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 Bourbonatic Abroad: A Whiskey Adventure in Europe

Prologue

It’s my birthday. Well, not quite. I’m turning 29 in a couple days and my girlfriend (now fiancé) and I have a planned trip to Europe. It’s her birthday, too. Hers is a day later than mine. This will mark the second year we’ve celebrated the occasion together. Luckily, she’s a traveler as well. And we’ve had this trip planned for the better part of the last year. As all of the excitement and anxiety loomed before we take our seats on the aircraft playing host to our transatlantic flight, the moment had finally arrived for us to “hop across the pond.”

This isn’t my first trip to Europe. A couple of years ago I took a co-op job working for a startup in London for a couple months after finishing my undergraduate studies. London is a fantastical, dreary old place, and a favorite city that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. We’ll visit London on this trip. I had also taken a weekend trip to Paris during that time. A magnificent city that completely measures up to its illustrious reputation. We’ll also be visiting Paris on this trip.

Needless to say, this was a vacation I was definitely looking forward to. Seeing new places. Visiting familiar one’s. With my Bourbonatic tendencies starting to creep in well before my journey, I knew I would almost certainly entertain the idea of exploring the history (and flavors) of old world whisk(e)y.

Our first stop, Dublin, was going to be a new and exciting experience. Neither of us had been to Ireland and were eager to experience the wonders of this Irish city. Even more eager was my thirst for Irish libations.

Dublin: Part 1

I’m no stranger to Irish whiskey. Jameson is popular enough and graces my glass every once in a while. However, with some light research, I’d learned a good deal about the evolution of Irish whiskey, and some good places to find it!

First order of business: Drop bags. Nap. Find Fish n’ Chips.

The "Irish Double" (Expertly poured Guinness and Redbreast 12)

The "Irish Double" (Expertly poured Guinness and Redbreast 12)

A quick jaunt over to Temple Bar – an area on the south bank of the River Liffey and a popular tourist destination – and we popped in the first pub that looked appealing. Fish and Chips and an Irish double (a Guinness and a shot of whiskey) was in order. I asked the nice barman to suggest a good whiskey. Without the slightest of hesitation, he reaches for Redbreast 12. With good cause, so it begins.

Side Review: The Redbreast 12 is a superb sipping whiskey, and actually turned out to be one of my favorites of the trip. I must say that the subtlety and crispness of the Redbreast 12 is truly outstanding and ranks as one of the top whiskies on the current market! A must try. There’s also many other variants, including a 15 year, cask strength, and 21 year versions. 

After finishing dinner, I asked the same nice barman “Where’s a good whiskey bar around here?” Again, without hesitation, he pointed me in the direction of what would end up being a mainstay for both this and our second Dublin stay, the Dingle Whiskey Bar.

The Dingle Whiskey Bar is an incredibly small, yet inviting “sit-down bar,” offering some of the best whiskies Dublin has to offer. Adjoined to its Porterhouse Brewing Company (big) sister bar, this quaint whiskey sipper’s haven was not only one of my favorite stops of the trip, but one of the best whiskey bars anywhere! Here we got to try countless Irish whiskies and just enjoy being in a setting that shares my infatuation and admiration for the amber elixir, no matter your allegiance or patronage. You like whiskey? You’ll like this place.

The next day was Jameson Distillery Tour day. Note: The Irish are very proud of their whiskey! As they should be. A tour of Dublin’s Jameson distillery – which is now just a tourist expo, and no longer distills anything – will give you an idea of their love for the time honored whiskey. At the end of the tour, participants are presented with a side-by-side tasting of Jack Daniel’s, Johnnie Walker Black, and Jameson. And they make sure to tell you why Jameson is is the clear choice! It actually is. Because, you know.

There were some superb whiskies lining the shelves of the gift shop. Sadly, I needed to refrain from any purchases until the end of my vacation. After all, we’ll be revisiting Dublin at the end of the trip, and nobody wants to haul around expensive juice in glass bottles for a whole week!

Paris

What can I say? Paris is Paris. There’s no other city like it in the world and there never will be. As I previously mentioned, this marks the second time I’ve graced the streets of the French capital. The first was a weekend stopover when I spent some time in London. This time, it was for three days and two birthdays.

(That's me!) Steaking Restaurant, Paris

(That's me!) Steaking Restaurant, Paris

As my travel companion and soon-to-be better half had preplanned my birthday celebration venue, we would travel to St. Germaine, a historic part of the city that’s extremely culture-rich, to a steak and whiskey (!!!) spot aptly named, Steaking. She knows me! Of course, a Parisian steakhouse dinner isn’t complete without a French red pairing, a freshly baked baguette, and some silky whipped potatoes that I can only describe as buttery velvet goodness. But after dinner was the best part, where we’d head upstairs to the whiskey and cigar lounge!

