*Sincere thanks to MGP Ingredients for the sample.
Prohibition in the US had the curious effect of making criminals out of people who might not otherwise have been criminals, and making legends out of criminals that might not otherwise have been legends. George Remus is the rare example of both. Before he was swayed by the dark side of illegal booze selling, Remus’ story was a rather stereotypically American one. He and his family were hardworking German immigrants who settled in Chicago and owned a pharmacy. George was put in charge at an early age (14), and by the time he was 19, he’d become a certified pharmacist. He’d go on to purchase a second pharmacy before leaving that trade altogether to become a lawyer in 1898 at the age of 24.
Remus quickly became a well-regarded (and well-paid) criminal defense lawyer. When Prohibition began, he soon realized that a lot of people (namely his clients) were grabbing a lot of money by flouting the new law of the land, and that he, too, could be grabbing lots of money if he came up with a brilliant scheme. With his lawyer’s eye, Remus combed the Volstead Act for opportunities and sold his lawyering practice in order to embark on a new career that would eventually require a fair amount of lawyering on his behalf. He began buying up whiskey shares and certificates that were being sold at rock-bottom prices by investors who had the market fall out from under them as soon as Prohibition began. In 1920, he moved to Cincinnati, a city relatively nearby quite a few distilleries and warehouses, to put his plan in motion. Now armed with even more spending money, Remus began buying up many of those distilleries and their stocks, notably Fleischmann, Pogue, and Squibb Co.
Once that he had the liquor, Ol’ George needed a way to legally get it out of the bonded, government-watched warehouses. He accomplished this by buying pharmacies and establishing legal, but mostly bogus wholesale pharmaceutical companies and starting his own trucking firm. That way he could transport and sell the whiskey legally for “medicinal purposes.” He could also orchestrate raids and thefts of his own merchandise to sell illegally. Basically Remus was legally selling himself alcohol, and then hijacking himself so that he could bootleg it for a lot more money. It didn’t take long for him to become very rich very fast, reportedly making around 40 million dollars in the span of a couple of years.
That Remus was a successful, powerful bootlegger seems to have been a secret to no one. He was rich enough to pay off the police and government men, at one point even bribing the U.S. Attorney General to keep him safe. So thoroughly did Remus line officials’ pockets that the biggest threat to his business really just came from other bootleggers. His tenure as “King of the Bootleggers” is riddled with stories about shockingly lavish parties and tales of gun battles and armored cars. He had built quite an empire and become quite a character, even referring to himself in the third person. Remus thought that Remus was invincible. But, alas, these halcyon days of illegal whiskey, ridiculous amounts of money, and a near complete disregard for the rule of law were not to last for George Remus.
Such was his rapid rise in wealth and fame, that he landed in the crosshairs of three “untouchable” officials as early as 1921. U.S. Assistant Attorney General and all-around powerhouse Mabel Willebrandt, and Prohibition directors Sam Collins of Kentucky and Burt Morgan of Indiana, eventually put together a case that resulted in Remus being tried, found guilty, and sentenced to prison in 1922. Appeals of course were made, but the Supreme Court finally put an end to it all by refusing to hear his case. In 1925, Remus began serving a two year sentence for a whole truckload of violations of the Volstead Act.
George Remus’ bootlegging career has become the stuff of Prohibition legend, but his story doesn’t end with the end of his reign. Before heading off to the pokey, Remus had basically turned over his estate and his power of attorney to his wife, Imogene Holmes, the woman he left his first wife for. While in prison, Remus met an undercover man named Franklin Dodge and told him of this transfer of wealth. Dodge, knowing a golden opportunity when he saw one, set about seducing Holmes as soon as possible. The new couple converted nearly Remus’ entire estate to cash and then hid that cash as best they could. Knowing this was bound to piss ol’ George off, they also tried to deport him and allegedly even tried to have him killed (neither worked.) Shortly before his release in 1927, Holmes filed for divorce. In October of that year, Remus’ tracked down Imogene Holmes and shot her in front of her own daughter, ultimately killing his wife. The ensuing celebrity trial for murder seems to have been something of a farce. In the beginning of 1928, Remus was found guilty by reason of insanity. He served a ridiculous sentence, barely half a year in an asylum, before he was released.
