Welcome to Vintage America, a column in which Eater Wine Editor Talia Baiocchi takes a hyperfresh look at all things wine-related.

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[Photo: Flickr/paul-alain dorange]

The cocktail world has become a gateway to artisanal spirits and fortified wines. For many, the thought of drinking sherry never occurred to them until amontillado ended up in every other drink in New York, San Francisco, and Portland. Applejack brandy was the only apple-based spirit most American drinkers knew of until Calvados became its replacement at bars looking to set themselves apart — like NYC’s Employees Only.

Cognac, which has long been stigmatized by the millennial set as a sipping drink reserved for rich, big-gutted gentlemen who smoke cigars, became part a new generation’s consciousness when it started hitting cocktails lists across the country from First & Hope in LA to Death & Co. in NYC.

“When I first got into the business, I thought putting great spirits in cocktails was sacrilegious,” says the spirits importer and author Charles Neal. “Sort of like the equivalent of those stories you hear about Chinese people putting ice cubes in Pétrus.”

Neal now sees it as a good thing. Savvy barmen have become the gatekeepers to spirits that wouldn’t have otherwise been a part of many people’s vocabulary. But putting Calvados in a drink does not explain why it is different than applejack or, I might add, better. Same goes for Cognac: putting it back into a Sazerac — where it was once traditionally found — does not explain why it is different than Bourbon, its popular replacement.

Many of us have registered certain new spirits and their flavors. But we rarely think of them outside of being an ingredient or component in a drink, instead of something that can be as complex and terroir-driven as wine.

Which brings up the second, somewhat confounding roadblock for artisan spirits: the wine-like complexity of great spirits still hasn’t helped them with the wine crowd. In fact, the world of spirits is often lost on sommeliers.

According to Nicolas Palazzi, the man behind PM Spirits, an importer/distributor and independent bottler of single-cask spirits, part of that has to do with the lack of emphasis on spirits in sommelier training. For example, for the blind tasting portion of the Master Sommelier Diploma Exam, sommeliers are expected to name the variety, country, region, and vintage of a wine in a blind tasting. For the spirits portion, they are simply required to tell the difference between entire spirits categories like vodka, rum, Cognac, and tequila — a blind taste test any well-lubricated college student could probably pass.

But it isn’t just about a lack of emphasis in training, it’s also about perception. Wine and spirits have always been considered two very different categories that are hard to bridge, and sommeliers and service directors have traditionally been more interested in turning a table than serving a $30 glass of Cognac. It’s a dollars and cents thing. But the truth is that wine and artisan spirits are alike in many ways, from the low-end, commercially produced products to the notion of the grower-producer. What we love about traditional wine producers from all over the old world — from their use of traditional vessels to farming organically to a commitment to terroir and tradition — are the same things spirits enthusiasts love about traditional distillate producers.

If sommeliers and consumers approached spirits much like they approach wine, not only would cocktails and cocktail list become more interesting, but so would the idea of drinking something like Calvados on its own.

So here’s the first of a series of primers that will seek to give you a crash course on the importance of a variety of spirits you’ll likely encounter in bars and restaurants in and urban area in the U.S. To kick things off: Armagnac, Cognac, and Calvados.

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Cognac

The biggest roadblock for cognac is that it’s dominated by four main brands: Courvoisier, Rémy Martin, Martell, and Hennessy. Most of these spirits, as Nicolas Palazzi says, are made as commercial products built to be uniform. There are a number of things that are done to achieve that, most notably the addition of additives like sugar, caramel, and boise (oak that’s been cooked into a reduction).

Most of the growers in the area sell their grape juice or un-oaked distillates to big houses. There are, however, a small number of cognac producers – a little more than two dozen – that are grower/producers, who farm organically, harvest by hand, use generations-old stills, etc. There are obvious parallels to the culture of Champagne and the decade of changes that have finally won small growers part of the market share. But, Palazzi says, Cognac is still “20 years behind Champagne” in its movement toward a cultural shift.

