Review: George Remus Bourbon

A new bottle arrived on the shelves in local liquor stores in the past few months – George Remus Bourbon. A $45 bourbon named after yet another Prohibition-era figure. It’s not age stated (“aged over 2 years” is found on the back label) and 93.8 proof.

None of those facts, alone, probably registers much of a tremor on the seismograph. And yet, this bottle is a conversation starter.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the name – George Remus.

According to the label, George Remus was the “king of the bootleggers.”

George Remus Small batch

The continued fascination with Prohibition, when you think about it, is a bit peculiar. Perhaps similar to stories of the mafia or even the wild west, we’re drawn to these seemingly mythical figures who confounded their pursuers and built empires through cunning force and wit. If that’s the case, then George Remus fits the bill.

Remus was German born and immigrated to the U.S. with his parents when he was a young boy. He was raised in the midwest, Illinois specifically, and at a young age showed industrious characteristics. He obtained his pharmacy license at age 19 to help support his family after his father fell ill. Within a few years, he purchased a line of his own pharmacies. However, in his mid-twenties, he decided to abandon his pharmaceutical career for a different profession – law.

Remus graduated from what is now Depaul law school and embarked in a career of criminal defense. He enjoyed notable success and notoriety, having established himself as one of the most prominent (and well paid) criminal defense attorneys in the area by the time he reached 40.

As fate would have it, it was at this point in his career that Prohibition was enacted – 1920. As one would imagine, Remus’ connections through his clients led to developing a network of key players in the bootlegging industry. Remus took notice of the staggering wealth that was at stake.

Combined with his legal knowledge and his past experience as a pharmacist, Remus began purchasing distilleries and pharmacies that were permitted to sell liquor though the modes provided under the Volstead Act. Apparently, Remus’ ultimate plan was to actually purchase the liquor from these entities himself, and then have his “employees” distribute it for sale on the black market.

Remus centralized his empire in Cincinnati. Though not considered to be a glamorous city by Hollywood’s standards, Remus’ personal life was glamorous enough that some speculate he inspired the character of Jay Gatsby for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s timeless novel, The Great Gatsby (though, given the pictures of Remus available online, someone else must have inspired Gatsby’s actual appearance).

Just as Remus may have inspired Gatsby’s grand parties, his legal troubles may have also inspired Gatsby’s own demons. Despite his legal prowess, Remus was convicted of violating the Volstead Act and sentenced to two years in prison. While there, he confided in a cell mate about his bootlegging empire. Turns out, the cell mate was an informant. But, instead of informing on Remus, he ran off with Remus’ wife and most of his fortune.

After he was released, Remus took his revenge against his soon-to-be ex-wife. While on his way to the courthouse to finalize the divorce, Remus spotted the cab carrying his wife and instructed his driver to chase the cab, eventually running it off the road. Remus then jumped out of his car and shot and killed his wife in front of several witnesses.

As would be expected, Remus was tried for murdering his wife. However, Remus’ defense was that he was temporarily insane when firing the fatal shot. Believe it or not, the jury bought the story and acquitted Remus for the murder. Because the prosecutor had argued against Remus’ defense, the state was unable to commit Remus to an insane asylum. Remus ended up living a long life and dying peacefully in 1952.

So, that’s the story of the man on the front of the bottle. What else is special about this bottle?

Turning to the back of the label, you’ll see that the whiskey was bottled by Queen City Whiskey out of Bardstown Kentucky, but distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

George Remus Small Batch

This is hardly the first bottle that has its roots in Indiana. Midwest Grain Products (MGP) owns a distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana (and headquartered here in Kansas) that distills the bourbon and rye whiskey that is later purchased and bottled by many different brands, including High WestWillett rye,  George Dickel rye, Tin Cup, Redemption, and many others.

But for this particular bottle, not only does MGP distill the bourbon, it actually owns the brand, too.

This creates an interesting situation. On the one hand, many brands have been reviled for attempting to create the appearance of selling a “small batch” or “hand crafted” whiskey that they imply they distilled, when it was actually sourced from one of the nation’s mass distilleries.

While this reaction has been completely warranted at times (and has even led to litigation), there is a truth that gets lost in the process – MGP distills good whiskey. But, within the conversation of how the companies sourcing their product from MGP and misleading customers with their labeling, MGP seems to have lost face, too.

So what would happen if MGP not only distilled the whiskey, but also released it under an owned brand, where it could exert more control over the labeling and marketing? The George Remus brand seems to be somewhat of a test case.

Turning to the juice inside the bottle, it is distilled using MGP’s high-rye mash, which is 60% corn, 36% rye, and 4% malted barley. The bottle states that it is “aged over 2 years.”

Tasting Notes:

Nose: Apricot; cedar; rye (the MGP medley of faint dill/mint/floral); grain; baking spice, particularly nutmeg; dry.

Palate: Rye forward; some sharp sweetness; grain; ground cinnamon; oak.

Finish: Medium; caramel and vanilla; dry rye spice lingers, like after chewing on rye bread.

For those who enjoy the higher rye content, this bourbon will check a lot of boxes. Despite its apparent youth from the label, it does not taste young. The only real downside is the price. At $45, there is stiff competition at this price level. But, when looking for something new that doesn’t carry the limited-release price tag, this is worth picking up. I would certainly recommend it over many of the brands sourcing their product from MGP. After all, why not go straight to the source?

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