Research on the internet does not show a consensus on what happens to methanol rich heads, and tails, in the production of armagnac, using the alambic armagnacais.
So I queried the official body, the BNIA. Here is an edited version of their comprehensive and definitive response.
- Tails are discarded
- Heads are incorporated into the finished spirit, which is a major differentiating factor between the styles of cognac and armagnac
Some explanatory and relating materials …
Methanol originates from pectins in the must and juice, when grapes and fruits are macerated. Grapes have very little pectin, the least of all fruits, and so propagate very little methanol. It is stone fruits such as cherries and plums, that generate much higher levels.
Methanol and EU regulations
Methanol is toxic above a certain level. EU regulations stipulate a maximum methanol content of 200g/hl of pure alcohol, for brandy, which is well in excess of levels recorded in armagnac and cognac, irrespective of grape variety. In other words, if all the methanol in the wines distilled to make cognac and armagnac was to be incorporated in the final spirit, then it would still be lower than the legal permitted EU maximum. [I have seen on the internet, uncorroborated figures of 47-50g methanol/hl of pure alcohol for armagnac and cognac]. With cognac, during the 2nd distillation, a cut is made for the heads which are then not included in the final spirit, but recycled and re-distilled with the next batch of wine. In Armagnac, the heads form part of the final spirit. This, therefore, represents one of the key stylistic differences between the two spirits.
General operation of the alambic armagnacais
When the wine reaches the top of the wine heater it is at about 80°C, it then passes into the top of the (rectification) column, where it descends through the rectification plates until it arrives at boiler level. Hot vapours rise up through the descending wine, becoming more and more highly charged with aromas from the wine (with the Cognac style double pot distillation method, the wine and vapours never interact). As the vapours reach the top of the column, they pass back over into the condensing column, through the serpentine inside, where they are cooled and condense as they descend. No cuts are made for heads, or tails (which do not, in fact, make it out of the rectifier) in the condensing column. Every alambic is unique and there is the possibility, with some designs, to extract certain elements at different points in the condensing column, though this is not normally the case, as the wine is normally of a very high quality.
Further commentary ..
- It is crucial to use very high quality still wines, so grape sorting is required. No additives are permitted, as they would be concentrated in the distillation process, making the wines very fragile. Wines must be between 7.5-12% abv, averaging 9-10%. They are kept at low temperature to avoid oxidation, and distilled without delay.
- Alambic stills are made of copper. Each still is different, varying in size, and number and design of rectification plates, with a maximum of 15, each producing a unique spirit. Further, each distiller has his own methods, which adds to the charm and diversity of Armagnac.
- The alambic still works by gravity. The wine is very cold when it enters the base of the condensing column; it gradually warms as it rises through the column, then enters the top of the rectification column, where the hot wine splashes as it goes down through the rectification plates. Hot vapours rise from the boiling liquid at the base of the column, warming the descending wine, and stripping off empathetic volatile components, a process which is systematically repeated, as the column is ascended, though successive rectification plates.
- Distillation is at a much lower degree in Armagnac, traditionally 52-60% abv. It is crucial to maintain constant heat, which is more difficult if wood is used. The producer distills according to the desired end product, for example if the spirit is destined to be aged for a long time, he will distil at a lower degree, retaining more congeners (flavour precursors).
- The more highly rectified the spirit, the less volume produced, so less storage is required. So armagnac is relatively more costly to produce, as more new barrels are required, along with cellar space.
- Distillation produces 3 kinds of alcohol
- heads – the most volatile component, which does not need a lot of heat to evaporate. They are very aromatic, contain a lot of alcohol, and hold most of the aromatic potential. Heads are incorporated in the final spirit, as they are very fine and of high quality.
- heart – the main part of the distillation, at around 54% abv.
- tails – heavy and bad tasting, these precipitate to, and reside low down, in the column (rectifier), in the boiling alcoholic liquid, and are periodically drained off.
- In Armagnac, 25% of stills are heated by wood and 75% with gas. Different woods are required for different needs – acacia for flames, and calorific strength from oak. A distiller familiar with wood can easily convert to gas, but not vice versa.
- 95% of armagnac is single (alambic armagnacais) distilled and 5% double (pot) distilled. Double distillation stills are used when a producer wants to commercialize a young armagnac with lighter spirit, as 3 star (VS) or VSOP.
- Any impurities such as methanol or other higher alcohols, either evaporate during ageing, or are absorbed by the char of the barrel.