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?