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 Curious Bartender - An Odyssey of Malt, Bourbon & Rye Whiskies: A Brief Review

Photo courtesy: The Graham Hotel

Photo courtesy: The Graham Hotel

PROLOGUE

It's nearing dusk on a Friday evening in Georgetown. It's humid and traffic is terrible. I know if I sit in my Uber any longer in standstill traffic, I'll be late for "date night." The Uber driver was chummy for the 10-minute ride over to the part of DC I needed to be in, so I didn't mind asking  if I could pop out while it seemed advantageous to walk the rest of the way to my final destination.

"Five stars," I proclaim as I exit his Toyota Camry! He nodded, smiled and wished me a happy evening.

I'm meeting my girlfriend for dinner at a (self-proclaimed) whiskey bar called The Alex. It's our first time trying this place and, full disclosure, she booked it using a Groupon-style deal. I'm usually weary of places that need to lure patrons with coupons, because if you're that good, then coupons aren't necessary. Right? However, Georgetown does offer upscale shopping and some offbeat nightlife in the District, and most of the dining options are above par. Also, this place is a restaurant in the Graham Hotel, a boutique accommodation that's a tribute to Alexander Graham Bell (notice the names?). I've probably passed it 100 times and never noticed a hotel existed there. 

Alas, I finally found myself standing in the hotel lobby. And after a slight squabble with the concierge about having outside beverages in the restaurant (I had a practically empty Sprite bottle in tow), I weaved my way down and through the old establishment and found myself where I needed to be, clocking in at a customary five minutes fashionably late. Understandably so.

From left: Bulleit Rye, Hudson Manhattan, Whistle Pig 10 Year Rye

From left: Bulleit Rye, Hudson Manhattan, Whistle Pig 10 Year Rye

I did fail to mention that the "coupon" deal that I was being treated to included a flight of whiskies. And, well, whiskey and flights (of any kind) are usually a decent combination. I'll oblige.

For being a "whiskey bar," The Alex's selection was quite limited, and the prix fixe flight options were even more restrictive. There were three themed flights to choose from: Bourbon (basic), Rye (moderate) and some Willett Distillery offerings (Noah's Mill, Pot Still Reserve and the Family Estate Bottled Two-Year Rye).

Admittedly, I jump at any sight of Willett distillery brown water, with the exception of the Two-Year rye. Because, let's face it. It's a two-year-old whiskey! As a standalone rye, it does absolutely nothing for me. However, it does happen to make the tastiest old-fashioned cocktail known to man! So, I started with that. I later opted for the rye-themed flight. It seemed like the most solid trio I could have chosen.

THE REVIEW

As a surprise, my girlfriend stuck with the whiskey themed night and presented me with some new reading material, The Curious Bartender: An Odyssey of Malt, Bourbon & Rye Whiskies by Tristan Stephenson. Needless to say, I was elated. What better way to toast this occasional whiskey adventure than with a complimentary piece of whiskey propaganda? There is none.

Synopsis, via Amazon:

"An innovative, captivating tour of the finest whiskies the world has to offer, brought to you by bestselling author and whisky connoisseur Tristan Stephenson. Tristan explores the origins of whisky, from the extraordinary Chinese distillation pioneers well over 2,000 years ago to the discovery of the medicinal 'aqua vitae' (water of life), through to the emergence of what we know as whisky. Explore the magic of malting, the development of flavour and the astonishing barrel-ageing process as you learn about how whisky is made. In the main chapter, Tristan takes us on a journey through 60 distilleries around the world, exploring their remarkable quirks, unique techniques and flavours, featuring all new location photography from the Scottish Highlands to Tennessee. After that, you might choose to make the most of Tristan's bar skills with some inspirational whisky-based cocktails. This fascinating, comprehensive book is sure to appeal to whisky aficionados and novices alike."

One thing you'll probably notice is the juxtaposed spelling in the Amazon review and subsequently throughout the book itself (the author is British, after all) of Whisky and the American (the best) way of spelling Whiskey.

For all intents and purposes, it seems that Whisky is the "old world" spelling, used as a common explainer in whiskies such as Scotch and Irish variants. Whiskey is the "new world" usage in American and some other whiskey labelings. Both are acceptable.

