With the price of malt whisk(e)y on the rise, whisk(e)y lovers are becoming increasingly more drawn to the idea of seeking out appealing alternatives to their loyal spirit. Now more than ever, the never-ending spectrum of choice invites discerning spirits drinkers to dabble with new tasting experiences. But with so many spirits on the market, which are best suited to lovers of single malt whisk(e)ys?
From Cognacs and Armagnacs to rums and Tequilas – there’s a whole host of different options to choose from when seeking out an alternative to malt whisk(e)y.
To find out more about what makes a good “malternative”, we spoke with spirits experts Angus MacRaild of Whisky Sponge, John Go of Malt Review and asked within the Cognac Expert team as well as the Cognac Lovers Facebook Group. They divulged their expert views on the matter of malt whisk(e)ys and even shared some of their personal favorites when it comes to choosing a quality malternative.
What is a Cognac Malternative?
By this point, you may have already worked out that a “malternative” is a play on words and represents a beverage that can be selected as a quality alternative to single malt whisk(e)y. To elaborate on the concept of “malternatives”, we put the word out to the experts – we couldn’t have said it better than Angus, who defines a malternative as:
“A spirit possessing positive qualities that will also appeal to a lover of single malts – this doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to be aged for a considerable time in wood like some brandies or rums are, but a good Mezcal or Tequila could also be a great malternative.”
So, whether you’re more inclined to try out rum, Cognac, Armagnac, other whisk(e)ys or even mezcal and Tequila – it’s safe to say your options come in abundance. To help you decipher between the different choices, we think it will be helpful to take a closer look at the different malternative categories, before taking a more in-depth view of the origins, production process and taste of malt whisk(e)y when compared with malternative: Cognac.
What malternative categories are there?
While Cognac is arguably a beverage that takes a little longer to get to know than whisk(e)y, Angus agrees that it’s really worth the effort when you do start to become accustomed to it. Angus explains:
“Unlike whisk(e)y, it is a drink very much about precision of style and nuance – I think the issue is most people experience very basic Cognacs that are bottled at 40%, heavily filtered and with sugar and other additives included. So most whisk(e)y drinkers are unimpressed by such spirits. I think once people taste the more natural Cognacs they can really find another world of beautiful, nuanced spirits that display gorgeous fruit and rancio flavours and deep finesse.”
He also added how specific malts may compare with Cognac:
“Lovers of older, or sherry matured styles of whisky from Speyside or the Highlands, for example, can find similar flavour profiles in varying degrees in older, naturally bottled Cognacs very often.”
Therefore, opting for a well-aged and most importantly – a completely natural Cognac (that hasn’t been filtered and doesn’t contain other additives) is an easy way to match the tasting experience granted when enjoying a quality malt whisk(e)y.
Like Cognac, Armagnac is made from grapes and also serves as a cost-effective alternative to malt whisk(e)y. With comparable characteristics in terms of age and maturity, quality Armagnac stands alongside Cognac in that it reveals a flavorful aromatic profile that comes in varying degrees of strength and sweetness.
“Generally speaking, worthy malternatives will be bottled above 40%, have natural color, and be unchill-filtered. For the malt whisk(e)y geek, those words have practically become a religion, understandably so.” explains a Cognac Expert team member.
So if you’ve got your eye on an Armagnac that fits this criteria, we think it’s safe to say – you’ll have found yourself a trusty malternative delight. The chances are even if it’s an Armagnac of outstanding quality, it will come at a fraction of the price when compared with your favorite malt whisk(e)y.
Standing in the lineup as another brandy option, this time we’re shining the spotlight on Calvados. Enjoyed on a much smaller scale than its big brothers Cognac and Armagnac, Calvados is nevertheless another delectable offering that holds its own to be appreciated in replacement of malt whisk(e)y.
Produced with eau-de-vie made from apples (and sometimes pears) it reveals fruity nuances that may appeal to single malt drinkers who are partial to a sweeter aromatic profile rich in flavor. However, the different apple varieties used (bitter, sweet, tart, bittersweet, etc.) together with the producer’s unique style, makes it so there is likely to be a Calvados that suits almost every palette.
