Barrel Finished whiskies have been around for a long time. Whiskey purists believe that only off-profile, reject barrels are used because the barrel finishing treatment could mask the profile irregularities.
Other enthusiasts believe that barrel finishing serves to only enhance the whiskey experience by adding new and complimentary (or contrasting) flavors and scents.
I happen to fall into the latter camp. But out of all of the barrel finishes that I’ve had the opportunity to taste, none have impressed me as much as bourbon finished in Armagnac barrels.
Armagnac vs Cognac
Armagnac shares some similarities with Cognac including both being distillates made from grapes and aged in a wooden barrel. But there are many more differences between the two including grape variety and region they are grown in. Armagnac is also typically distilled only once through pot stills (where they don’t cut the heads or tails!) which leave behind many more VOCs, resulting in a very bold flavor.
Cognac, on the other hand, does make cuts to the distillate and is almost always twice distilled. Both can be aged in new or used barrels but Armagnac utilizes a unique aging methods that look a lot like an obscure Solera aging process whereby the Armagnac barrels are emptied once a year into a large vat to aerate the liquid before going back into the same or different barrels. This is called “working your Armagnac” and is a process virtually no other spirit goes through.
Recently, Armagnac has become increasingly popular to find American whiskey (bourbon in particular) finished in. For a while, Joseph Magnus had a monopoly as being one of the most iconic bourbons finished with it: Cigar Blend.
High West also has been releasing a couple of Armagnac-finished single barrels of their American Prairie Bourbon these past few years. But the pedigree behind American Prairie Bourbon is questionable because it’s a blend of various distillery’s bourbon with mainly young age statements.
But recently the Bardstown Bourbon Company, who has been releasing bourbons finished in various wine and spirits barrels, has obtained Armagnac barrels from the Chateau De Laubade winery and distillery in France. What makes this bottling even more attractive is the fact that it uses 12 year old MGP bourbon barrels as its base whiskey.
Having obtained all 3 bottles, I decided that a 3-way semi-blind comparison was in order. Would Cigar Blend, a personal favorite of mine, remain the champion? Or would the new Bardstown Bourbon Company competition steal the crown? Or perhaps would the young High West offering scrap its way to the top in a surprising victory? I sampled all of these neat and in a Glencairn to find out.
Blind Glass 1
Nose: A spicy, bold red wine aroma is the heaviest scent here. There are many earthy notes that give the whole nose a heavier character. Ripe plums, cherries and wildberry jams provide both sweet and fruity notes. There is a bit of baked goods scent in the form of warm French Toast with melted butter. The wood is not as heavy and dark, but instead reminds me of a slightly must cedar wood.
Palate: Peppery spice pricks my tongue first. This one is spicy! More of that dark, red wine on the nose shows up again with a heavy body and thick sweetness. There’s some more heat in the form of cinnamon oil and red pepper flakes as well as some gentler baking spices like freshly grated nutmeg and some overly-toasted pine nuts. Drying oak seems to add depth and richness that touches every other part of the palate, but in a good way.
Finish: The finish has an incredible punch of dry and seasoned oak wood. There’s peppermint, dried cherries and figs, and a trail of spicy heat much like ginger root and telicherry peppercorns. Oddly, I’m also tasting some burnt toast crumbs as the taste begins to fade.
Final Thoughts: This dram summed up into 3 words: Exciting, Spicy and Rich.
Blind Glass 2
Nose: The nose is night and day different from the first glass. There’s a traditional bourbon flavor in the form of caramel, toasted orange peel and also some marzipan character that I’d get from George Dickel products. Actually, this nose is a huge giveaway I’m smelling Tennessee distillate.
There is some Tawny Port Wine character hiding in the back, almost like it’s a much sweeter and light bodied wine than the dark and foreboding Armagnac that I know it’s been finished in. There’s no escaping a rather pungent kick of dill, a telltale scent that there’s some MGP rye character somewhere in here as well, but it’s not well integrated.
Palate: No surprises here, the mouthfeel on this one is very light compared to what I just experienced in Glass 1. Once again I get a typical caramel sweetness from the bourbon not even trying to be married to the Armagnac.
There’s also an unrestrained peppery bite that’s always noticeable. Sweets come from cherry juice and semi-burnt toffee. But whereas most bourbon can be considered sweet and smooth, this one has a noticeable bitterness to it.
