French fancies

Bastille Day on 14th July provides the perfect excuse to pour yourself a Society bottling of exquisite cognac or armagnac. SMWS ambassador Alan Wood visited producers in both regions and came back a convert

In 1983 a group of friends got together and launched a unique approach to whisky out of the historic Vaults building in Leith. The Society now has a long and illustrious history with single cask, single malt Scotch whiskies, but the worlds of cognac and armagnac are relatively recent additions to our spirits portfolio.

I grew up with a fascination for whisky and all the aromas that could be found within a dram. After working at our Members’ Room at 28 Queen Street for a few years, the Society arranged for myself and my fellow ambassadors the opportunity to travel to the regions of Cognac and Gascony in France to learn about their spirits first-hand, from the people who make them.



On our first day we visited various Cognac houses, where we were offered the chance to try some of their products. As an avid Scotch whisky drinker, I approached this cautiously, not knowing quite what to expect.

But with the first sip, I was transported to a world of spice and sweetness, but not the sweetness and spice I had become accustomed to with Scotch. A couple of tries later and I was converted.

The unique aspect for cognacs is that the houses utilise eaux de vie from a variety of producers throughout Cognac from the many different growing districts, or ‘crus’. Terroir is a major deal in the cognac world and often the district’s geology and soil classification can influence taste. The grape variety also plays a key role, and blenders will work with a variety of grapes mixed together. Coming from a whisky background, where traditionally only one or two strains of barley are used, makes this a fascinating proposition for the whisky geeks and fanatics out there as well.


After we had made our way round Cognac we travelled to the region of Gascony, and this was perhaps my next major revelation of the trip: armagnac. I had never heard of this spirit in any detail before and was keen after my experiences with cognac to learn more.

Armagnac is actually France’s oldest eau-de-vie, dating back to the early 14th century and with evidence of distillation predating cognac by at least 200 years. But it’s still predominantly produced on single estates by families rather than larger houses, on a much smaller scale to cognac. In fact, the angels’ share of cognac is said to be around five times the annual sale of armagnac.

Production is often done on one site, from grape to spirit, and for me this lends the spirit an almost rustic and deep flavour bouquet as well. Many farmers sell their grapes to distillers, while others still rely on mobile distillers who tow their stills – known as alembics – from farm to farm. The care and passion that goes into these spirits I would say puts them on a par with some of the finest Scotch single malts I have tried.



When you next visit one of our Members’ Rooms and you’re confronted with the question of what to try next, I would encourage you to order one of our cognacs and armagnacs to explore a completely new range of flavours. There is a depth of flavour in them that I find completely astounding. With Bastille Day on the horizon, why not celebrate the best of French spirit and give them a try yourself.