Tequila is a distilled beverage made from the blue agave plant principally in and around the city of Tequila in Mexico. Similar to mezcal, although the two spirits don’t share the same distillation process, they can be equally enjoyed as a unique alternative to malt whisk(e)y. Angus explains:
“A good Mezcal or Tequila can also be a great malternative, if you are a whisk(e)y lover who enjoys distillate-driven styles for example. I think the most important thing is that the drink possesses strong, pleasurable characteristics (nuance, personality, balance) that can be appreciated in the same way you’d enjoy a good malt whisk(e)y.”
Like malt whisk(e)y, Tequila is also typically served neat (by Mexicans at least) and so, it offers a similar tasting experience as malt whisk(e)y, meaning avid malt whisk(e)y drinkers won’t have to change the way in which they drink when enjoying this malternative either.
When it comes to finding a malternative that replaces the green and earthy sweetness of certain malt whisk(e)ys for example, then Rhum Agricole is a strong option. There is a whole host of French Caribbean rums in particular that nod to the more vegetal flavors found in malt whisk(e)y. Like malt whisk(e)y, these types of rums often undergo part of their aging process in sherry casks or ex-bourbon barrels. The result reveals a similarly sweet aromatic profile to those found in Scotch whisk(e)ys that have partaken in similar maturation methods.
What is a single malt whisk(e)y?
Under the United Kingdom’s Scotch Whisky Regulations, a single malt whisky must be exclusively made from malted barley – while the addition of E150A caramel coloring is allowed. It must also be distilled using pot stills at a single distillery before being aged for at least 3 years in oak casks, and these oak casks must not exceed the capacity of 700 liters (180 US gallons). Barley, yeast and water are the only ingredients required in the production of a single malt whisky.
Although 3 years of aging is the legal minimum requirement for a single malt whisky, typical maturation periods range between 10 and 15 years for a quality offering.
What are the differences and similarities between single malt whisk(e)y and Cognac?
As two of the world’s most history and heritage rich spirits, it seems only natural to compare single malt whisk(e)y with our favorite spirit – Cognac.
First and foremost, the main difference rests in ingredients and origins. Single malt whisk(e)y is made from malted barley, while Cognac is produced from grapes.
The origins of these two premium spirits are also vastly different as malt whisk(e)y originates from Scotland. The first legally licenced distillery was founded by George Smith in 1824, when he established the Glenlivet Distillery. Today single malt whisk(e)y distilleries exist on an international basis and can be found all around the world.
Meanwhile, Cognac traces its origins back to seventeenth-century France when the wines of the Charente region were distilled to withstand shipment to distant European ports.
Besides origins and the fact that Cognac is more tightly controlled than single malt whisk(e)y, the two spirits follow a very similar production process. They are both distilled in copper stills for a minimum of two times. Following this, the spirit produced is then matured in oak casks before bottling.
Significantly, however, Cognac must follow its aging process in oak casks (most commonly made from Limousin or Tronçais wood) that have not previously been used to age other spirits. Cognac must also age for at least two years in order for it to be legally be classified as a VS Cognac. It is during the maturation process when Cognac forms its character, flavor and nuances from the wood itself – without any other influence.
On the contrary, malt whisk(e)y follows a more loose rule in that it must be aged in traditional oak casks; however, whisk(e)y distillers have much more freedom in terms of the specific type of wood and barrel that can be chosen. For example, malt whisk(e)y distillers can opt for anything from a virgin oak cask to an ex-sherry cask and beyond. This way, the cask can be used not just to age the spirit but to modify and impact its flavor too.
Similar yet different: Taste
The final products of malt whisk(e)y and Cognac without a doubt have their differences in terms of flavor and tasting experience. However, there is no denying that there are certain qualities of both spirits that a whisk(e)y enthusiast, for example, will find appealing about Cognac and vice versa. For example, Cognac’s grape origins and underlying sweet nuances will appeal to fans of fruitier whiskies. Likewise, Cognac containing a woody and spicy profile are bound to spark similar familiarity with discerning whisk(e)y drinkers too.
Read our blog article highlighting the difference between brandy and whisk(e)y.
Why seek malternatives?
