Jos. A. Magnus & Co. Distillery Tour + Bourbon Review

Outside Jos. A. Magnus & Co. Distillery

Outside Jos. A. Magnus & Co. Distillery

Since my fascination with bourbon started a couple years ago a lot of developments in the industry have popped up around me here in Washington, D.C. Specifically, a new crop of craft whiskey distillers have launched in the District, and as the popularity of bourbon has grown, so too has the local supply. One of D.C.'s own, Jos. A. Magnus & Co. Distillery, which opened in 2015, has already earned high praise from the spirits world with it's sherry- and cognac-finished bourbon, winning the Double Gold medal and was named the Best Special Barrel-Finished Bourbon at the 2016 San Fransisco World Spirits competition.

The nine-year-old bourbon is an MGP/LDI-sourced whiskey aged in Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso Sherry and Cognac casks before being carefully blended together, recreating the style of the original Jos. A. Magnus Bourbon of the late 1800’s. The story about how the contemporary Joseph Magnus bourbon came to be is actually quite remarkable, starting with a 100-plus-year-old heirloom bottle of bourbon that was procured, tasted, and researched by the family and a handful of bourbon industry experts.

Side note: I'm flirting with the idea of researching the process of how new, startup distillers source their whiskey for release as they craft and make their proprietary whiskies, and looking specifically at the MGP/LDI sourced distilleries, such as Willett, Smooth Ambler, and a handful of other newer whiskey distillers. 

From the Washington Post:

“After tasting the 100-plus-year-old Magnus bourbon, we all agreed – Joseph Magnus made truly remarkable bourbon," Nancy Fraley, the distillery's master blender, said in a statement. "By finishing our product the same way Magnus did in the 1890s, we were able to make our Joseph Magnus Bourbon a near match to the original. The fact that when put up against today's top bourbons, it finished Double Gold is a special tribute to him and his amazing spirits.”
Old Man Magnus himself.

Old Man Magnus himself.

Distillery Tour / Tasting

I've traveled along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail a few times, and I've been to some of the big-name distillery tours over the years, both domestic and abroad. A highlight tour that I've had the pleasure of experiencing was the "Hard Hat Tour" at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. For one of the largest producers of American whiskey in the world, this was a fantastic (and intimate) walking tour that I'd highly recommend to any fan of whiskey.

The Jos. A. Magnus tour marks the second distillery tour I've done in DC this past year. A local's favorite spot, Green Hat Gin Distillery, is a fun "work for drinks" setting that puts its patrons to work by adding them into the assembly line for bottling. Hey, keep the booze a'comin' and I'm fine with a little free labor. They're also cooking up some bourbon as well, which should be released in the next couple of years, so look for "Green Hat Bourbon" in the near future. In any case, as cool as the experience was, the "tour" is more of a short walk to the back of the small industrial park complex that triples as a tasting area and gift shop. 

Jos. A. Magnus & Co. has a similar, albeit larger, concept for its visitors. Once you gain entry, a slight hike up the memorabilia-clad stairwell and you find yourself at a fairly large tasting room, with a small bar at the back. We started out with a quick tasting, running through the other variants that the distiller is producing, including Vigilant gin, which isn't too shabby to a non-gin-drinker as myself.

There's Vodka, too!

There's Vodka, too!

The small barrel racks of Jos. A. Magnus bourbon.

The small barrel racks of Jos. A. Magnus bourbon.

After doing the rounds of gin and vodka, it was finally time to sip the bourbon! Oh good gracious, is it tasty. After the sippy teaser, we were offered to choose from an array of punch-style cocktails resting at the end of the bar, each made with the different liquors produced by the distiller. I went with the blueberry bourbon punch cocktail, naturally. Later in the review I'll tell you why I believe they go with the blueberry compliment here. The bourbon was great. The cocktail was standard. Next, we go to see the racks and stills.

Again, we're in D.C. Space is hard to come by and fitting a full-fledged distillery into the city is ambitious in and of itself. So it's no surprise that this tour takes all of about 10 minutes to roam around the open concept facility while getting the back story of the newly awarded bourbon. However, what makes this distillery unique is their full service bar sectioned off in the distilling area. We stopped here and had a cocktail or two to start the day off right, considering our tour was scheduled at noon, we were making good progress.

Of course, before we parted ways with the venue, I stopped and grabbed a bottle of the Joseph Magnus bourbon for myself. Priced right around $90 per bottle (with complimentary glasses etched with the Magnus "crest") seemed a decent fetching for this whiskey. We continued on to another new D.C. distillery not too far away, One Eight Distilling, to continue the exploration.

