Because I ran off into Social Criticism Universe, last Friday, and didn’t do the Smack-Up, I’m making this a two-fer of bottles that each richly deserve their own mega-watt spotlight. By comparison, this is like making Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep share one car headlight: doesn’t do justice to either but, at least, you can see ’em.
First, George Remus Straight Bourbon Whiskey: because 2020 has been such a titanic cluster-fuck – as you know very well – when I got the sample bottle of George Remus Straight Bourbon from their PR firm, I sat on it (okay, you know what I mean. I didn’t literally sit on it, although if I could have hatched a couple more bottles, I would have, in a hot minute) because…well, just because. Then, in the fall, I went back to it, bought a new bottle, and decided to save it for this holiday Smack-Up. There are two reasons for that: 1) White-trash laziness, and 2) The honest impulse to alert you to this, so you can give a genuine out-of-left-field gift for that Bourbon freak relative, business associate, or unbuttoned minister you know will appreciate it.
George Remus was a son of German immigrants whose father was a pharmacist. Young George found himself following Dad into his trade but was the sort of kid with Big Dreams, so he spent his evenings going to law school and finally passed the Illinois Bar in 1900. Also in 1900, Goerge and his new bride welcomed a daughter, Romola, into the world. Later, Romola would go on to an acting career that saw her become the first person to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz on the movie screen.
Also a competetive swimmer (and obviously kinda, y’know, hyperactive) George set an endurance swimming record in Lake Michigan, remaining in the water for 5 hours and 40 minutes in the dead of winter. It’s a record – both for lunacy and endurance swimming – that would stand for decades. Back in the courtroom, George began representing bootleggers busted by the feds, even before the legal ratification of Prohibition. George, not being stupid, saw how flush his clients were and Got Ideas. Between the swimming and bootleggers, George also became the first attorney anywhere to create and use the defense of Temporary Insanity,, which he called “transitory insanity”…which, as we all know, is still pretty damned useful, today.
When the Volstead Act codified Prohibition, in 1920, George’s legal skills went into finding Loopholes through which his clients could wriggle. He found several and his Ideas began to come together. Along the way, George had begun to warehouse quite a bit of his clients’ hooch and, using Vlolstead, federal agents raided his Chicago warehouse and seized a massive haul of Bourbons. Seeing a boom in the Chicago bootlegging trade, George moved to Cincinnati, a step ahead of the feds, where he had close proximity to an ocean of high-quality Bourbon, right there across the Kentucky border.
One of the loopholes George found in Volstead was that whiskey was legal if prescribed for medicinal purposes. This became the confluence of George’s entire adult experience: a pharmacist and bootlegger-friendly lawyer, who was also a frenetic businessman. In Cincy, he started a trucking company to transport his “medicinals” to drug companies and pharmacies…which would be hijacked along the road and trucked off to a warehouse called Death Valley, that George owned in rural Ohio. With armed guards, whiskey runners and a payroll of 3,000 workers, politicians and law enforcement officials, George’s reputation as the King of the Bootleggers was solidified.
This story goes on for pages and involves two years in federal prison AND, no less importantly, George serving as the inspiration for a writer pal’s main character. You may have heard of him. His name was J. Gatsby. After prison, George hung ’em up, moving to a lavish mansion in Covington, Kentucky, where he passed away peacefully in 1952.
This guy was a force of nature and putting anything into a bottle with his name on it, was going to be a LOT of heavy lifting. To live up to the term “Remus”, it has to have some hair on its chest and this whiskey surely does. It’s made by the giant distillery outfit, MGP, Midwest Grain Products, based in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and is their first release under their own label. MGP makes spirits sold under dozens of labels. MGP rye whiskey, for example, has been sold as Angel’s Envy, Bulleit Rye, Filibuster, George Dickel Rye, High West, James E. Pepper, Redemption, Smooth Ambler, and Templeton Rye, just to name-drop a sampling. For Remus, MGP came up with a crafty rye-forward straight Bourbon, aged at least four years in barrel, with a startling richness and heft on the tongue. The obligatory caramels and nuts are emphatic and nicely integrated with notes of subtle spices, vanilla, toasted whole-grain bread, pecans, and warm, generous oak. It’s 47% ABV, so it’s not a mongo whiskey and its burn is also well married to those big flavors and ends up maybe more subdued than it could be.
MGP has gotten a bad rap from Whiskey Snots, who look askance at anything that even smells like “industrial” or “corporation”. But what that asinine attitude does is preclude the fact that people who make whiskey for other, value-driven brands HAVE TO be pretty damned good at it, and MGP is the nation’s best custom-brand producer. They take extraordinary pains to craft whiskeys that their clients can present with pride and expecting that they would not exceed even their own standards for their own first release is just silly.
George Remus is a FINE bottle of American Whiskey, with a fascinating backstory and loads of value in the bottle. It’ll run ya about $40 – $45 and will over-deliver at the price. 94 Points
I’ve wanted to write this for a long time, now, and gave it a sort of lick ‘n’ a promise in this post, from back in 2015, a profile of brewer Tomme Arthur. I showed a photo of it and said, “In any given moment of my life, if someone said to me, ‘I have every bottled beer in the world in my fridge, Whaddaya want?‘, I would, maybe 8 out of 10 times, answer ‘Serpent’s Stout, please!’.”
