For over 165 years, MGP produced nothing under its own banner to the general public. In the words of VP and Master Blender David Whitmer, what became known as MGP was designed and executed as a distillery from which others would source. All the way back to its founders and owners throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, what is now MGP was a place to buy whiskey to sell under your own banner.
Ryes, bourbons, light whiskies, corn whiskies… if you wanted it but couldn’t – or didn’t – want to distill it yourself you could find it at MGP. Dozens – hundreds – of brands did so over the decades, and a large number still do. From its site on the banks of the Ohio River, MGP supplied the whiskies for millions of consumers worldwide.
Then, in just the past few years, they did something revolutionary. If that seems too big a word, think again. MGP split itself in two for the purposes of whiskey-making, retaining the MGP name for its sourcing operations and creating the Ross & Squibb Distillery name to handle its still-nascent George Remus Bourbon and Rossville Union Rye products. These were not made to be sourced, but rather sold by MGP itself; expressions by them and for them, not sold under someone else’s name.
As any 175-year-old company is wont to do, they didn’t go in blindly. The George Remus and Rossville Union brands had a few years of consumer testing, clearly eliciting a positive response. The more premium releases – Remus Repeal Reserve and Rossville Union Barrel Proof, respectively – have garnered more than a few awards. The most recent Remus Repeal Reserve, series VI, immediately vaulted into my top five new whiskies this year after a solid showing from series V the year before. It forced me, in some ways, to rethink how I look at the now-Ross & Squibb Distillery: as its own producer, no longer hidden exclusively behind others’ labels, but finally a distiller, a blender, a house of artists in its own right.
Remus and Gatsby
George Remus was called the “King of the Bootleggers”. A one-time attorney, he ruled the underground liquor trade through his realm in Cincinnati in the early years of Prohibition. Flaunting his newfound wealth, he threw lavish parties at an equally lavish estate called the Marble Palace. Depictions of him draw immediate thoughts of Oprah telling her audience to find car keys under their chairs.
Remus was the epitome of new money, a first-generation son of immigrants who had moved to the States when George was just four years old. He rose from obscurity to infamy, from a lawyer defending the bootleggers to the greatest of them. Even his fall did little to subtract from his legend. If anything, perhaps, it cemented it: by putting his (mis)deeds into the legal record, his prosecutors lent all of his myth credence, regardless of how much or little was true.
In his own time, Remus was thought to inspire another larger-than-life figure: Jay Gatsby. First conceived by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1922, the author’s signature work features a man very much like Remus, minus the thuggery and ostensibly minus the bootlegging. As writer Rebecca Rolfes put it, “Novels should never be fact-checked. Reality excises mystery as well as genius.” If we as readers knew Gatsby to be a bootlegger, a kingpin who would sic his cretins on rivals as quickly as he would bribe his way to freedom, would we – could we – call him a great literary figure?
Mystery furthers legends, and in its wake new ones arise. One such legend is spoken at the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. According to its house lore, Fitzgerald and Remus crossed paths at the hotel’s famous and eponymous bar, and thus the former’s Gatsby became a reflection of the latter’s excesses.
Did they, though?
Reflecting again on Rolfes’ excellent piece for Bitter Southerner, Drunk at the Seelbach Hotel: How Louisville’s Grandest Hotel Left Its Mark On The Great Gatsby, much has been made of this supposed meeting. Fitzgerald did spend time in Louisville while in the army, stationed at Camp Zachary Taylor, and visited the Seelbach regularly. A year before Kentucky ratified both in-state Prohibition and the 18th Amendment, Fitzgerald was making the Seelbach his favorite bar. Remus was known to frequent the Seelbach as well.
What no one has been able to definitively assess is whether the two ever met, let alone at “Louisville’s Grandest Hotel.” I grew up just miles from the Gold Coast of Long Island, and the Gatsby mythos is as ingrained there as the Remus/Fitzgerald mythos is at the Seelbach. A thousand miles apart, place and legend become one. Stories are sticky, as my friend John says, and nowhere are stories stickier than in whiskey.
Along the Ohio River
The Ohio river starts in Pittsburgh, where the Monongahela ends, flowing along the borders of Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois before emptying into the Mississippi River. There are dozens of ways this river is central to American whiskey history, but today we’re focusing on just one: it connects Cincinnati, the hub of Remus’ bootlegging empire; Louisville, KY, still the hub of American whiskey production despite statewide and later nationwide Prohibition; and Lawrenceburg, IN, the site of what is now MGP and Ross & Squibb Distillery.
This three-point axis is at the heart of Ross & Squibb’s new ultra-premium release, the Remus Gatsby Reserve. This release is the newest entry into the Remus-Fitzgerald-Gatsby universe, a 15-year-old bourbon that comes packaged in a bottle and packaging that looks like you’re drinking in the Chrysler Building while watching Metropolis. It viscerally transports the drinker to the Roaring 20s and the height of Art Deco design.
