Whisk(e)y musings read by tens of people worldwide.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Guilt by Association

I like Remus bourbon (even the entry-level one), but feel a little uncomfortable whenever I drink it.  If you saw a Charles Manson deodorant at your local pharmacy, would you bring it home and proudly display it on your bathroom countertop?  George Remus was a highly intelligent man who excelled at pretty much everything he did.  He was also a cold-blooded killer.

The life of George Remus reads like a work of fiction.  It’s believed (by some) the title character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is based on Remus.  There’s a passage in the book that bears a striking resemblance to his illicit affairs, but no actual evidence has been found to date linking Remus to the character.  Remus started working at his uncle’s drugstore at 14.  By the age of 21, he was a licensed pharmacist and pharmacy owner.  Some of you might be wondering, “What does any of this have to do with whiskey?”  You’ll see, be patient.  In his mid-20s, after growing tired of the pharmaceutical business, Remus became a lawyer.

When Prohibition was in its infancy, Remus represented bootleggers all the time, and was shocked by the ease with which they paid their hefty fines.  Remus was a wealthy man, but the thought of making gobs of money as a bootlegger was a temptation he just couldn’t ignore.  During Prohibition, whiskey was legal to consume, but it had to be for medicinal purposes only.  Once prescribed by a doctor, the customer patient could then pick it up at a local pharmacy (see, I told you the pharmacy part would be important).  The government issued just 6 licenses for the distribution of “medicinal” whiskey.  The distilleries that didn’t make the cut could either sell their stuff to one of the lucky 6 or wait it out (Prohibition lasted 13 years).  Remus carefully studied the Prohibition Act, then came up with the perfect plan.

As an attorney, Remus made roughly half a million (in today’s dollars) per year.  He had plenty of cash at his disposal.  Out of work distillers desperately needed money, and were very motivated to sell.  Remus bought up as many distilleries and drug companies as he could.  He even acquired Jack Daniel’s (it was located in St. Louis at the time, bet you didn’t know that).  Remus’ plan was to sell his whiskey to himself.  He also started a trucking company so his whiskey could conveniently be delivered to himself.  All the pieces were in place.  Every so often (more like frequently), he’d have his goons hijack one of his own trucks.  Its cargo would then be sold on the black market, where the real money was to be made.

In a few short years, Remus managed to bank a staggering 40 million dollars.  (That’d be over 500 million today.)  His success was largely due to the dozens of people he bribed, but, to borrow a line from the man himself, “There isn’t enough money in the world to buy up all the public officials who demand a share.”  As you might’ve guessed, it all came crashing down, and Remus was sentenced to 3 years in prison.  While serving time, his wife fell in love with an ex-Prohibition agent (I told you his life reads like a work of fiction).  They sold off his assets as fast as they could, and hid the rest.  She filed for divorce just before Remus was set to be released from prison.  A couple months later, while on his way to finalize things, Remus had his driver run her off the road.  She plead for her life.  He shot her twice in the abdomen.  She managed to find someone to drive her to the hospital, but died while on the operating table.

Remus bourbon is made at Ross & Squibb distillery.  Some of you may know them as Midwest Grain Products.  MGP makes juice for “brands” all over the US (more on that another time).  Remus bought Ross & Squibb in 1921.  When you go to the Remus bourbon website, you’ll find a bunch of fluff about Gatsby, the Yankees, and Louis Armstrong.  They refer to Remus as the, “King of the Bootleggers.”  Going back to my analogy above, it’d be like the Charles Manson deodorant people boasting about the time Manson sold a song to the Beach Boys (true story), while failing to mention all the horrible things he did during his lifetime.  The choices we make as adults usually come in varying shades of grey.  I hate how Ross & Squibb use Remus as their torchbearer, but not enough to stop buying Remus products.  That’s my shade of grey.  What’s yours?

Happy dramming,


Monday, March 20, 2023

The Other Michael Jackson

I often get asked, “How come you don’t provide more tasting notes like everyone else?”  I don’t feel like it.  That’s why.

Happy dramming,


Wait.  Sorry.  That was a curt response to a genuine question.  A few months ago, I wrote a piece entitled, “For Entertainment Purposes Only,” where I ever so gently skewered the homogeneous nature of bourbon reviews on YouTube.  To be honest, most whisky reviews are more similar than different.  Brief introduction, nose, mouth, finish, closing remarks.  This format is repeated over and over again for good reason.  It’s what people want.  What they don’t want is some guy from Vancouver Island droning on about the importance of the 1860 Spirits Act (at least not yet).  Person A is interested in Whisky B.  Person A goes online, and reads/watches as many reviews as he or she can about Whisky B.  If the reviews are mostly positive, Person A buys Whisky B.  Jim Murray may have popularized this approach, but long before his Whisky Bible descended from the heavens, there was Michael Jackson.

Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion spawned the template now used by whisk(e)y bloggers all over the world.  A dash of history, colour, nose, body, palate, finish, score.  His work was concise (he had a background in journalism), humble, and buzzword-free.  When he felt a whisky was “less than perfect,” he phrased his concerns carefully and with respect.  Whisky wasn’t his only passion.  He was a celebrated beer writer, and one of the first to analyze its many styles.  Jackson also coined the phrase for a series of lesser-known malts with interesting labels.

Diageo owns nearly 30% of all distilleries in Scotland, but only a select few are available as single malts.  The rest (for the most part) are given the unenviable task of providing structure for Diageo-owned blends like Johnnie Walker, J&B, and Bell’s.  In 1991, United Distillers (Diageo) gave their plow horses a chance to shine.  They were each assigned a “creature,” which was then displayed on the front label in a tasteful manner.  United didn’t have a name for the set, so Jackson started calling them “Flora and Fauna” whiskies in his Companion.  The clever nickname was soon adopted by the company.  Mortlach had a merganser (a type of fish-eating duck) on its label.  For the longest time, it was the only Mortlach you could buy (aside from the occasional Gordon & MacPhail offering).  It’s (sadly) no longer available, but, in a way, still is.

