In general, the "safest" type of brandy you can buy is a Cognac. Go with a VSOP or (even better) an XO and you will be fine. Sure, there are "generic" brandies that are equally good or even better than Cognacs, but to be the Cognac variety you need to go through strict controls and, of course, be from the Cognac region of France. With a Cognac you know what you get. With a "generic" brandy you don't.
There are, however, other varieties of brandy that are bound to regions and go through the same strict controls as the Cognac. In that sense they're equally "safe" to go with, if you like the varieties and if you can find them. Spokane isn't a brandy type of town, so at times the latter can be difficult.
A good Armagnac can easily be as good as a Cognac, and it also comes cheaper. This, I assume, is because it doesn't have the name recognition of the Cognac, even though Armagnac apparently was the first brandy producing region of France. Some will even claim that the Armagnac is better than the Cognac, but more about that in a bit.
Production of Armagnac and Cognac are similar, though the Armagnac is only distilled once as opposed to twice for the Cognac. While you would think this would make the Armagnac harsher, the aging process, which is similar to that used for the Cognac, mellows it and simply makes the flavors a bit different and, to some, more complexthan its more famous cousin.
Grading is nigh identical to Cognac:
- VS: Mix of Armagnacs that are at least two years old.
- VSOP: Aged for at least five years.
- XO: Aged for at least six years.
- Hors d'Age: Aged for at least ten years.
So why do some prefer the Armagnac to the Cognac? There are those who will claim the popularity of Cognac has sent it into a mass-production spiral which makes it dull and predictable. It is true that it is mass-produced, and production is probably modernized to a level an Armagnac producers can't (afford to) get to, but I am unsure if its quality has gone down. Possibly for a VS, but plenty of producers -- including big names like Martell, Hennessy and Courvoisier, as well as boutique shops like Hardy and Larsen -- make some amazing brandies if you go up to the VSOP and XO.
With that said, from a personal perspective, I can see why some prefer an Armagnac. The single distillation in oak barrels really does work to its benefit in terms of having somewhat more depth to the flavors. And note that a VSOP Cognac is aged for a minimum of four years; a VSOP Armagnac for five. That's a good bang for your bucks.
To add to that, the Armagnac is said to have great heart benefits. A study has shown the aging process of the product is the reason behind this, and the Armagnac region has the lowest amount of heart issues per capita anywhere in the world. True fact.
As for serving Armagnac, there is the age old argument with it as there is with Cognac: What's better, the snifter, the tulip glass or the Champagne flute? The answer is: The argument will keep going for an eternity, go with your personal preference. (I prefer a small snifter.)
Drink the Armagnac like you would a Cognac or any type of brandy. Small sips over a long time. Swirl the Armagnac around your mouth; it's quite pleasant.
Some like a small splash of water or an ice cube in the drink. Personally I prefer it neat, but hey, whatever floats your boat. In the warmth of summer I don't see the issue putting an ice cube in the drink.
There aren't many types to choose from in our caringly controlled Washington liquor stores, but the Leriche VSOP is a good and affordable starting point at around $30 per bottle. It's smooth and has a nice flavor.
Fun fact: When the Armagnac is bottled, it's bottled. Keeping it in the bottle for 15 years isn't going to improve its flavor; opening it isn't going to affect its taste anytime soon. Just drink the damn thing.