This is a whiskey review, though, so we must look past the wrapping to the liquid inside. I said earlier that the Remus Repeal Reserve VI immediately vaulted into my top 5 new whiskies of the year.
The Remus Gatsby is in my top 2.
Remus Gatsby Reserve 15 Year Old – Review
Color: Mahogany and maple, slightly hazy like an unfiltered IPA. Very thin rims and circlet drops.
On the nose: Intense: nutty brown butter and baking spice flow out of the glencairn. Roasted but empty peanut shells, dried stone fruits bright and tart. Cigars with Nicaraguan wrappers, dark fruit and warm wood.
In the mouth: Roasting exotic nuts (I want to say Brazil nuts, but let’s say not peanuts, almonds, or the usuals). Wet tobacco, saddle leather and barrel char. Oak astringency peppers the entire palate. Incredible depth of flavor – I want to note at this point I thought about the proof, and I couldn’t care less about the number, the proof was on point. The mouthfeel is thick and syrupy, oily without being coating. Baking spices fall beneath the tongue as leather, dark cocoa, charred pecans, and pomegranate all build. On the finish: pomegranate molasses (if you haven’t had it, think somewhere between sweet, aged balsamic and dark brown sugar), heady and buttery bourbon that can only come from MGP. Goes on forever, staying on under the tongue even when the upper palate dissipates.
The Remus Gatsby Reserve from Ross & Squibb is not only insanely flavorful – it’s downright intriguing. A cask strength bourbon at 97.8 proof. A cask strength American whiskey at 97.8 proof. A 15-year-old bourbon from the most prolific source of sourcing in all of American spirits, named for a fictional character likely based on Remus himself. An extremely limited release; just how limited is an outstanding question.
I’m awarding it a 9/10 on Malt-Review’s 10-point scale. Extra consideration is given for having a bottle and packaging design that demands attention, as well as what I think is generous cost at $249.99 per bottle. For comparison, Barrell Gray Label Bourbon releases (prior to 2022’s release) have been approximately the same age, higher in proof, and also priced at $249.99, yet I don’t think any have come within shooting distance of this in quality.
Here’s my first question: why now? The Great Gatsby was released in April 1925, so it wasn’t an anniversary-driven release. It’s only Ross & Squibb’s second year as its own distillery, hardly cause for a one-off that would burn a valuable chip in its branding arsenal.
Here’s another: where were these barrels? Part of the question is obvious: as low as possible in whatever rickhouse/basement/genie lamp they were rolled into. If you’ve ever visited MGP’s Lawrenceburg campus, though, you’ll know that the buildings and warehouses are built like a state college: no two buildings are alike. (For those triggered by that: I went to SUNY Binghamton, and it was one of the best choices I ever made, so no disrespect meant to state schools). I’m also willing to bet the barrels were in concrete or brick, maybe even in waerhouses closer to the Ohio River, since that would mean the lowest delta in temperature shifts.
For a bourbon with a barrel entry proof of 110 to drop nearly a point per year, it had to be cool and humid with minimal diurnal shifts. This theory is backed up by the stunning fact that it’s not woody at all. Nothing ruins a whiskey for me more than having to suck on a stave to get the liquid out of it. I will 100% turn my nose up at a Sazerac 18 Rye, Elijah Craig 18- or 23-Year, or Eagle Rare 17 because to me they taste like oak water. There is such a thing as too much oak, and overly high temperature swings will push that whiskey in and out of the wood so greatly that tannins, wood flavors and textures, and the like are inevitable. I like oak creaminess, mild-to-moderate tannins, and pepperiness. I don’t enjoy chewing on staves.
Let’s be real that it’s also rare for a bourbon to drop in proof, period. That’s something you see in Scotland, not in US maturation. And that brings up the last point I want to hit: the label.
If you’re reading Malt, you know what a COLA is. You also know that COLAs, once submitted and approved, are public, and are available by a simple search on an admittedly archaic website. When the Remus Gatsby Reserve label was released, the proof noted was 115, well within reasonable expectations for an MGP/Ross & Squibb bourbon. Per TTB regulations, companies may submit a placeholder proof during label approval if it’s cask/barrel strength, since a final bottling strength could change between time of submission, dumping, and bottling.
People were understandably excited for a 115 proof, 15-year-old MGP bourbon. Given the final bottling proof of 97.8, however, many felt duped; bait-and-switched, buying a boxed-up bourbon they thought was 115 proof only to open it and discover it was nearly 20 points lower.
It’s hard to take a side on this one, though I lean towards the consumer’s viewpoint. In Ross & Squibb’s defense, the proof was a placeholder. On the consumer’s side, however, it’s hard to believe Ross & Squibb believed it was that high a proof; in other words, there was no need to put 115 as the placeholder if they knew it would be lower. They could have put 110; as the entry proof, it would’ve been clearer as a placeholder. 100 makes even more sense since it’s already what their Remus Repeal Series is bottled at, though there are some who would’ve been confused by that too, I guess.
Overall, an extraordinary bourbon that’s a contender for my best of the year.