Finish: Rye spice and some astringency pokes holes through the finishing barrel treatment to show the young base whiskey character. There’s some decent heat and some roughness around the edges. The finish dabbles with some bitter stone fruits, musty oak and dry tobacco.
Final thoughts: This drinks hotter than it probably is and feels the most unrefined. It also has the thinnest mouthfeel and tastes like a rye whiskey was added to it.
Blind Glass 3
Nose: The nose on this glass is the sweetest of the bunch. But it’s not a cloying sweetness, just the perfect amount. There’s also a noticeable bold red wine scent that’s heavily oaked (but not in an overdone way) along with simmering dark red fruits (cherry, strawberry, raspberry) and baked vanilla scones. The baking spices are perfectly balanced with cinnamon and ground nutmeg adding another layer to this impressive nose.
Palate: Whereas I was expecting something old and dark, I’m surprised with the lush red fruits mingling with dried prunes and apricots. Plenty of spices swirl around in your mouth in the form of pungent cloves, smoldering chipotle pepper powder, and dried tobacco leaf. Tannins are plentiful, but never detracting with dried leather also showing up.
Finish: Blonde coffee grounds and wet tobacco offer a flavor experience that screams decadance and richness. The finish also mingles old, aged oak with splashes of fruit juice and flat ginger ale. I would imagine that a high-rye bourbon mashbill is the structure that holds all of this up with a nice brown sugar finish and some rye spice that shows through ever so slightly in the background.
Final Thoughts: A thrilling ride of intensely sweet, smoldering heat and rich tannic beauty. I feel comfortable saying this is the most complex and enjoyable of the bunch.
Glass 1: Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend Batch 13
Glass 2: High West American Prairie Armagnac Barrel Finish
Glass 3: Bardstown Bourbon Company Chateau De Laubade
I was utterly astonished at the reveal when the Bardstown Bourbon Company’s first venture into an Armagnac-finished bourbon handily beat the Cigar Blend. This was not an easy task for them, but their product impressed me the most by balancing the intense sweetness and spiciness of the three that were sampled.
While difficult to explain, I felt that the BBC’s whiskey integrated all of the flavors one level higher than the Cigar Blend’s. But with two bourbon’s rating as high as they did, I’d hardly call the Cigar Blend flawed.
Instead, it was just a different approach and for me, that turned out to make the BBC bottle my preference. As for the High West, I don’t believe that it would’ve fared this low if it had been sampled without these two powerhouse MGP bourbons standing next to it.
Instead, it would have probably broken into the rating scale’s “6” category. But for the time being, it probably needed a richer, more distinct bourbon base to mingle correctly with the heavy and dark Armagnac. In the end, it was too disjointed and thin to have what it took to compete.
Bardstown Bourbon Company’s Chateau De Laubade has set a new standard for Armagnac finishing, one that will certainly be challenged again in the future.
After all, Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend was only very small batch of 522 bottles rather than a large batch of thousands like the Bardstown. This means that in a competition between some of the more widely acclaimed Cigar Blend Batches, perhaps it would defeat the Bardstown release.
For the moment, these Chateau De Laubade bottles are disappearing quickly as whiskey enthusiasts are jumping on the opportunity to grab not only a somewhat affordable and obtainable 12 year old bottle of MGP bourbon, but also because it received a finishing treatment in one of the best barrels you can finish MGP bourbon in (my opinion). I can’t wait to see what other distilleries put these unique barrels to use on their products!
1 | Disgusting | Drain pour (Example: Jeffers Creek)
2 | Poor | Forced myself to drink it
3 | Bad | Flawed (AD Laws 4 Grain BiB, Clyde Mays anything)
4 | Sub-par | Many things I’d rather have (Tincup 10 year)
5 | Good | Good, solid, ordinary (Larceny, Sazerac Rye)
6 | Very Good | Better than average (Buffalo Trace, OGD BiB)
7 | Great | Well above average (Old Ezra Barrel Proof, Old Weller Antique)
8 | Excellent | Exceptional (Michter’s Barrel Proof Rye, Four Roses Barrel Strength)
9 | Incredible | Extraordinary (GTS, 13 Year MGP or Canadian Rye)
10 | Insurpassable | Nothing Else Comes Close (William Larue Weller)
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