Whiskey Review: Joseph Magnus Straight Bourbon Whiskey

I was hanging out with the folks at Still Austin a few weeks ago (a great local Austin distillery) talking about whiskey, and specifically talking about the good work that their master blender Nancy Fraley had done to really showcase the flavors that their whiskey had produced. Turns out that Still Austin isn’t the only place where Nancy has left her mark on the product — Joseph Magnus is another brand where she’s been instrumental in defining the finished product, so I immediately went to the local liquor store to see the results for myself.


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History

Joseph A. Magnus was a man who was forced to grow up very quickly during a difficult period in American history. His father was killed in the American Civil War in 1864, leaving him to take care of his three younger siblings, so he followed in his father’s footsteps becoming a merchant and salesman. In 1892, he found a niche for wholesale liquor distribution and by the age of 26 he had built a booming business in Cincinnati, Ohio. He prided himself on not only providing spirits at a reasonable price, but also of a consistently high quality.

The flagship brand from Joseph Magnus was his Murray Hill Club Whiskey, introduced sometime around 1900. This whiskey came into existence at the height of popularity for the “gentleman’s club” in the United States (a drinking establishment for high class individuals). Many whiskey companies capitalized on this trend and named blends of whiskey after various clubs (or even just designated some as a “club whiskey”), and typically reserved that distinction for their better varieties. The Murray Hill Club Whiskey is reportedly named for a famous saloon in the Murray Hill district of New York City, and marketed with the slogan “the particular brand for particular people.”

The business continued to thrive until 1918, just before Prohibition was enacted in the United States. Joseph decided to stop trading liquor in his business and he would sadly never go down that path again. Stories of the family whiskey brands would be passed from generation to generation initially but gradually faded into legend as the family moved on to other endeavors.

That all changed in 2014, when the great grandson of Joseph Magnus was doing some work in the old family house and accidentally uncovered a stash of 122 year old bottles of Murray Hill Club Whiskey perfectly preserved in his mother’s closet. In consultation with whiskey experts, they carefully extracted some of the old whiskey, found it to be some of the best tasting stuff they’d ever tried, and immediately set to work building a new company to reproduce that flavor profile and make it available to the public.

Founded in 2015 in Washington, D.C., the new Joseph A. Magnus Company used the skills of master blender Nancy Fraley to identify the right combination of spirits from other distilleries that could be combined to correctly reproduce the flavor profile of that pre-prohibition bottle of spirits. They have since moved to Holland, Michigan where they continue to produce the original recreation of the Murray Hill Club Whiskey alongside a number of other brands.

Product

What we have here today is not the original 1900’s Murray Hill Club Whiskey (I wish!) but instead the new version of the brand attempting to recreate that old formula.

The whiskey starts as a blend of straight bourbon, which means it’s whiskey that is at least 51% corn based (but the other 49% isn’t disclosed) that has been aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years. In fact, this spirit is reportedly aged for between nine and eighteen years depending on the batch and the source.

Once those spirits are finished aging, they are blended together to make the reproduction Murray Hill Club Whiskey. For the Joseph A. Magnus edition, that spirit is then further aged in a combination of Oloroso Sherry, Pedro Ximenez Sherry, and Cognac casks to add new and interesting flavors.

Packaging

There are several cool things going on here.

Overall, the bottle has an appealing design, with a thick and short cylindrical body that rounds quickly to the very long neck. There’s also some interesting faceting on the neck itself, and the bottle is capped off with a wood and cork stopper.

The label is nifty, generally styled in a turn of the century motif with ribbon-like flowing embellishments. For the color scheme they went with a gray label and silver lettering which adds to that aged feeling, but also looks really great on its own. I’m a big fan of white lettering on black text. It also includes the original family trademark at the top of the label, too, and I have to commend them for that great historical touch.

Neat

Right off the bat. this is a darker and richer color bourbon than we usually see. It’s a nice solid brown color in the glass, lightening slightly to a rusty brown (like the sides of an old section of railroad track) in the Glencairn. The aroma coming off the glass is delicious and well saturated — I get some notes of cinnamon and brown sugar backed up with some light vanilla and a bit of buttery goodness.

Taking a sip confirms that this is a richer and darker version of a bourbon and I’m here for it. Immediately I get some charred brown sugar, almost like the top of a crème brulee, that has some cinnamon and nutmeg added to it. As the flavors develop, they get darker and richer, turning into more of a dark chocolate flavor complete with the hint of bitterness. There’s a flash of dark cherry in there, but the spirit finishes with that chocolate flavor mixing with the brown sugar and vanilla quite nicely.

On Ice

That hint of dark chocolate bitterness when taken neat tells me that the flavors may be almost a touch too dark for my taste buds. The good news is that usually a little bit of ice helps that situation — toning down the darker flavors (but at the expense of the lighter aspects).

That’s absolutely the case here. The lighter brown sugar notes and some of the baking spices have disappeared, and what’s left is a rich, chocolatey spirit. There’s some caramel left around the edges, and some of that charred sugar we saw previously, but neither is quite as forceful as before.

Even though we lost some of those delicate flavors, this is still an outstanding spirit.

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

I love using darker and richer spirits for my cocktails. I feel like it just provides a better platform for the other components, and my personal tastes run in that direction anyway. Given the choice between a thick bourbon and a light scotch, the bourbon wins every time.

So I was pretty excited about using this in an Old Fashioned, and it didn’t disappoint. Those darker flavors, especially that chocolate note, do a fantastic job interacting with the angostura bitters and what you get in the end is a delicious cocktail that’s as dark and moody as Bela Lugosi in the 1932 Dracula movie. But, unlike that famous vampire, this cocktail does it without that annoying bite (in this case, that bitterness we saw earlier).

Fizz (Mule)

I’ll be honest, this isn’t as good as I thought it would be.

Usually darker and richer bourbons do a good job in a mule. They add another layer of flavor that you just don’t see with lighter and sweeter varieties, and I’m a sucker for things that are a little out of the ordinary. But here, I think the flavors might actually be a bit too rich and too dark.

It seems to overpower the drink. Instead of a nice balance between the bright ginger beer and the dark bourbon notes, it’s more like an all-out war with neither side wanting to play nicely with the other. The result is a bitter flavor profile that doesn’t quite work for me, and probably won’t be something I’ll revisit in the future.


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Overall Rating

In general, I like what’s going on here. I love the darker and richer flavors, and I love the history of where this product comes from and why it exists. But there are some rough edges that keep me solidly in the “like” category and not the “love” category.

For a ~$100 bottle, I have high expectations. I think it’s on par for that price point… but it isn’t knocking my socks off. A solid three star bottle.

Joseph Magnus Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Produced By: Joseph Magnus
Production Location: District of Columbia, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 50% ABV
Price: $99.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating:
All reviews are evaluated within the context of their specific spirit classification as specified above. Click here to check out similar spirits we have reviewed.

Overall Rating: 3/5
A solid example of the deep and rich flavors you can pull off when blending different aging processes.


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