WASHINGTON — D.C.’s newest distillery has quite an interesting past.
When Jos. A. Magnus & Co. opened its doors in the Northeast D.C. neighborhood of Ivy City on Sept. 12, the distillery revived a century-old spirit.
Joseph Magnus was a pre-prohibition distiller out of Cincinnati, who was best known for his Murray Hill Club bourbon. At the turn of the century, one could even find a bottle in D.C. at a store on Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I did a Google Maps on the address and it’s now the FBI headquarters,” says Brett Thompson, who is the master distiller at Jos. A. Magnus & Co. “I’m not sure that they’re serving Magnus, though.”
In 2007, Magnus’ great-grandson, Jimmy Turner, uncovered a piece of his family’s history when he found an unopened bottle of century-old Magnus in his mother’s closet.
Turner embarked on a journey to learn more about his great-grandfather’s distilling past and eventually tracked down another bottle of Magnus bourbon from family members. He took both bottles to Louisville, Kentucky, where he assembled a panel of experts — including the former head distiller at Woodford Reserve, the general manager of Buffalo Trace and the director of research for the American Distilling Institute — to help him to better understand the contents within.
“Come to find out, it was one of the best bourbons that they have ever tasted,” Thompson says about the 100-year-old Magnus bourbon.
The next step was to recreate it — and make a lot more of it.
“The whiskey dream team,” as Thompson calls the group of experts, found an 8-year-old bourbon aging in Kentucky that had a strikingly similar flavor profile to the original Magnus. The group determined that the only thing missing was a hint of sherry.
The team brought the Kentucky bourbon to D.C., where Turner decided to open a distillery in honor of his great-grandfather. They finished aging the bourbon in sherry and cognac barrels and created a recipe, inspired by the original, to use for subsequent batches.
The bourbon was bottled and then gone in the blink of an eye.
“We had 490 bottles of the bourbon, and we sold out in a day at $92 a bottle,” says Thompson, who is also the co-owner of Del Ray’s Pork Barrel BBQ and a former “Shark Tank” contestant. He was brought on board by Turner to help open and run the distillery.
But don’t let the lack of available bourbon bottles keep you from paying a visit to Jos. A. Magnus & Co. The 9,000 square-foot facility also makes gin, overseen by Nicole Hassoun, and has two bars that serve a rotating menu of cocktails made from the distillery’s products — including the Magnus bourbon.
“When you understand the process and history of what you’re drinking, and then in the moment you get to taste it, it’s more fun to get to experience it in that way,” Thompson says.
Hassoun, formerly of The Gin Joint in D.C.’s Woodley Park neighborhood, changes up the cocktail menu each week, and often designs the drinks around a theme. This week’s is Bond girls, and the Vesper Lynd is a mix of Magnus’ Vigilant Gin, Royal Seal Vodka, Cocchi Americano and lemon cardamom bitters.
And while there is some bourbon behind the bar at the Murray Hill Club, the name given to the smaller, more private bar at Jos. A. Magnus & Co., Thompson says you won’t find spare bottles stashed away.
Recently, a patron visiting from Kentucky tasted the Magnus bourbon at the bar and offered the bartender $300 just to track down an extra bottle.
“We really are out; we don’t have any,” Thompson says.
But it won’t be too much longer until the next batch is ready. Thompson predicts another two months is all the brown liquor needs — that’s if the weather cooperates with a few more warm days.
“What we have found is that [D.C.] is a fantastic environment for bourbon. While I do not like the D.C. humidity and heat, apparently bourbon loves it,” Thompson says.
Bourbon production will be kept to a small operation at Jos. A. Magnus & Co. Thompson predicts the distillery will turn out 300 cases a year. (For comparison sake, Pappy Van Winkle releases about 7,000 cases a year.)
However, Hassoun is distilling gin five days a week, and often does specialty runs for weekend cocktails. Thompson says the distillery is also working on a food menu, made up of local meats and cheeses, for the bar program.
“We want to be a spot where you can come get great cocktails and get great D.C. food,” Thompson says.
Jos. A. Magnus & Co. is the third distillery to open in Ivy City. Its predecessors include New Columbia Distillers and One Eight Distilling; the female-owned Republic Restoratives is expected to follow later this year.
“Ivy City has really become this distilling district,” Thompson says. With Atlas Brew Works next door to Magnus, and Union Market just down the street, local food and drink fans flock to the Northeast neighborhood on the weekends. “All these people who haven’t been here in years are coming back.”
While the Magnus family is not from D.C., Thompson says the decision to open the distillery in the District was an easy one for Turner and “the dream team.”
“D.C., in my mind, is the best place to open a distillery in the country. The laws are as favorable as you can get,” Thompson says.
Legislation passed by the city in May allows for distilleries to serve cocktails on premise, which is now a focus of Magnus’ operation. Thompson says the law is unique, since some distilleries in the country can’t even pour samples in their tasting rooms.
“There’s nothing worse than visiting a distillery, seeing the bourbon being made, smelling it, and then not even getting to have a taste of it, much less be able to purchase a bottle on site, and even better, being able to have a nice cocktail with it,” he says.
The new law also makes the wait for the next batch of bourbon well worth it.
“The thing about bourbon is you can’t rush it. You just have to sing to it quietly and hug it every night,” Thompson says. “But the good news is you can sip on a cocktail while you watch the bourbon.”