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Of Moonshine and Men: Cognac, Armagnac + Moonshine

Cognac

Flickr/JonathanCohenCognac

Christmas, and the dark season it accompanies, requires spirits to ward off chill.

I was thinking this on Christmas Day as my father-in-law brought out brandies for us to try, as the last course of the evening was cleared. For me, it was one of those rare occasions to try a pair of France's most celebrated spirits, Cognac and Armagnac, side by side.

Normally this is not a fair fight. Cognac is France's bling brandy, serenaded by kings and rappers alike, the spirit that launched a dozen boozy hip-hop anthems. Its distillers -- Courvoisier, Hennessy, Remy Martin, Martell and others -- are powerhouse brands that have cultivated a luxury market of uncommon cachet, prestige, even snob appeal.

Armagnac, for the most part, has no such cachet. It's the product of much smaller distillers, few of which have the global reach of its counterpart. But in many ways it's the more distinctive product.

Cognac and Armagnac both are made from grapes, and both aged in oak casks, which gives them a nutty, caramelized flavor. But Cognac is distilled twice, and Armagnac only once, leaving the former with a more refined base spirit.

Also, Armagnac is hundreds of kilometers south of Cognac, giving the region riper, more flavorful fruit, a distinction that seems to show through in the finished product even after years of aging. A single distillation is sufficient to render spirits of impressive if rustic character, a spirit whose rough edges are buffered by years in oak casks, resulting in what is arguably a spirit with more character than Cognac.

Tasting them side by side, that is precisely what was revealed: the Cognac (Delamain XO) was unbelievably suave and refined, the very spirit of the holiday in its opulence and enveloping warmth. The Armagnac (Darroze La Grande Assemblage) was a much more grippy, powerful brandy, with scents of orange and marzipan and an overlay of toffee -- though it had a punch that I could feel to my toes.

The next day I drove (or rather inched along) the road through Lake Tahoe to Mammoth Lakes, where the temperature, when I arrived, had plunged to 8 degrees. That's right, 8. I was desperate to feel my toes and my wife, feeling pity, offered me moonshine.

Moonshine is the traditional corn-mash spirit that has, over the years, acquired a reputation as an illicit, illegal and even blindness-inducing hooch. The list of pop-culture rednecks who make the stuff starts perhaps with Lil Abner and concludes with the Discovery docudrama Moonshiners. Along the way it was given some dignity of sorts by the great character Mags Bennett from the F/X series Justified (rent season 2), who supplemented her criminal empire with small batches of what she called "Apple Pie." Dark and warm in the glass, it seemed like pretty inviting stuff, even if it was frequently used to convey a gut-curdling poison to a deserving villain or two.

Nostalgia has made room in the market for a kind of pretend moonshine, "bottled" in pickle jars and diluted to something well south of 100 proof, and even sweetened. Junior Johnson, who began delivering his father's North Carolina moonshine in 1945 when he was 14 years old, recently passed along the family recipes to Piedmont Distillers in Madison, N.C., where it's now called "Midnight Moon."

My wife had stashed Johnson's version of Apple Pie, and it was much like its namesake, except for its kick: scents of cinnamon and nutmeg giving way to a baked-apple sweetness that disguised the warmth of alcohol, as warm as any hearth, and a fine winter companion.


Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.