What can I say about George Remus that hasn’t already been said by the Hamilton County Prosecutor?
To paraphrase our President: George Remus was a bad dude. After getting his start as a lawyer defending a rotating cast of ne’er-do-wells, Remus apparently decided that crime does, in fact, pay. At least, his bootlegging clientele seemed to have no difficulty paying his legal fees, which earned Remus more than $7 million per year in 2022 dollars.
During Prohibition, Remus started buying distilleries licensed to produce medicinal whiskey, which he then arranged to have “hijacked” by his associates. This “stolen” whiskey was subsequently resold to the folks who couldn’t get a doctor to write them a script for medicinal whiskey, but still wanted a taste of the good stuff.
The long arm of the law caught Remus in 1925, when he was sentenced to two years in the Federal pen for violations of the Volstead Act. He confided to a cellmate (actually an undercover Prohibition officer) that his substantial fortune was, in fact, under the control of his wife. That officer ran off with the wife and the money, infuriating Remus. After a carriage chase, Remus apprehended and murdered her in broad daylight, in front of their young daughter.
Yeesh. Just summarizing that guy’s story makes me want a stiff drink. Fortunately, I have one at hand and – wouldn’t you know it! – it’s named after George Remus himself.
Why, you might ask, would anyone name their brand after such an odious character? A cursory examination of the man beyond his “King of the Bootleggers” moniker reveals a personality more worthy of repudiation than reverence. Yet, MGP chose George Remus as the figurehead for the bourbon they sell themselves, dwarfed by the extraordinary quantities of whiskey that others “source” from them.
I’ve written before about the use of Prohibition (and related themes) as a means to inject some narrative color into whiskey otherwise wanting for a backstory. I have to suspect that it was this same desire to borrow the edgy reputation of Remus – in his capacity as bootlegger, rather than homicidal husband – that motivated MGP to “source” his likeness for their bourbon brand.
Bourbon enthusiasts are no strangers to repurposed legacies, whether or not they have any connection to the distilleries or brands with which they’re associated. Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson spring immediately to mind, and I’m certain there’s a longer list of names that are now being used to hawk booze. We’re accustomed to the practice, which now mostly elicits rolled eyes, a cynical shaking of the head, or an apathetic shrug.
Apathy is perhaps the best descriptor for bourbon fan sentiment about the Remus range of bourbons, best I can gauge. Neither beloved nor despised, they seem to be mostly ignored by all but the most assiduous completists.
Is this perhaps to blame on the ubiquity of sourced MGP whiskey? I’ve written before about how “Distilled in Indiana” has become a type of “Go Directly to Jail” (sorry) card for those of us who buy bottles attentively. A paradox emerges: savvy shoppers pass on these bottles on the grounds that we can buy whiskey cheaper from MGP, but the amount of whiskey from MGP on the shelf prevents us from developing the interest to take the plunge on a bottle.
I’m guilty (sorry, again) of this myself. Despite occasionally hearing mild positivity about some of these whiskeys (as when Frank reviewed Series V of this same Remus Repeal Reserve), I have not yet felt compelled to buy a bottle for myself. Fortunately, Ryan has continued his streak of consistent generosity and gifted me a sample of Remus Repeal Reserve Series II, which will be the subject of this review.
Say what you want about MGP, but I have found them remarkably transparent in a way that contrasts notably with a lot of the folks reselling their whiskey. For example: the press release announcing the arrival of this bourbon is surprisingly detail-laden. Verbatim:
“Remus Repeal Reserve Series II is a limited release that showcases a medley of two mash bills from 2007/2008. It is comprised of 15%, 2007 Bourbon (21% Rye); 50%, 2008 Bourbon (21% Rye); 10%, 2007 Bourbon (36% Rye); and 25%, 2008 Bourbon (36% Rye).”
How about that! Mash bills, ages (calculated roughly by subtracting from 2018, the year this batch was released), and proportions all laid out in clear numerical form (MGP’s own site for this release preserves this same information). So, we’ve got ourselves a blend of two 10 year old bourbons from two mash bills, and two 11 year old bourbons from those same mash bills, bottled at the respectable strength of 100 proof (50% ABV). SRP for this was $85 at the time, compared with $90 for the most recent release.
Remus Repeal Reserve Series II – Review
Color: Medium-dark brownish amber.
On the nose: Brown sugar is married to almost tequila-like scents of fecund and spicy succulent desert plants. There’s the signature MGP dill here, but it is buried underneath a focused, creamy wave of vanilla oak. There’s the powdery sweetness of confectioners’ sugar as a topnote that quickly metamorphoses into cherry flavored frosting. Herbal notes of tarragon play against a chalky mineral note. There’s a great diversity of aromas here; the nose, at least, doesn’t seem very similar to any bourbon I recollect from MGP, nor from any other distillery.
In the mouth: That chalky sweetness is once again evident upfront, accented by a dry and faint wispy flavor of cherry syrup. This takes on a medicinal cast of eucalyptus as the bourbon moves toward the center of the mouth. There, the entire presentation leans out and becomes quite dry, with the mineralic notes. The dill sings out piquantly for an instant, but quites down quickly. The herbal aspects make a reappearance just before the finish, which again pivots toward the more austere and dry flavors. There’s a subtle woodiness to this at the back fo the mouth, but in very polished form, without any of the grainy, tannic astringency I usually associate with bourbon this lean. Surprisingly, there’s a lingering sweetness of brown sugar simple syrup and cherries jubilee that remains as a gentle presence in the mouth.
This is a compelling study in contrasts. On the one hand, the overall presentation is very lean, taut, and lithe. The sharpness and dryness of the flavors becomes almost severe at points. However, there’s also some wonderfully cheerful and charmingly sweet fruit notes that appear at precisely the right moments to pull this back from the brink. I like that this defies easy categorization. It has enough novel elements to interest a bourbon veteran, as well as enough charm to disarm even a hardened cynic like myself.
This is assuredly not great bourbon, however it is good bourbon. In light of that, and considering the price, I am scoring this a notch above average.
This verdict (sorry, sorry, sorry) is a surprising one, in a good way. Maybe I shouldn’t rely so much on reputation, either Remus’ or MGP’s? We’ll almost certainly be seeing more George Remus-branded bourbon as MGP uses the recently acquired distribution network of Luxco, as is their stated intention. Unfortunate namesake aside, this whiskey stands out in a lineup (last one, I swear) of repeat offenders (gotcha) asking the same price for less distinguished MGP bourbon. Assuming future releases are as good as this one, I’ll be more inclined to treat bottles as innocent until proven guilty (am I really sorry, though?).
Lead image courtesy of George Remus/MGP.