Not even the fine print of the old-timey Argonaut Brandy bottles will clue you in to who actually makes it, but it’s not a massive secret. Argonaut is a new brand produced by none other than Ernest & Julio Gallo, made in California from its own excess wine production. For decades Gallo has been distilling extra juice from all types of grapes and aging it, and only now has it finally reached the point where it’s mature enough to release to the masses.
This is different than Cognac, of course, which is restricted to only three varietals: ugni blanc, folle blanche, and colombard. Argonaut’s brandies are all blends of a wide range of California-friendly grapes, including muscat, grenache, French colombard, chardonnay, and even zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon. The reverse of Argonaut’s labels lay out the specifics of grapes (though many are blends), years of aging, type of still (both pot and Coffey stills are used), and the proportion of each spirit in the overall blend.
Four Argonaut brandies — and some Amerena cherries — are in current production. Today we look at two of them, Speculator and Fat Thumb, plus the garnish.
Let’s dig in.
Argonaut Speculator Brandy – A blend of nine brandies aged 3 to 19 years, heavy on chardonnay and colombard. There’s a lot of youth on the nose here, with that cottony astringency found in many young brandies. Doughy but lightly floral, it conceals much of its character under a layer of lavender-washed linens. The palate again showcases linen and dried flowers, finding room for a squeeze of lemon peel. It’s quite a delicate brandy, but its iconic youthfulness lends some astringency to the bottling, particularly on a finish that’s tighter than I’d like. Probably best as a mixer. 86 proof. B- / $40 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]
Argonaut Fat Thumb Brandy – A blend of eight brandies aged 2 to 16 years, focused on colombard. Compared to Speculator, this is a much more interesting brandy, richer and more complex, with a nose that finds plenty of florals and potpourri, but also notes of caramel and banana, giving it more fruity sweetness. The palate is sweeter and softer, and more rounded, with more caramel and a spicy element. A hint of raisin nods toward more classic French brandies. The finish offers a touch of chocolate, vanilla, and plenty of brown sugar to sweeten things even further, though it’s never overblown with sugar. All told, it’s solidly balanced if a bit scattered and rough around its edges. 86 proof. B+ / $50
Argonaut Amarena Cherries – These are solid brandied cherries, neither too tart nor too sweet, despite being doused in a rich, cherry-fueled syrup. The size of the cherries — about that of a large blueberry — makes them great for cocktail purposes. No complaints from me, though I’m unclear where you can actually buy these. A / $NA per 8 oz. jar