The Review

Tasting this bourbon at the distillery when I'm enjoying the company of friends doesn't afford me a good opportunity to sit down and really appreciate this whiskey. Having tasted so many whiskies over the years, I usually like to be fairly diligent when preparing for a review, and will sit down with my Glencairn glass and deliberately nose and taste and take notes before I feel comfortable putting something together for peer review. I am fairly new to the reviewing world of whiskey, so I owe it to you, the reader, to take my time to put together a solid review. It's my goal that my reviews helps you make a decision to try or buy the reviewed whiskey, especially this one, since this is a very new bourbon. At first blush, I knew this bourbon would be special. Now, I get to break it down for you.

Name: Joseph Magnus Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Proof: 100

Age: 9 years

Year: 2015

Delivery: Neat.

Color: Deep red, auburn. Much darker than the traditional bourbon coloring.

Nose: Rich red fruit aromatics, highlights of black cherry and red berries, lowlights of orange citrus. Cinnamon and chocolate.

Impression: Very deep and viscous. A really good "weight" to this bourbon with a tremendous mouthfeel. There's very little heat or "spice" on the tongue and has an almost creamy texture. Dark fruits pop at first followed by milk chocolate which really resonates. It stays on the palette for a good while, playing with the taste buds. There's also some rye in that mashbill, which I've come to expect with the MGP sourced stuff.

Overview: This is a supremely sweet and succulent bourbon. The attribution of the sherry and cognac really stand out and separates this from your tradition bourbon swill, packing in ample dark berry and dried fruit flavors. I think this is why the Jos. A. Magnus folks make a blueberry punch cocktail with it. The 100 proof could be little higher to knock down the sweet characteristics. I find myself wanting just a tad more heat and wood notes. This whiskey rolls over the tongue almost like a thin syrup, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

When you add a little water, you'll find those fruits exploding in the flavor profile. Big black cherry notes, with vanilla bean, and hints of whipped cream. Again, at a higher proof, somewhere in the 110-115 range, would fit this bourbon so nicely. The water unleashed the incredible finishing flavors, but pulls down the heat a little too much, so it's hard to find a good balance for my taste.

Recommendation: Buy it, if you can find it. Some places have it for close $100, and I've seen it shelved as low as $75, which is surprising since the direct sale at the distillery was $90. It's a good deal considering the amount of work that's gone into crafting this whiskey, making it one of the best "finished" bourbons I've tried.

Grade: 3.5 - Excellent. Even as a Double Gold winner, I really (really) wish the Joseph Magnus were a slightly higher proof. I understand this will have broader appeal at the base 100 proof, but it's such a "sweet" bourbon that some heat and spice would balance it out so nicely. I actually would consider this a very respectable dessert whiskey, and honestly, reminds me so much of a spoonful of Cocoa Puffs cereal. Take that, for what it's worth.

Editors Note: I received a note from Nancy Fraley, Master Distiller at Jos. A. Magnus, with an explanation regarding the proof of the whiskey, and why it stands at 100 proof. As she puts it:

"[The barrels] spent their first 7 to 8 years in a very cool, damp section of a rick house in KY, so the proof fell substantially over that time. Because of the cool and damp conditions, the barrels tend to sit somewhere between 98 to 103 proof, so their is no option of having a higher proof whiskey. When the barrels are taken to the distillery in D.C. for the cask finishing program in Oloroso, PX, and Cognac, they tend to "wake up" and are enlivened again in the hotter warehousing conditions. 
However, even with the new maturation conditions, the proof is still considerably low. Each blend that I assemble almost always evens out to around 100 proof, so there is usually no water addition, or if there is, it is usually negligible (as in just enough water to go from 101 down to 100 proof). Thus, the whiskey is pretty much at cask strength with each coupe."

The Jack Rose Willett Release + Review

So, I'm biased on a lot of accounts here. A lot. One, I am a Willett Family Estate Bourbon sheep. Second, I frequent Jack Rose Dining Saloon more than my own apartment these days. But I could not - I repeat - could not pass up a chance to take in the sights, sounds and bourbon during the 2,015 in 2015 event at one of the finest whisk(e)y establishments in the world!

See above: I was among the first to get a taste. A fresh bottle was opened right in front of me.

See above: I was among the first to get a taste. A fresh bottle was opened right in front of me.

Literally. The world.

Jack Rose (now) boasts a total of 2,015+ bottles of whiskey (their Instagram account lists 2,200+) in its collection. The details aren't important. It's a lot. And I've tasted more bourbon, and subsequently spent more money, at this fine establishment than I care to admit. I'd also be hard pressed to name any other whiskey bar in the western hemisphere that can boast these numbers!

