The Joseph Magnus bourbon brand built their reputation on sourcing large lots of MGP whiskey throughout the years, starting in 2015. In some ways you could say that they had always maintained this strict adherence of being more of a premium brand by never releasing a true entry-level bourbon. This is why the cheapest products you can find of theirs are always around the $90 price threshold.
In their early days, the only two products that were widespread were the standard “Triple Cask” bourbon which had 9 to 11 year old MGP bourbon finished in Cognac and two kinds of Sherry Casks. They were then blended together and proofed down to 50% ABV. This was sold side-by-side with their Murray Hill Club release which was basically 11 barrels of MGP bourbon with 1 barrel of MGP Light Whiskey added to the blend.
As time went on, they started to experiment with limited editions of their Murray Hill Club (which they seemed to have discontinued for some reason) along with single barrels of their bourbon in both finished and non-finished expressions. I’ve even witnessed a few single barrels that were sourced from Tennessee, so check the sides of those labels if you think the proof seems a little bit too high! But none of these releases ever attracted the fanfare that their Cigar Blend release did.
Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend is created
The backstory behind Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend starts with the legendary Nancy Fraley. If you don’t know who she is, I highly encourage you to go search her name up and read everything you can. Her interviews feel like you just earned a college credit by time you’re done.
Anyway, Nancy recalls a story about one night when she was outside, smoking a pipe and drinking Joseph Magnus Triple Cask bourbon. It wasn’t hitting the right notes with her due to the power of the tobacco in the pipe, so she switched to Armagnac and found the same issues. This made her decide to go back to the lab and experiment with a blend that could stand up to the powerful notes of cigars and pipes. She also had an affinity for Cognacs that were made and marketed as cigar blends. Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend was born.
Hang on to your seats because there is going to be a lot of numbers thrown out here. The initial Cigar Blends that Nancy created in 2017 were a blend of 20-25% of the Triple Cask bourbon that was used in the entry-level Joseph Magnus brand. She wanted more rye spice to add the necessary heft to the overall blend so she gathered up large quantities of MGP 36% high-rye mash bill bourbon (likely aged around 11 years or more).
But it needed more age to the overall mix, so she layered in some 18 year old MGP bourbon as well. Once she had a large batch assembled (which she refers to as a “coupe mere” or mother blend), it is then divided up and poured into 300 Liter Armagnac casks for finishing.
A secret about these casks is that depending on the batch, the Armagnac cask may be “fresh” or it may have been used once already. I can tell you for a fact that Batches 11-14 used fresh casks while Batches 15-18 used second-fill Armagnac casks. Second fill casks will take a longer amount of time to impart the flavors she’s looking for onto the bourbon. They may also come off as slightly less spicy.
Joseph Magnus feels the MGP barrel pinch and starts to substitute Kentucky-sourced bourbon
The next coupe mere to come out, which filled Batch 19 through 22, saw new changes to how Cigar Blend would be made. For starters, the proof was noticeably higher than previous batches. Batches 1 through 18 were in the very low 100s while these new blends were above 120 proof. This is because the MGP casks were running low and Joseph Magnus had Nancy start to blend in an undisclosed Kentucky bourbon.
While the age ratios stayed about the same, I’m going out on a limb and saying that I believe that Barton is the source of these barrels. This is due to the high-proofed nature of their older maturate and how Barton’s 12+ year old barrels typically have high barrel proofs.
Additionally, after Batch 19-22 was released, the blend size has now increased to create anywhere from 4 to 6 batches (barrels). All of this means that Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend’s profile would now change a bit.
Two things coincided at once with Joseph Magnus increasing production of Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend around 2020. The first was that the whiskey operations moved from Washington DC to Holland, Michigan to consolidate operations with Coopercraft Distillery. The DeVos family, who owns large stakes in both enterprises, were likely behind this decision.
But once they were there in a space that was larger than their DC facility, they could expand general operations and the cash-cow Cigar Blend line. Now it seems as if they have quadrupled production of the Cigar Blend line in that short period of time.
Nancy Fraley still remains at the helm of this program and likely goes with the flow on how many new batches she’s being asked to create per year. One of the best and most fascinating things about her work is how much detail she goes into providing tasting notes and even a name for each batch as she goes along! For reference, the batch I am reviewing today carries the name “The Tobacconist.” This is a sign of a person who cares for the products they make.
