D.C.’s Newest Distillery, Jos. A. Magnus & Co., Revives a Century-Old Bourbon

Y_H_Distill-2 copy

Jimmy Turner found the bottle in crumpled brown packaging on the top shelf of a closet, behind some other items. It was 2007, his mother had just passed away, and he was cleaning out his parents’ St. Louis home. Turner already knew that his great-grandfather, Joseph A. Magnus, was a distiller in pre-Prohibition days, but inside this long-forgotten bottle was hard evidence: a 100-plus-year-old bourbon that had been passed down through family members over generations.

The discovery set Turner off on a path to learn more about his great-grandfather. It turned out Magnus, who had lived and worked in Cincinnati, was quite successful in his day as a distiller, blender, and rectifier (someone who acquires spirits and then puts their own mark on them). Magnus produced bourbon, rye whiskey, gin, and rum, and had at least 20 brands to his name, the most famous of which was known as Murray Hill Club.

Over the next several years, Turner began collecting empty antique Magnus liquor bottles and reaching out to relatives for information. Cousins in Cincinnati surprised him with another century-old bottle of bourbon by Magnus, and Turner assembled a group of whiskey experts to help him understand what he had on his hands. The journey culminated last week with the opening of Jos. A. Magnus & Co. in Ivy City, a bourbon and gin distillery that wants to revive the legacy of the original Magnus brand.

Turner, now 60 and living in Florida, agreed to be interviewed only by email. He says he’d always enjoyed bourbon and whiskey, but hadn’t previously considered his great-grandfather’s line of work. He spent more than three decades working as a sports agent representing professional baseball players for Turner-Gary Sports until he decided to step down in June 2012.

Brett Thompson

Retirement didn’t last long. To help him understand more about his great-grandfather’s bourbon, Turner turned to some of the top bourbon pros in the country: former Woodford Reserve distiller and Whisky Advocate Lifetime Achievement Award winner Dave Scheurich, American Distilling Institute Director of Research and whiskey blending pro Nancy “The Nose” Fraley, and former Buffalo Trace Distillery VP and General Manager Richard Wolf. And after connecting through family friends, Turner also partnered up with Brett Thompson, a co-owner of Alexandria’s Pork Barrel BBQ who competed on the show Shark Tank.

Together, the group met in June 2014 at the historic Brown Hotel in Louisville, Ky. to try the 100-plus-year-old bourbon for the first time. Gathered in a banquet room, Fraley used a hypodermic needle to extract the liquid while preserving the original bottle. They all took a sip.

“Bourbon—or any kind of spirit—is only as good as the moment that it’s put in the bottle. And so the 100-plus years only had the potential to hurt its quality. So we had no idea what we were going to get,” Thompson says.

The experts claimed it was one of the best bourbons that they had ever tasted. Wolf lamented that they couldn’t crack open the bottles and drink it all.

“It was a very proud and humbling experience that these experts thought it was such great bourbon,” Turner says. “And it felt like I had a direct connection to my great-grandfather at that moment.” The tasting also further cemented Turner’s belief that he was destined to continue what his great-grandfather had started. He partnered with Scheurich, Fraley, Wolf, and Thompson (the only one of the group based locally) to open the distillery in D.C., which Turner calls “the most progressive and exciting place in the nation to open a distillery.”

Following the tasting, the crew set out on a mission to recreate the bourbon—or at least produce something inspired by it. In addition to their qualitative research (i.e. drinking), Fraley took a sample back to San Francisco with her to analyze in a lab. Meanwhile, Wolf—“the procurer of rare things,” as Thompson describes him—went on a nationwide search to try to find bourbon barrels that had the same flavor profile. He ended up finding an eight-year-old bourbon aging in Kentucky that was reminiscent of the original bottle. The bourbon originated from the MGP distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ind., which was once the original site for Rossville Union Distillery, a major alcohol producer before Prohibition. It’s also just 26 miles from where Magnus lived in Cincinnati. “We think Magnus, when we was creating his blends or when he was rectifying, likely sourced a number of his products from this same distillery,” Thompson says.

Based on taste, Fraley believed that the original Magnus bourbon had been aged in sherry casks. Supporting that idea, Thompson found an old ad revealing that sherry casks were among the equipment Magnus tried to sell when he had to shut down his distillery after Prohibition. So for the last five months, the bourbon that Wolf found in Kentucky has been in D.C. finishing in barrels used for Oloroso sherry, Ximenez sherry, and Cognac, which will be blended together.