Nevertheless, when Jack Rose has an event (especially if Willett is involved) attendance is mandatory.

Note: Jack Rose also does "Pappy Hour!" And as you might guess, yes, it's tastings of Pappy Van Winkle during "happy hour" hours. I keep missing them, however, since they're rather unannounced. But one day!

At some point, Jack Rose (JR) might have been one of the better-kept secrets of D.C.'s Adams Morgan neighborhood. No longer. In fact, for the past year or so, this place has been the scene for nights out in "AdMo," including my own. Anytime we're in the area, JR is a must stop. If not for the whiskey, the food. If not for the food, the experience.

For any whiskey fan out there, JR is a spectacle. Bookshelves lining three walls, from floor to ceiling, packed full of the finest, rarest whiskies on the planet. Bartenders and whiskey advisors scale latters to reach the tippy-top of the top shelf whiskies. It truly is a "library of whiskey."

A Quick 2,015 in 2015 Recap: JR owner, Bill Thomas, must have some friends in pretty high places in the whiskey world. Hand-picked barrel's of Willett's Family Estate Bourbon can't come lightly, or cheap, outside of the distributors that usually source them. One of those friends, I presume, is Willett Distillery master distiller, Drew Kulsveen, who was supposed to make an appearance at the event. I didn't stick around long enough to find out. It was a "school night."

In any case, the event called for free tastings of the new exclusive Willett bottling, which almost certainly pulled the large crowd. And a crowd it was. Probably the most people I've seen packed into that place before 8pm on a Wednesday, or any evening for that matter. The tasting was to take place at the tail-end of the evening festivities. Again, knowingly, I decided to make it an early night and ponied up some bucks to be one of the first to taste the new offering. It was justified. 

Enough prelude. Let's dig.

As mentioned above, this particular bourbon was sourced by Bill Thomas, owner of Jack Rose Dining Saloon. The restauranteur / bourbon fanatic got his hands on a Willett Family Estate bourbon barrel and the fine folks at the Willett Distillery bottled it exclusively for his restaurant, Jack Rose. The barrel / bottles are aptly nicknamed, "Jack Rose." To celebrate, Jack Rose held a "2,015 in 2015" event to announce its exclusive bottles and gloat about having such an expansive collection after pulling this haul from Willett.

Willett and its acclaimed Family Estate bourbon is perhaps one of the fastest growing names among bourbon enthusiasts. Since Willett is a non-distilling producer (NDP) - I won't get into theories about where their juice comes from, we'll save that for later - this is the only background reference I can provide at this time.

(Un)Fortunately there aren't any other reviews to reference (that I've seen) since this is an exclusive release. So, you'll just have to take my word for it!

Name: Willett -  Family Estate Bottled Singel Barrel Bourbon "Jack Rose 2015"

Proof: 125.2

Age: 11 years

Year: 2014/15

Delivery: Neat. (Later, with water).

Color: Deep rouge, auburn.

Nose: Warm butter and brown sugar. Hints of peanut brittle and spice cake.

Impression: At first sip I got a blast of sugar and salt brine. In the middle you get a good amount of oak flavor, finished with vanilla, coriander and orange zest. I will say that the nose was much more pleasant than my first impression, which is a pretty rare occurrence in most regards.

Overview: With a fresh palate and at 125 proof, this bourbon packs a punch. I knew I wouldn't particularly like the high heat at first, but of course I had to sip it neat on the first two pops. The heat does't last long though, and the mouthfeel is actually nice, full and rich. However, the proof is simply too high, IMO. This offering would probably be fantastic if it were bottled at sub-120. 

Let's add a little water.

I added two drops of water to what I eye-balled was about 2/3 of the ounce left. Wow. What a difference this made. The bite at the front was dissipated significantly. The mid flavors lingered a little longer on the tongue, and the finish was softer, as expected.

I decided to test the resolve of this bourbon with one more drop of water at about 1/3 ounce to see if it would go flat. Surprisingly enough, it held up! I was still able to get the profile to come through with almost no heat on the top.

Recommendation: Just add water. If you like high spice, this probably won't bother you. But for those with milder tastes, this will pack too much on the front, and leaves too little on the back.

Grade: 3 - Very Good. I've tasted 15+ different Willett bourbons, and this lacked balance compared to the others I've had. Complexity was masked a bit, although underlying flavors are present, albeit not prominent. I would have given it 3.5-barrels if the proof had been slightly lower. At 115-120 proof this bourbon would be one of the finer 11YO whiskies floating around. It's a shame (or perhaps not?) there's only one place you can get it!