Armagnac is primarily produced in a continuous column still. The basis for this is the finished wine, which is heated in the still. Due to the different boiling points of liquids, they can be separated during distillation. Alcohol or ethanol has a boiling point of 78° Celsius and evaporates after methanol (65°) but before water (100°).
With continuous distillation, fresh wine can be added continuously, which of course is a great advantage in terms of efficiency. In Armagnac, for example, it is usually distilled day and night, which is why two distillers always share the care of the plant in 12-hour shifts. Since the distillation is the highlight of the year for the winegrowers, the hopefully successful year will be celebrated with family and friends on a smaller or larger scale. In addition to wine and Armagnac, there are of course all kinds of delicacies from Gascony: cheese, sausage and the well-known foie gras.
A special apparatus is used to distil Armagnac: the Alambic Armagnacais . In addition to this, the use of a pot still, i.e. a discontinuous apparatus, is also possible. However, only three producers use this form of distillation: Delord, Janneau and Samalens. Overall, pot still distillation only accounts for around 3% of annual production.
The BNIA (Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l'Armagnac) has published the following animation on their YouTube channel "Armagnac TV", which shows the process of distillation with an Alambic Armagnacais step by step:
How much wine does it take to make a liter of Armagnac?
That depends entirely on the desired alcohol content of the Eau de Vie and the alcohol content of the wine! Eau de Vie means "water of life" and refers to the unaged distillate at the end of the distillation process.
To obtain one liter of Eau de Vie with 52% alcohol content after distillation, you need about 5 liters of wine with 10.4% alcohol. If, on the other hand, an Eau de Vie with 60% is to be produced, more wine is needed for the distillation - approx. 6 liters of wine are required for 10%.
For the distillation of cognac using pot stills, on the other hand, you need about 9 liters of wine for one liter of eau de vie with an alcohol content of about 70%.
In addition to the growing areas and wine production, the AOC also determines numerous properties of the distillation:
- The finished wines, like the grapes and the must, must not be sulphurised.
- The wine must be distilled without coarse yeast (coarse lees), but with fine yeast (fine lees).
- Distillation must be completed no later than March 31 of the year following the harvest. Therefore, the maturation of the Armagnac officially begins on April 1st, even if the distillate was filled into a barrel before this date.
- The boiler must always be heated with an open flame, i.e. wood or gas. Gas is used more often than wood. However, the latter is still very common and probably accounts for around 25%. However, I have no written source for this.
- The daily production per still must not exceed 40 hectoliters of pure alcohol.
In addition, depending on the burner used, the following special requirements apply :
- The total capacity of the boiler must be at least as large as that of the cooling column, but must not exceed 40 hectoliters.
- The number of shelves is limited to 15.
- Boiler, column, pipes, spiral and trays must be made of copper.
- The daily average alcohol content of the Eau de Vie must be between 52% and 72.4%. In practice, however, the alcohol content is almost always between 52% and 60%.
- The total capacity of the boiler must not exceed 30 hectoliters with a tolerance of 5%. However, only 25 hectoliters of wine or "Brouillis" (the result of the first distillation) may be filled in per distillation.
- Larger kettles with up to 140 hectoliters are also permitted for the first distillation process.
- The cauldron, the chapiteau, the gooseneck and the cooling coil must be made of copper.
- The alcohol content of the eau de vie must be between 65% and 72.4% after the second distillation.
Bouilleurs de Cru vs Bouilleurs Ambulants
In French, Bouilleurs de Cru refers to people or companies that have the right to distil and are allowed to distill Eau de Vie. With Armagnac, however, it is not common for each winery to have its own distillery. Due to the many producers who only produce very small quantities per year, mobile distillers, the Bouilleurs Ambulants, have established themselves. These have special Alambic Armagnacais that have been combined with a trailer so they can be easily moved from one winery to another.
According to the BNIA, there are currently five of these mobile distillers with distilling rights ( bouilleurs ambulants) who only use Alambic Armagnacais:
- Alain Bouzigon
- Philippe Gironi
- Patrick Michalouski
- Patrick Mogni
- Marc Saint Martin
On the other hand, there are almost 40 wineries (Bouilleurs de Cru) and four cooperatives (Caves Cooperatives), which own the right to distill and their own alembic armagnacais or pot stills.
Alambic Armagnacais in detail
The following BNIA diagram shows how an Alambic Armagnacais works:
Yellow marks the flow of the wine, which is ultimately disposed of as wine residue in green. Alcohol vapors, which become liquid distillate after cooling, are marked in blue.
1. Cuve de Charge
2. cooler (refrigérant)
3. Spiral (Serpentine)
4. Wine heater (Chauffe-vin)
5. (distillation) column (column)
6. Bell Bottoms (Plateau de distillation)
7. Boiler (chaudière)
8. Drainage (Ecoulement des Vinasses)
9. Furnace (foyer)
10. Gooseneck (Col de Cygne)
11. (Coulage de l'eau-de-vie)
12. Barrel (piece)