What is it?: A grape-based distillate made from primarily ugni blanc (trebbiano), (at least 90%) grown in 6 main communes north of Bordeaux.

The terroir: There are six main zones or terroirs in Cognac, three of which are considered the region’s crus: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, and Borderies. The differences in soil type have an impact mostly on body and finish. The chalky soils in Grande Champagne produce the most elegant Cognac, while soils with a higher clay content, like in Borderies, you have firmer, full-bodied Cognac. As with all spirits, the ageing process is the most influential on the final product. Where the cellar is located, its humidity level and the barrels used has a huge impact on the final product.

Drink this: Navarre, Dudognon, Paul Beau

[Photo: Nicolas Palazzi]

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Armagnac

Armagnac has long been considered rustic and less refined in comparison to the very “branded” region of Cognac. But Armagnac has become the sort of wine lover and sherry lover’s spirit. The main difference between Cognac and Armagnac is that Armagnac is only distilled once in a continuous still. As a result, things like esters, acids and other non-alcoholic entities are not distilled out.

The resulting spirit is thus lower in alcohol, denser, and funkier. As these elements oxidize the spirit becomes highly aromatic with many characteristics similar to oxidative sherries. The allowance of higher percentages of grapes like like folle blanche and colombard contribute different aromas and textures that you will not find in the more neutral primarily ugni blanc-based Cognac.

What is it?: A grape-based distillate typically distilled from ugni blanc (usually 55% or more), folle blanche, colombard, and until recently, baco blanc, produced in three main zones: Bas-Armagnac, the Ténerèze, and the Haut-Armagnac.

The terroir: In Armagnac, because there are non-alcoholic elements that are not distilled out of the base wine, the grape plays a slightly more important role here than it does in cognac—particularly when it comes to aromatics. The main soil types in the region are sandy and a combination of clay and limestone. In Bas Armagnac, the best zone of the three the soil is primarily sandy, yielding Armagnac that is leaner, higher in acid, and more delicate, while the clay and limestone soils of Ténerèze yield a bigger, firmer Armagnacs.

Drink this: Château de Pellehaut, Château de Briat, Domaine d’Ognoas

Gilles de Luze, Château de Briat [Photo: Charles Neal]

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Calvados

Calvados is perhaps France’s most famous non-grape distillate. It hails from the region of Normandy in northern France and is distilled from apples, and in the case of Calvados from the zone of Domfrontais, at least 30% pear. As in Armagnac, Calvados is generally distilled once, in a column still, and thus the same esters and acids that are left over, giving the resulting spirit not only a strong aroma of apples, but also a more rustic texture.

The exception is the Pays d’Auge, where it is required that Calvados be double-distilled. Like Cognac, the presence of Calvados in the U.S. is dominated by big brands like Boulard and Busnel; as with Armagnac and cognac, the grower-producers are those worth seeking out. They can be hard to find, but certain restaurants like Gilt, wine director Patrick Cappiello offers a wide selection of artisan Calvados from the likes of Lemorton and Camut.

What is it?: An apple-based, or apple and pear-based distillate from two main zones: the Pays d’Auge and Domfrontais (where pears are always part of the blend).

The terroir: In Calvados the soils are rockier and contain everything from flint and schist to silt and granite. The rockier soils that contain stone, flint, and schist will generally yield a lower acid, higher alcohol spirit while the sandier, silty soils with yield spirits with higher acid, lower alcohol and more apple fruit flavors. The age of the trees, most of them over 100-years of age, also contributes to the flavors and concentration of the fruit.

Drink this: Lemorton, Adrien Camut

Fabrice Desfrieches [Photo: Charles Neal]

Talia Baiocchi is Eater’s Wine Editor. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi and over at Eater NY where she covers the treacherous world of New York wine lists via her Decanted column.

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