, and Thomas Hine, an Englishman who married into a family with a distillery.\r\n\r\nIn contrast to French wine, Cognac is still known by its brands, rather than individual producers or estates. The four biggest houses, Hennessy, Courvoisier, R\u00e9my Martin and Martell, are global entities whose bottles are found behind almost any bar. However, the majority of production is contracted from producers all over the region. Many of these grape growers and distillers work with multiple brands. Some also bottle their own Cognac.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nSince the spirit is sourced so commonly from different producers, most Cognacs are blended to produce various house expressions. The grades are V.S. (very special), V.S.O.P. (very superior old pale), X.O. (extra old) and an unofficial designation named Napoleon.\r\n\r\nThese designations indicate the age of the youngest brandy in the blend. V.S. means that the youngest brandy (called an eau-de-vie at this stage) is at least two years old. V.S.O.P indicates that the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is at least four years old. Previously, X.O. meant the youngest eau-de-vie was aged least six years, but as of 2018, was revised to a stricter requirement of a minimum of at least 10 years of age.\r\n\r\nWhat do the labels mean on Cognac?\r\nV.S.: "Very special," youngest brandy in blend aged at least two years\r\nV.S.O.P.: "Very superior old pale," aged at least four years\r\nNapoleon: Aged at least six years\r\nX.O.: "Extra old," aged a minimum of 10 years\r\n\r\nThe Napoleon category used to be an unofficial label for extra-old Cognac, generally those that qualify as X.O., but also many aged much longer. Since the reclassification of X.O., Napoleon has adopted the category's former requirements, and now signifies a blend with a minimum age of six years.\r\n\r\nWorth noting is that these designations don\u2019t always show up on a bottle, and most quality producers will exceed their minimum listed age significantly.\r\n\r\nCognac can also be labeled with one of the six appellations of the region: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires (or Bois \u00e0 Terroir). The two Champagne regions, like the famed sparkling wine region, are named for the high composition of chalk in the soil. If a bottle of Cognac is labeled \u201cFine Champagne,\u201d it\u2019s a blend of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne brandies. However, to earn this designation, at least 50% of the blend must be Grande Champagne Cognac.\r\n\r\n\r\nWhat is Armagnac?\r\nArmagnac is more rustic in production, which results in a full-flavored brandy that importer Charles Neal, of Charles Neal Selections, calls \u201ca bit more\u2026forward and punchy.\u201d The brandy used to produce Armagnac was made historically by roving distillers. Stills in tow, they would travel to farms in the hinterlands, allowing the farmers to make brandy from their wine without having to buy equipment of their own.\r\n\r\nThe major difference between Cognac and Armagnac is the distillation. While Cognac is twice distilled using a pot still, Armagnac undergoes column distillation, though much different from the large, modern industrial stills often used to produce neutral spirits like vodka.\r\n\r\n\u201c[These] are column stills that are 15 plates or less,\u201d says Leonardo Comercio, sales manager for PM Spirits, an importer that specializes in brandy. \u201cThey are not there to strip and transfer raw material into neutral distillate. They cleanse it and give it a high aromatic tone that would still be still be a flavorful distillate before it even goes into barrel.\u201d\r\n\r\n\u201cCognac is almost like the vodka that you store on the kitchen counter. Whereas Armagnac, texturally, is more like the vodka in the freezer, thicker and richer on the palate.\u201d \u2014Charles Neal, importer, Charles Neal Selections\r\n\r\nA column still creates texture differences between Cognac and Armagnac as well. \u201cCognac is almost like the vodka that you store on the kitchen counter,\u201d says Neal. \u201cWhereas Armagnac, texturally, is more like the vodka in the freezer, thicker and richer on the palate.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe difference in mouthfeel results partially from the concentration of alcohol. Armagnac tends to come off the still at around 52\u201360% alcohol by volume (abv). Unless it\u2019s blended or bottled at cask strength, it will typically be diluted to around 45\u201347% abv.\r\n\r\nCognac, on the other hand, is distilled twice in a pot still, which brings it to around 70% abv. Usually, it\u2019s diluted and bottled at 40%. Neal says that the additional dilution contributes to Cognac\u2019s lighter sensation.\r\n\r\nA pot still allows for more control over the \u201cheads, heart and tails,\u201d or how distillers describe respectively the first, middle and final parts of the spirit to flow out of the still. Cognac contains a larger portion of heart, or the middle section of the distillation run, considered to be the purest in flavor. However, while there is a lot of potential for this heart-heavy spirit to develop, it also means Cognac can take more time to show its more exuberant side. Armagnac, meanwhile, it more likely to be fruity and intense when young.\r\n\r\nLike Cognac, Armagnac is blended and labeled frequently with indications like V.S.O.P., X.O. and Reserve to show the minimum age. However, it\u2019s more traditional to bottle vintage Armagnac than Cognac. Vintage Armagnac is relatively affordable compared to other aged spirits, and it\u2019s a great option if you seek a bottle to commemorate a particular year.\r\n\r\n\r\nCognac, Armagnac and their wine connection\r\nFor wine lovers, the differences between Cognac and Armagnac are much like those found between big-name wine regions and under-the-radar appellations that also produce competitive, high-quality bottles, but to less fanfare. While Cognac sets sales records year after year, Armagnac has re-emerged as a connoisseur\u2019s drink. It\u2019s beloved by professionals and those in the know, but outsold by its more popular sibling.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nChoose Cognac and Armagnac like you would wine. Pay attention to importers and distributors that represent brands you like. When you\u2019re ready to dig deeper, seek out smaller labels for a more distinctive experience.\r\n\r\nIt\u2019s easy to overlook the details that define regional spirits, but their discovery can be very rewarding. Brandy is wine\u2019s cousin in the spirits world, and Cognac and Armagnac have as much to reveal about where they come from as any wine region on earth.