“[Fraley] called me about a month ago, and I couldn’t even understand her,” Thompson says. “And it was because she was tasting one of our samples and she thought it was the original Magnus.”

Although Jos. A Magnus & Co. isn’t using its own base bourbon for now in the interest of launching with Magnus’ signature spirit, the distillery plans to eventually produce its own brown liquor. After analyzing the original bourbon Turner found, Scheurich created mash bills inspired by the original recipe. “You can’t rush it,” Thompson says. “A lot of craft distilleries will do a lot of short agings of things, even of bourbon that they make, and it’s better to think long-term and put out really good product.” The team has been training with some of Scheurich’s favorite distillers in Kentucky to learn “the old-school way of doing things.”

In the meantime, about 750 bottles of bourbon, dubbed Joseph Magnus Bourbon, will become available on Sept. 12, the distillery’s grand opening. The inaugural batch—sold in bottles similar to the historic Magnus bottles—are each $92, a nod to 1892, the year the original Magnus brand was founded.

In addition to bourbon, Jos. A. Magnus & Co. currently produces gin, and other spirits will likely be added to the roster down the line. Like Magnus once did, the distillery plans to offer a series of rare and limited releases, including single-barrel offerings with no more than 240 bottles. “We have some really historic brands that we’re going to want to bring back,” Thompson says.

Former Gin Joint at New Heights bartender Nicole Hassoun oversees the gin production. “I’ve lived gin for a really long time. I love every different style of gin,” Hassoun says. “But to me, the easiest way to make cocktails, which is what I love to do, is balance citrus and spice.” Her inaugural gin ($32, with the first run sold in special edition bottles) features botanicals like cubeb pepper, bergamot orange, and oroblanco grapefruit, plus a za’atar blend with thyme, sumac, and sesame in honor of her Lebanese roots. The gin will be called Vigilant, after one of Magnus’ products, although they’re not sure if the original Vigilant was gin or whiskey.

What’s unique about Jos. A. Magnus & Co.’s setup is that Hassoun can distill a small batch of gin around a specific cocktail she has in mind. The process only takes about five and a half hours, so she can potentially dream up a gin, distill it, and have it on the menu that night or the next day. “It’s the ultimate bartending,” she says.

Hassoun oversees the distillery’s two bars, including a tasting room and cocktail lounge named the Murray Hill Club after one of Magnus’ signature bourbon brands. The intimate space has a view of the stills plus a copper-topped bar and leather sofas. Another bar focusing more on cocktail pitchers resides in a wide-open hall called the Magnus Room, which seats about 40 on long tables and looks out over Mount Olivet Cemetery.

The Magnus Room also acts as a museum with original bottles—some turned purple by sunlight—and other treasures from Magnus. “The amount of bottles that we’ve been able to find lets us know how large he was in terms of his sales,” Thompson says. Thompson even found an article from the 1950s in Corpus Christi, Texas where someone found purple Magnus bottles washed up on shore. Magnus’ descendants have also provided artifacts like a handwritten letter from Magnus to his son who was going off to fight in World War I.

Other details of the distillery go back even a century before Magnus’ time. For decades, Turner’s older brother, Steven Magnus Turner, has worn a ring given to him on his 21st birthday by his grandfather, who’d worn the ring since 1927, when his father, Magnus, gave it to him. The heirloom features an octagonal burnt orange carnelian stone with the image of a lion holding an oak branch looking over its shoulder at a quiver of six arrows. The Turners discovered that the ring originated from Magnus’ great-grandfather, Abraham Alexander Sr., who emigrated to the U.S. from London in 1763, fought the British as a lieutenant during battles in the American Revolutionary War, and served as “Collector of the Port of Charleston.” The stone appears to have been used as an official or personal stamp, and Turner says it was likely Magnus who turned it into a ring.

“We’ve learned that Joseph Magnus must have been extremely proud of the extraordinary life and legacy of his great-grandfather and the connection of the Magnus family back to the very beginning of our country,” Turner says.

The stamp was marked on every label and engraved bottle Magnus produced. And just as Magnus was inspired by the legacy of his great-grandfather, Turner was inspired by his. Jos. A. Magnus & Co. will use the exact same image for every bottle it produces today.

Jos. A. Magnus & Co., 2052 West Virginia Ave. NE, #202; josephmagnus.com

Photos by Darrow Montgomery