Serpent’s Stout, to just go ahead and risk embracing hyperbole, is and has been my favorite Stout to just sit and sip and thoroughly enjoy. If you’ve ever read this website, you know that I’ve said repeatedly that Deschutes Brewery’s “The Abyss” is the best liquid, of any kind, that I have ever tasted. That has, just this year, required an amendment: Deschutes’ “The Abyss” and Crux Fermentation Project’s “Tough Love” Barrel-aged Imperial Stout are the two best liquids…yadda-yadda-yadda. But there is a distinction: “The Best” and “My Favorite” are two different ideas. “The Best” Whiskey I’ve ever tasted is Usquaebach Flagon Ceramic, a GLORIOUS blended Scotch that haunts my dreams, from just the one scant ounce I was privileged to get hold of. It’s the Best I’ve tasted but not my favorite, because I want to be able to repeat the experience of a Favorite and the Usquaebach is $220 a bottle and I’m not Warren Buffet. My Favorite Whiskey is Balvenie “Caribbean Cask”, which is around $80 per and I can manage (using the Jaws of Life I “borrowed” from a local rescue squad) to pry open my wallet and buy one or twice a year or so.
The criteria, as applied to beer – of which I can usually afford any damned thing I can find around Seattle – is a bit different: is the beer EXACTLY compatible with my tastes for everyday drinking? Is that Favorite aesthetically resonant? Could I drink it once a week or twice a month? The Abyss and Tough Love ae masterpieces of the brewer’s art/craft. But both are so crazy opulent that I think of them the way I think of a great Cognac. I wouldn’t even think to sit down and consume a pint – or even a half pint – of Frapin VIP Xo. Nor would I drink Abyss or Tough Love every day. They’re treats, just as most exceptional beverages are. Serpent’s is no less a treat but I could – and would LOVE TO – drink two or three a week. That’s probably a lot more clear in my cluttered brain that it is on the page but I think you get the idea.
Serpent’s is not infused with anything, as opposed to Abyss and Tough Love, both of which are augmented with ENORMOUS skill and restraint. Serpent’s is a double mash ale, using two discreet mashes to create a complexity that is almost mind-boggling.
Well…I’ll let Tomme tell ya…
Tomme speaks to the massive weight and chewiness of this ale and that is certainly true but, for all that, it’s sorta subversively easy to drink and urges you to have more. At 11% ABV, you have to try to resist any urges to have more than one, lest you wind up naked, running down the median strip of your local interstate, singing show tunes. But the character of it, the bounteous and emphatic espresso and dark chocolate and fig and plum and licorice and horehound and edgy hops of it, is STUNNING. The WET Bourbon barrels used to age it add a remarkably boozy, impossibly sexy aspect to it that is almost shocking, here in a time when many, many Stouts are toned down and somewhat wimpy or crapped up with infusions like tiramisu or gummy worms (or actual worms) or an entire Waldorf salad. (Damn, I just gave somebody an Idea…) In a blind tasting, five years ago, I picked Serpent’s out of a line-up of eight Imperial Stouts, in about five seconds. It is THAT different.
I taste so freakin’ many beverages of all types that any one that I can fully remember for the time of day and place and context of when I first tasted it are extremely rare. I vividly remember my first Serpent’s. It was at my old wine/beer shop in Woodinville, Washington, and it showed up in a case lot from its Seattle distributor. It was a cold day and the bottles were just about perfect temperature, so, having never tasted it, I opened one and took a sip…
…then another and another, in increasing astonishment. Then, I scrambled frantically to find someone to call; someone as much of a hard-ass Stout Freak as me. I HAD TO share this with someone. It was…too good. Too starkly exceptional, too complete, too unique, to not mark that sleepy Thursday morning as An Event. After some thought, I realized that I only really knew about five Stout Maniacs as obsessed as me and none lives in Washington. I wound up calling a pal in San Francisco and he had just had his first bottle, too. That conversation went on for over an hour.
It was one of the last beers we received before the flood that ended the shop and I wound up with ten bottles of that case in my storage unit. I eventually got to drink them all, the last one just after we moved into our new house in Tacoma, in 2015. ALL of them were absolutely sublime and all distinctly different, as that remarkable liquid continued to age.
I have a hard time, now, finding Serpent’s, here in Tacoma. As with most of Washington, one of Tacoma’s primary virtues is that we like to Drink Local, so all those beers from California – even big names like Stone and Anchor and AleSmith – are a bit crowded out on shelves by the booming number of in-state and regional beers that are now in cans and bottles. When I do spot a Serpent’s, I buy it, no matter the price, no matter how many are on the shelves, which is never a lot. I purchase what I find on that day and hoard them like diamonds.
Serpent’s Stout is my favorite American Imperial Stout that I have ever found. It is almost arrogantly unsweet, black as the depths of hell, creamy, complex as quantum physics, and endlessly compelling. Chances are fairly good that your Dark beer fan on the Christmas list won’t have tried it. It’ll run ya about $11 – $13. But your friend will think you went all out for such an opulent gift. 100 Points