I don't think the book actually covers the variable spellings, or perhaps I missed it? In any case, I use the "(e)" so not to offend. Although, all things being equal, Bourbonatic is "a blog dedicated to the exploration of American whisk(e)y!" :)

To preface my review, I did not read this book "cover to cover." Honestly, for informational reads like this, I rarely do. There is a lot of quality information in this book, but it's very much piecemeal. Aside from the history section, the different sections of the book are tailored for enthusiasts from a wide spectrum of the whiskey world, as you can imagine. So, I payed extra attention to the chapters cataloging the history of American whiskey, explanation and reviews of American whiskey products, and the expansive and fascinating cocktails section near the end.

DON'T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER (EXCEPT FOR THIS ONE)

The book itself is absolutely beautiful. The weathered, rustic cover stock and weighted feel makes this the manliest of manly books, if there ever was such as thing? Open it up and there are gorgeous photographs on almost every page, breaking up the monotony of long blocks of text, which is nice. This really is one of the more handsome books in my bookcase. Admittedly, I do think it was designed as more of an accessory, so-to-speak. Meaning, it would probably look better sitting beside my favorite bottle of bourbon, or on a bar cart next to a full decanter, rather than being buried on a shelf with other, less attractive bindings. This is almost certainly a good thing!

FOCUS ON THE DETAILS, BUT LIMIT THE NUMBER OF DETAILS

This is pretty great read, indeed. Not just for whiskey lovers, but also for newbies who are just getting into the scene and want to learn more about whiskey, its history and subsequent revival. It is not a “how to” book on sniffing and sipping (although it does touch on this a bit); There are some better options for whiskey beginners. However, you will enjoy learning about the “rules,” guidelines and of crafting different whiskies of the world, why they’re significant to preserving the nuance of the namesakes, and studying the identity and character of the different regions of whiskey production.

The author also doesn’t try to take on too much with identifying, explaining and/or reviewing as many whiskies as he can. Stephenson even notes multiple times that it is “impossible” to do so. I applaud that he stuck to the basics and the true nature of his writing by not being overly ambitious with this effort.

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone hoping to dive a little deeper into whiskey lore, and they should find some interesting notes about whiskey that may otherwise go unmentioned by other "experts." It truly is fascinating to get a glimpse into the perspective of fellow enthusiasts. And this is no exception.

THERE'S COCKTAILS, TOO

The last section of the book dives into a spectrum of bourbon-inspired cocktails, and man they are aplenty. As is proper; The author is a "curious bartender" and bar owner. The cocktail recipes are accompanied by exquisitely shot photographs of the end results. Whoa! I'm confident my iPhone camera cannot take pictures like that, let alone do I have the ability to replicate such meticulously well-crafted pieces of art. Seriously! As some food is art, so too are these concoctions! But hey, it should be fun to try! Cheers!

Coming Soon: The completely botched Bourbonatic versions of The Curious Bartender's bourbon cocktails.

Hooray! Bourbonatic is in the Bardstown Whiskey Society

Of all the things in whiskey geek-dom, Heaven Hill Distilleries offers this (not-so) exclusive membership to those whiskey fans seeking some pseudo-recognition, via acceptance into the Bardstown Whiskey Society (BWS). I'm not so sure how much of a "society" it really is, except getting some decent discounts on their partner tours and a $5 mail-in rebate for a purchase of a Heaven Hill whiskey. Interested? Take all of five minutes to fill out some field forms on the BWS website

You can also find membership benefits here: http://www.bardstownwhiskeysociety.com/member-benefits/

In any case, I got a membership card. Awesome! Anytime someone asks, "what makes you an authority on whiskey?" I'll just whip out that membership card, slam it down on the table, say nothing, and let that card do all the talking. Or, perhaps I'll just get a cheap frame for my certificate and set it beside my ever-growing collection of American whiskey? I haven't decided how I want to leverage this position of power.

With that said; Thank you, Heaven Hill Distilleries, for accepting me, the Bourbonatic, into your club of sorts. I'll be gracing your grounds again soon. Very soon.

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!

2,015 in 2015 @ Jack Rose Dining Saloon

Celebrating the "largest collection of whiskey in the western hemisphere" is a pretty good way to spend a Wednesday evening, if you ask me. If you're in the DC-area on March 25, 2015, and you love whiskey (like me), this is a must "to-do."

Insider's note: The folks at Jack Rose will be unveiling exclusively bottled, cask-strength Jack Rose / Willett bourbon. As a bonus, Willett master distiller, Drew Kulsveen, will be on hand for the event! Everyone gets a complimentary taste, and there will be drink specials throughout the evening.

See more at: http://jackrosediningsaloon.com/event/celebrate-2015-bottles-in-2015/

Source: http://jackrosediningsaloon.com/event/cele...