At this point George Remus pretty much faded away, relatively speaking. He remarried a former secretary and went back to work on the straight and narrow. Remus died in 1952, but his Prohibition exploits and larger than life character have lived on. There’s been a Cincinnati Historical Society exhibit on his life, he’s a character in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and in some circles there’s thought that he was one of the inspirations for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby character (probably not, but who knows?) Picking the Remus name to represent a bourbon seems a bit of an odd choice to me. After all, while he was a lot of things, a teetotaler, a criminal, a murderer and an unfaithful husband among others, one thing he never was was a whiskey maker. But I suppose it’s not a bad choice when looking to capitalize on our current romantic, soft-focus fascination with Prohibition.
In 2014, a company named Queen City Whiskey was founded by a trio of entrepreneurs and the George Remus line of bourbon and ryes was launched with limited local-ish distribution. All of Queen City Whiskey’s whiskey was sourced from MGP Ingredients in Indiana. In late 2016, in a somewhat surprising move for the usually camera-shy company, MGP bought the brand and set about re-tooling it to be sold nationally. This isn’t MGP’s first foray into releasing their own whiskey, but it will be the most widely available. In late 2015, MGP releasing a limited bottling named Metze’s Select. The George Remus represents their first, full-fledged “core expression.” I have to say, after providing so much good whiskey to other brands and companies, it’s very satisfying to see MGP sourcing their own whiskey. It would be even more satisfying to see “Proudly Distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana by MGP Ingredients” on the back label instead of “Distilled by G. Remus Distilling Co.,” but that’s okay, small steps, we’ll take it slow. George Remus Straight Bourbon Whiskey is reportedly made from MGP’s high rye bourbon mashbill (60% corn, 36% rye, 4% malted barley) and has been bottled at a somewhat hefty 47% ABV. This one does not carry an age statement, though as it’s a straight bourbon, we all know that means it must be at least four years old, right?
The Nose: A youthful, rugged bourbon nose. Maple extract, brown sugar, cherry cough drops. orange pith and blood orange pulp. Beyond that, there’s vanilla bean, and sweet corn ice cream along with stone ground wheat crackers and subtle hints of toasted rye bread. There are substantial oak notes, sawn and dusty, with nutmeg, a little cinnamon, and a faint hint of mint.
The Palate: A bit more fruit on the slightly lighter palette, more juicy orange, a bit of Meyer lemon, a little cherry juice. There’s also some dark brown sugars, floral honey, vanilla bean, and cocoa nibs. Nice, toasty, peppery rye notes come through and balance that fruity sweetness. As with the nose, there are strong oak notes, grippy and rough edged, with black pepper, raw ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and barrel char.
The Finish: Lots of lingering tannic, dusty oak with some residual sugars and fading spice – black pepper and mint.
Thoughts: Very good. And I would expect nothing less from MGP at this point. In general, this is a relatively woody bourbon, but not in an over-oaked kind of way. Instead, the barrel and accompanying spice play a major, almost dominant role and are well balanced by a nicely complex combination of sweetness and grain. The slightly higher than average ABV makes this a robust sipper right out of the bottle, but it also works well with a bit of water or over ice. The price, around $40, feels a little high for a no-age-statement whiskey, but I’m wondering if that’s even worth mentioning anymore as I probably sound like a broken record at this point. Still, very happy to see MGP releasing their own whiskey, and a good one at that. Recommended.
- Behr, Edward. Prohibition: thirteen years that changed America. Arcade Publishing, 2013.
- “George Remus.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Nov. 2017.
- “MGP Announces Acquisition of George Remus Whiskey Brand.” MGP Ingredients, 7 Nov. 2016,
- Mitenbuler, Reid. Bourbon empire: the past and future of Americas whiskey. Penguin Books, 2016.
- PBS/George Remus – The Circle, Public Broadcasting Service.
- Pichler, Josh. “Entrepreneur George Remus returns, whiskey in hand.” Cincinnati.com, CIN, 17 Aug. 2014.