My understanding is that Nancy is just asked to do a job (so she’s a subcontractor of sorts) and does not have any say over the operations inside of Joseph Magnus. Therefore, when they made the change to include more Kentucky bourbon into each blend, I imagine that she didn’t have much of a choice.
I was concerned because I didn’t want the line to suffer if the quality of the barrels wasn’t as high anymore. I personally think that the rich, heavy style of bourbon that comes out of Indiana is the best choice to pair with Armagnac to get the kind of product that can stand up to any type of Tobacco.
Barton bourbon is fine and all, but it wouldn’t be my first choice to go to war against a cigar. So what I aim to find out today is if Cigar Blend Batch #39 is up to the challenge. Can it still be as good as the coupe mere’s that came before it? There’s only one way to find out. As a sort of change to how I normally review whiskies, I’m going to give you my tasting notes that came from being served this blind. I feel as if it will still give you the same insight into my feelings on the matter. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Joseph Magnus Bourbon Tasting Notes
Nose: The nose on this is dripping with aged oak notes and furniture polish. There is this sort of perfect sweetness that accompanies it as the scents show off this sort of dark and mysterious personality. The fruits are concentrated and dry. Almost earthy. Figs, dates and caramlized apples can all be pinpointed. There is a melted butter aspect that reminds me of MGP bourbon (remember, I am describing what it was like blind).
Palate: There flavor intensity in this dram is real. I’m expecting the proof to be pretty high on it (above 115 for sure). Loads of oak, old leather and rich tobacco keep steering me towards the opinion that this has aged for a while. Great citrus peel and black cherry flavors are delicious to find and add a nice contrast to the older elements. But there is this spice that really comes through that makes you realize that either the rye content is high within or it’s a finishing barrel that held a once-spicy liquid.
Finish: A very intense finish that goes on forever. The high-rye traits are more noticable now than ever. On top of the moutain of tannins, there are still citrus peel, herbal notes and even a bit of botanical notes. That’s gotta be either the rye talking or an earthiness of the finishing barrel.
After completing my blind pour of this, my first guess was that I was tasting a very old, high proofed bottle of Old Forester. I could detect the rye traits and the dryness but the finishing cask did not lead me to believe it was Armagnac. I did note the extremely dark and heavy fruits, but I associated that with an older GTS release. In hindsight, it was obvious that what I was picking up on was high-rye MGP and the dark sweet fruits of Armagnac. My final guess was either an Old Forester 150th Anniversary Batch 1 or a 2017 George T. Stagg.
I was surprised to find that this was as intense as it was. The proof comes in at 125.9 which explains a lot (fun fact, the highest proofed JMCB was Batch 58 and was 132.34 proof). And as for my notes on everything being part of a blind sample, it was actually sent out in an advent calendar among 16 other enthusiasts/friends who collectively gave it the average score of 7.87 with a median of 8.1. Yes, I was the highest with my score, haha. But my thoughts of how great it is were shared by a majority of the other guys who gave it scores above an 8.
Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend was in a period of transition with Batch 39. It demonstrated that Nancy Fraley was able to take the two different styles of bourbon and still make a delicious finished product that stands up and makes you take notice. I worry about the day that the MGP component is removed from these blends and how transparent they will be if that time comes.
I still think MGP bourbon is the perfect base bourbon for Cigar Blend and hope that in the future, they can revert back to making it 100% of the stock. But I also worry that price creep will become a very real issue if that happens.
Right now the price for Cigar Blend is either at or approaching $200 retail (this bottle was purchased at $170 in early 2020). The secondary has adjusted its price as well, but it seems to be holding steady at around $350 simply because with so many batches being produced, it’s not as allocated anymore.
In an ideal world, Joseph Magnus will continue to pump out more batches of Cigar Blend while keeping the price and quality steady. This is already a terrific product and one that earns my stamp of approval to buy at or below $350 because it’s just that spectacular and unique. If Belle Meade is (was?) the king of the Honey Cask Finish, then Joseph Magnus is the king of Cigar Blend/Armagnac finished bourbon. Accept no substitutes.
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