Malternatives exist for two reasons:
With increasing choice, comes increasing curiosity to try new things – and it’s the same for whisk(e)y drinkers. When we asked John why he thought scoping out alternatives to whisk(e)y may be becoming increasingly popular he explained:
“Variety is the spice of life. It would be boring to just drink whisk(e)y.”
So with that in mind, it comes as no surprise that even the most discerning whisk(e)y connoisseurs can’t help but explore other realms of the spirits world. After all, doesn’t pursuing other experiences ground you in getting to know what truly makes you tick?
2. The increasing price of whisk(e)y
Due to the ever-increasing price of single malt whisk(e)y and the diminishing value of the age-to-price ratio, the Cognac Expert team concludes:
“Some malt connoisseurs are drawn into the search for malternatives out of frustration for the diminishing value of whisk(e)y’s age-to-price ratio.”
In this way, Angus agrees that it’s intriguing to look away from whisk(e)y and find similar quality malternatives, as he too, suggested:
“Although price is, of course, a matter of perspective based on the depth of your own pockets, it’s true that if you enjoy the characteristics of age and maturity, those characteristics and flavor profiles can be massively more expensive when compared, for example, to Armagnac. So it’s no surprise there is this burgeoning world of malternatives where whisk(e)y lovers look elsewhere for similar enjoyment”.
Whether it’s over dismay of price or simply an itching curiosity, there is plenty of reason to extend your horizons beyond whisk(e)y. To help, let’s take a more in-depth look at what some of the interviewees had to say when we asked them about their own personal malternatives.
The Expert Malternative Favorites:
We asked spirits experts, Angus MacRaild of Whisky Sponge, John Go of Malt Review and the Cognac Expert team the question: “Do you have a Cognac Malternative? Which is your personal favorite? This is what they revealed:
Angus MacRaild: Cognac
“Hard question! I am biased of course, as a bottler of Cognac myself, I am very emotionally attached to the first one we did: a Héritage 45 Fins Bois from Grosperrin’s cellars. I had this one bottled with about 1.5 degrees reduction from cask strength and I think it brought just the right amount of freshness. I really adore Fins Bois as a region, I think it often produces the most vibrant and expressively fruity eaux de vie. I also love many of the bottlings from Vallein Tercinier, I think they’re doing incredible work. And, of course, many of Grosperrin’s own bottlings. Guilhem is a great mentor to me in Cognac (which I still really know hardly anything about) and very much a kindred spirit in the way he obsesses about quality and his approach to things like blending and how to let spirits show in a bottle at their best.”
Discover the Vallein Tercinier brand page in our online shop. Listen to the Grosperrin Podcast down below to get insights.
Cognac Expert team: Cognac
“From an age-to-price ratio perspective, Cognac (and Armagnac) blasts most other spirits out of the water.
“Picking one? Ok, easy: Vallein Tercinier’s Single Cask Lot 96 Fins Bois Cognac. It’s got an unmistakably Cognac nose but with a lovely streak of exotic earthy orange. The balance between fruit, wood, and spice is excellent. There is more than enough mouthfeel and texture from the elevated alcohol level, yet it feels so melted. A captivating, seductive Cognac to be sure!”
Check out more about Vallein Tercinier’s Single Cask Lot 96 Fins Bois over in our online shop.
For other Cognacs, either Laurichesse Le Chai de Mon Père Fût 104 for its sweet earthy tobacco and creamy roasted espresso notes. Think affogato meets Cognac. Or Conte et Filles Héritage for its extreme finesse. Not a chest-thumper of a Cognac, but a model of elegance.”
Find here the Laurichesse Le Chai de Mon Père Fût 104 to enjoy creamy roasted espresso notes.
Check out Conte et Filles Héritage as a great Cognac malternative.
John Go: Cognac
“I love Cognac. It’s something I’ve been interested in for a few years now. Largely due to how different the flavors are from other spirits and how affordable some really old vintages and blends can be. Exploring it just hasn’t been easy since I’ve had to rely on travelling abroad to buy bottles from lesser-known brands as I’m from Manila and we only have the big brands such as Hine and Camus available.
Dudognon’s Vieille Réserve was my first boutique Cognac. So I’ll always have a soft spot for that. But more recently, André Petit’s Les Quatre Années de Bernuil amazed me the most.”