The whiskey selection was on par. A couple good staple whiskies sprinkled with some rarer options. I opted for the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. It’s quickly become one of my favorite barrel proofs, and one I consistently keep on my shelf at home. We chatted up the bartender (whom I'd later learn owns the place) and his guest at the bar, a lovely young Turkish lady sipping Johnnie Walker Blue Label, who spoke such good English I mistook her for an American.

We later wanted to experience the Parisian nightlife and wandered over to a place a few blocks down that the restaurant owner recommended. We were sat in what I call a “skinny booth” for two, attached to the outer part of the bar. We watched Parisians and foreigners alike come together under the red glow that lined the sidewalk, sipping cocktails, having side chats, and listening in on the conversations of passersby. This was truly an experience I’ll never forget. If only we could properly reply to those who mistook us for French. It’s flattering not getting “Englished” by a Parisian. Fitting in is half the battle. Speaking the language? Well, that’s another story.

The next day we explored the city. We ventured everywhere from the Louvre all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, which is quite the hike. We may have been a bit overly ambitious, but any day roaming the streets of Paris is a good day indeed.

La Maison Du   Whisky, Paris (Showcase Room)

La Maison Du Whisky, Paris (Showcase Room)

There was one stop that had to be made. La Maison Du Whisky. If you’re at all familiar with their e-commerce site, you’ll understand why this place is a must-stop for any whiskey aficionado in Paris. It’s quite a spectacle, really. However, from the American whiskey they had available, outside of the full line of export-only Blanton’s not available in the States, wasn’t that far from what I could find stateside. It’s kind of amazing. Being on the other side of the import/export of American whiskey. As hard as it is to find great whiskey here, the markup for importing a lot of what I’d consider “good” whiskey, prices me out when abroad. Although, I’ll never regret visiting this store in person, and asking the gentleman in the showroom, “parlez-vous anglais?” To which he replied, “of course!”

London

Admittedly, London was never going to be the highlight of my European whiskey voyage. With such a short time, and it being a reunion I was very much looking forward to, I didn’t want to spend all of my time there hunting down whiskey.

Nevertheless, one could not resist popping into a class whiskey vendor while strolling down Picadilly. We happened upon The Whisky Shop and couldn’t help becoming entranced by the glitz of the whiskies lining the store’s windows and walls. After perusing this upscale storefront of fine brown liquor, I traded jabs with the store manager concerning American, Irish and Scotch whisk(e)y for a good while. He’d later offer me a taste of the “American-esque” Glenfiddich Rich Oak finish single malt, after proclaiming I was not a fan of the stuff hailing from the Highlands. It was a decent pour than neither excited nor bored me. But hey, free whiskey does taste better.

We later found ourselves wandering around the infamous Harrod’s department store. If you’re not familiar with this iconic British merchant, think Macy’s in New York, sprinkle in Bergdorf Goodman class, and add a bevy of vibrant, eclectic, and unique departments across 10 floors, and you get Harrod's. Much to my delight, Harrod’s boasts a “Spirits Room” that lay home to an interesting selection of whiskey. We did a quick tour, but most everything they offered was insipid and quite pricey.

Dublin: Part 2

Now that we’ve returned to Dublin to round out the European vacation, it was my goal to find what is being labeled “the Pappy of Irish Whiskey,” Midleton’s Yellow Spot 12-year Single Pot Still. I’ve seen both the Yellow Spot, and the younger sibling Green Spot, whiskies floating around stateside. But I wanted mine from Ireland, naturally. They’ve put together  a pretty great website containing a wealth of information and history on the higher-end Irish Whiskies coming out of the Midleton crop.

I’d also wager to say that Midleton probably produces about 90% of all the whiskey that comes out of Ireland. With the production of Jameson (and all its variants), the “Spot” whiskies, Redbreast, Powers, and the Midleton special release whiskies (that’s a lot of whiskey!), I think it’s a safe bet. However, interestingly, the whiskey renaissance that we’re experiencing here in the States seems to have affected Ireland was well. New, craft Irish whiskies (like our friends at Dingle Whiskey) are popping up left and right. All the better!