The Mortlach 16 of today has a fair bit in common with its web-footed predecessor.  They’re both 16 years of age and matured exclusively in ex-sherry casks.  Despite its low bottling strength (43.4%), the modern 16 has a nice, heavy mouthfeel.  This might have something to do with how it’s made.  Generally speaking, the more a whisky is exposed to copper during distillation, the lighter it’s going to be.  Mortlach run their stills as though their spirit is allergic to copper.  Dark fruits, spice, toffee, char.  A touch of pepper.  I don’t wanna be startin' somethin', but if you think this whisky is bad, you can just beat it (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Happy dramming,


Monday, March 13, 2023

Myths and Legends (But Mostly Myths)

WARNING.  For those of you who believe in Santa Claus, please skip the first paragraph.

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the whole Santa Claus thing.  We tell our children to never lie, but lie to them every holiday season.  We don’t stop there.  The Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy...we seem to have a lie for every occasion.  Eventually, they wise up (we slip up), and we’re forced to come clean.  It’s a little different when it comes to distilleries.  They want us to keep on believing, and they’ll never come clean.

Elijah Craig (according to their website) was the first person to age whiskey in charred oak barrels.  He allegedly did so out of necessity after an accidental fire.  We have to assume Craig’s customers liked the way he made whiskey.  Wouldn’t changing his methods in such a way be a tad risky?  I also love how this “immaculate fire” charred the barrels just right.  Perhaps the most damning blow to the Craig narrative occurred in 1827, when a man named Lewis Sanders toasted Craig at a fundraising event in Frankfort.  He credited Craig for many things, charring barrels wasn’t one of them.  My guess is someone was toasting a barrel (a common practice at the time for maturing brandy) that accidentally caught fire.  Not wanting to discard the barrel, he (or she) used it, and hoped for the best.  What resulted was a “happy accident” as the late Bob Ross would say.

In downtown Louisville, there’s a plaque honouring Evan Williams as “Kentucky’s 1st Distiller.”  Williams may have been granted the first license to distill in 1783, but there’s strong evidence to suggest he wasn’t even in Kentucky (or North America) at the time.  He apparently travelled to Philadelphia from London in early 1784.  Even if he was in Kentucky, frontiersmen (and women) were distilling way before Williams, it just wasn’t recorded.  You’ll also find, “Since 1783” on almost every bottle of Evan Williams, suggesting the brand is well over 200 years old.  The Evan Williams of today has only been around since 1957.  As for the “1783” Evan Williams, it was renowned for being something only suitable for medicinal purposes.

The Old Grand-Dad brand is named after bourbon legend and pioneer Basil Hayden, the “Father of High Rye.”  A version of his likeness is proudly displayed on every OGD bottle.  OGD Bonded pays homage to the high levels of rye Hayden preferred in his mash bill (recipe).  Many liquor stores (where I live) stock the entry-level, 40% version.  I’ve had water that was more flavourful.  OGD Bonded, on the other hand, is a real charmer.  Cinnamon.  Some fruit starts to emerge as it opens up in the glass.  Well behaved oak.  Vanilla custard.  It may not be legendary, but it’s definitely worthy of a spot in your home bar.

Happy dramming,


Monday, March 6, 2023

In the Beginning

Old whiskies aren’t cheap.  For one thing, there’s literally less of it.  At least one percent of maturing scotch is lost each year to evaporation (angel’s share), something distilleries bear in mind when deciding on a suggested retail price.  What’s often overlooked is the time it takes to make a whisky before it’s distilled.

Our journey begins with a tiny acorn in an Appalachian forest that somehow doesn’t get eaten by an animal.  Before long, this acorn becomes a tree, an American white oak.  For 100 years, it evades wildfires, lightning strikes, and disease.  Blue Jays nest in its leaves to avoid predators, and squirrels live in its hollows.

One day, our tree is felled, and taken to Robinson Stave in East Bernstadt, Kentucky.  This is where most of the Buffalo Trace barrels are made.  100 years usually gets you a couple ASBs or American standard barrels.  Once our tree becomes a barrel, its inner surface is set on fire until it resembles the skin of an alligator.

Our barrel is then transported to Frankfort, Kentucky, and introduced to its first bunkmate, 53 gallons of Buffalo Trace whiskey.  For the next 8 years or so, their relationship will ebb and flow.  They’ll be inseparable during the summer months, but as the temperature cools, so will their interest in one another.  When it’s time for what’s inside our barrel to leave the nest and enter bottlehood, some of it will remain behind.  Time to cross the Atlantic.

What was once an acorn is now an ex-bourbon barrel.  In short order, a peated suitor from a windswept island in Scotland comes calling, and asks for our barrel’s hand.  This second union will last for a little over a decade.  10 years of ups and downs until it’s time to find yet another dance partner.

Kilchoman 10 BC cask was matured in a single Buffalo Trace barrel, and bottled exclusively for British Columbia, Canada.  Lovely depth.  Nice mouthfeel.  No burn despite its tender age and high proof.  The bourbon notes compliment this whisky beautifully.  This is the best Kilchoman I’ve ever had.  A quality product, 118 years in the making.

Happy dramming,


Instead of dying she shall merely fall into a profound slumber that will last a hundred years. -  Charles Perrault,  The Sleeping Beauty in ...