With the experts on board and with the answers provided by the community of the Cognac Lovers Facebook Group, we gathered a list of top Cognac malternatives.
André Petit Les Quatre Années de Berneuil
This spectacular and sentimental Cognac is a multi-millésime, a stunning combination of four vintages, selected not only for their characteristics but also for the memories they evoke in their creator. Crafted from eaux-de-vie produced exclusively from the family’s vineyards in Berneuil within the Bon Bois region, this Limited Edition Brut de Fût Cognac has an ABV of 44,3 % and has been naturally reduced.
Navarre Vieille Réserve
An explosion of rancio like no other. A Cognac for a true connoisseur, but certainly worth it. The concentration of nutty, cocoa and earthy notes is incredible. An undiluted taste experience, with rich savory flavors.
Bertrand Héritage N°2
Intense and complex, ever-evolving, the very definition of rancio. Notes of concentrated fruit and floral aromas prevail first, followed by nuances of baking spices with subtle woody notes underneath. Full and structured, with a strong rancio throughout the tasting. It is a Cognac that is light on the palate yet incredibly complex.
Dudognon Vieille Réserve
The Dudognon Vieille Réserve Cognac is distilled over a wood fire and aged in new Limousin oak barrels – all importantly, without any additional sugar, wood or caramel. Age makes all the difference in Grande Champagne and at 20 years old, Vieille Réserve Cognac represents an eaux-de-vie of pure elegance and depth. With its fruity flavours and presence of rancio, a memorable tasting experience is guaranteed.
Dudogon Folle Blanche
An invitation to relive lost emotions, this Dudognon Folle Blanche Cognac is made from 100% Folle Blanche grapes. Reintroducing an ancestral grape variety, which was mainly present in the 19th century in Charente, it boasts a rare historic palate. Made without sugar, wood or caramel, the finished result is a light, floral Cognac with a favorable oak essence.
Dudognon Folle Blanche is currently unavailable, sign up to be the first to know when it will be back in stock.
Daniel Bouju Très Vieux Brut de Fût
Daniel Bouju Brut de Fût Cognac is a blend of Grande Champagne eaux-de-vies. Très Vieux (very old), this over-proof cognac is non-filtered and delights with its wonderful rancio Charantais taste. An unfiltered Cognac. Gentle, round and soft with a complex rancio Charentais taste.
Add this juwel of Daniel Bouju Très Vieux Brut de Fût to your cart to see for yourself why it is a great Cognac Malternative.
Daniel Bouju Royal
A Cognac for the true connoisseur, the Daniel Bouju Royal Brut de Fût is a remarkably eccentric choice. It has been aged in Limousin oak barrels, of average and thick wood grain, for an impressive 15 years. Through a process optimising both the new and old oak barrels, the Cognac is unfiltered and cask strength.
Grosperrin N°84 Borderies
An excellent expression of the Borderies terroir with floral notes of iris and violet. Notes of candied fruits such as tangerines and apricots come to the fore. On the second nose, it becomes more mineralized, creating a stunning tension with the first notes. Attack is full bodied and frank, and one can immediately tell it is an exceptional Cognac.
Grosperrin 1973 Petite Champagne
The 1973 Vintage Cognac from the Petite Champagne is a testament to the cru, which is renowned for taking 20-30 years to age fully. This cognac from 1973 aged for more than 45 years in casks. It is characterized by a maritime climate and chalky soil. Cognacs from the Grosperrin house are never made with caramel and added sugar, and are aged in the original casks where possible.
Cognac: The Closest Alternative to Malt Whisk(e)y
Whether you’re more inclined to venture into the more exotic worlds of Tequila, Mezcal and rum or firmly set on sticking with French brandies – the range of choice when selecting a “malternative” presents itself in abundance. However, what we can take home from our experts – is that Cognac stands as the strongest contender when it comes to finding the closest alternative to malt whisk(e)y in terms of appearance, taste and experience.
That being said, we can conclude that you should be scoping out naturally produced, well-aged Cognacs (that haven’t been filtered and are free of any other additives), in order for the experience to live up to the same offered by a premium malt whisk(e)y.