The Celtic Whiskey Shop, Dublin

The Celtic Whiskey Shop, Dublin

Now, I’m ready to spend. And there’s one place in particular I want to do so. The Celtic Whiskey Shop. I had been saving my graces from our first stop in Dublin. We must’ve stayed in that shop for a solid hour examining bottles, tasting whiskies, talking up the salesmen. This place is not big. It’s actually quite small. But what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in quality and the quality whiskey they offered. I snatched a bottle of the Yellow Spot, Powers Gold Label, Writers Tears, and a bottle of the craft Dingle Variant. I almost (almost) got a Glendalough – claiming to be Ireland’s first craft distillery – Double Barrel Irish Whiskey, but I was wary of my ability to stuff all this liquor into a suitcase!

Epilogue

The 9-day expedition was complete! Somehow, I effectively maneuvered through various parts of the European landscape, and getting my whiskey fix along the way. At the start, I simply wanted to bring home a piece of Ireland in the form of a sweet, succulent malted (and unmalted) barley whiskey. Of which, I was successful.

Inevitably, though, things changed. Finding a good Irish whiskey to add to my collection was easy. Knowing and understanding good Irish whiskey is not. What this trip offered me was a greater appreciation and knowledge I hadn’t previously possessed. And with knowledge comes perspective. As Bourbonatic is a celebration of all things “American whisk(e)y,” my focus will remain. However, the journey into the “World of whisk(e)y” has merely just begun. And I’m all the more grateful for it.

Cheers!

In the Beginning, There Was a (Whiskey) List

In February, 2015, during what I'll call the "enlightenment period" of my whiskey (mis)adventures, and what is more accurately described as the "honeymoon" phase of discovering the pleasure of fine and rare whiskies, I launched Bourbonatic with the new thrill I had developed over the course of the prior year.

Photo courtesy: Thrillist

Photo courtesy: Thrillist

In that time, I spent a rather obscene amount of time researching and exploring what the bourbon and whiskey world could offer me. I read blogs and articles. Bought books. Talked to store owners. All in attempt to educate myself on what was my newfound hobby. I then began to start a list. A "wish list," if you will.

This list was conceived after a short, but thorough, period examining what whiskies I already knew I liked, and comparing those to similar brands and distillers that I had come to appreciate. For instance, I'm a big fan of just about anything that comes out of the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Also, the Willett Family Estates.

Sadly, I had forgotten about this list. Probably for many reasons.

First, I'm not alone. The popularity of rare bourbon and other whiskies has made them extremely difficult to find and procure. And if you're lucky enough to find a unicorn whiskey, the price tag will often tell you why they're still collecting dust on a shelf.

Second, I realized I didn't need to buy a whiskey to try it, appreciate it, and decide if it was worth investing an inordinate amount of money to add it to my collection. It's a classic case of if the end will justify the means. Do I really want this whiskey because it tastes amazing? No. I want it because it will be a conversation piece for anyone who actually knows what it is, and its transient value based on that whiskey's rarity and demand. However, ultimately, I will want to drink that whiskey. So, there's that.

Third, time. God, it takes time. And resources. There's only so many stores and venues to exploit. Luckily, I found one I can come back to that usually has something I'm looking for at decent prices. And the whiskies I'm looking for are rare releases, that only happen once a year.

In any case, after all this time, I've stumbled across my initial whiskey wish list, and here it is for your viewing pleasure.

BOURBON WISH LIST

Black Maple Hill

·      Black Label

Buffalo Trace Antique Collection

·      George T. Stagg (15 Year)

·      Willam Larue Weller

·      Eagle Rare (17 Year)

·      Sazerac Rye (18 Year)

Colonel E. H. Taylor

·      Single Barrel*

·      Barrel Proof

Elijah Craig

·      21 Year SB

·      18 Year SB

Forester

·      Birthday Bourbon (Any year)

Four Roses

·      2013 Limited Edition

·      2014 Limited Edition

Old Rip Van Winkle / Pappy Van Winkle

·      Old Rip Van Winkle (10 Year)*

·      Van Winkle 'Lot B' (12 Year)

·      Pappy Van Winkle (15 Year)

·      Pappy Van Winkle (20 Year)

·      Pappy Van Winkle (23 Year)

Parker’s Heritage Collection

·         Promise of Hope

Willett Family Estate Rare Release

·      9 Year*

·      10 Year*

·      11 Year*

·      12 Year*

·      13 Year*

·      15 Year

·      21 Year

W.L. Weller

·      12 Year*

*=Whiskies that are or have been in my collection.

Of course, over time, I've learned that with each year's release of a specific whiskey brings nuance and character that will vary year-to-year. And it's literally impossible to replicate a single barrel whiskey. So, vintage statements was all I was focused on for the first go 'round.

Please share a list you're working on! As I've been at this one for more than a year, and I suspect I will continue to work on this list for many years to come.