Jos. A. Magnus & Co. (aka Joseph Magnus) is a bit of an outlier in the greater, current whiskey scene. Where other brands release multiple individual bottlings or line extensions, the Joseph Magnus name is mainly home to three expressions: the triple cask finished bourbon, the Murray Hill Club blend, and the Cigar Blend batches. That the latter is the most expensive, limited, and sought-after is hardly surprising, given the nature of whiskey hobbyists. The idea of “cigar style” whiskey isn’t exclusive to Joseph Magnus, with the implication being straightforward: a pour intended to pair well with a good cigar. But how does a whiskey become an ideal companion to one of the many things George Carlin had contemptive words for? To help answer that, we need to point out the mastermind behind Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend—a woman who needs no introduction for those in the know.
Nancy Fraley has an impressive consulting portfolio under her wing, including the likes of Still Austin, Wyoming Whiskey, Ironroot Republic, and Joseph Magnus. A large part of this is attributed to her uncanny nosing capabilities, earning her the “nose” moniker in certain spaces. How uncanny? “When I give my partner a hug and smell her hair, I can pretty much tell what she’s eaten the entire day. Not that I go around smelling people’s hair. But it definitely comes in handy for my job.” Since nearly everything we taste comes from our sense of smell, it’s an invaluable tool in a spirit consultant’s toolkit, and Nancy certainly appears to be among the most qualified.
So how did Nancy conjure the product that is Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend? One evening she was smoking out of her pipe while enjoying some of her favorite bourbons (including BTAC), yet they weren’t providing the flavor she desired. More specifically, she was craving the vanilla and toffee notes of bourbon but also wanted the dried fruits of cognac or Armagnac, and had an “epiphany” of sorts to combine them. After pitching the idea of a cigar blend bourbon to the brand, they took her up, resulting in the popular product line. Cigar Blend is typically comprised of a blend of Joseph Magnus bourbon—which is finished in sherry and cognac casks, 11 and 18-year whiskeys, and an additional finish: Armagnac. Additionally, each batch is numbered and nicknamed online, complete with specific and detailed tasting notes courtesy of Nancy.
My review will be based on a sample I received of batch 97, named “The Butter Bomb,” which comes in at 59.88% ABV. It’s part of the spring series of Cigar Blends (batches 85-90 and 93-98) that “comprises two larger ‘coupe meres,’ or mother blends, of 30 bourbon barrels ranging in age from 14 to 20 years old (heavily rumored to be sourced from Ross & Squibb), which then go into twelve 300-liter Armagnac barrels.”
Nose: Decadent. Gobs of butterscotch and toffee. Dark brown sugar, Raisinets, Fig Newtons, and bourbon barrel aged vanilla extract. After a while I get a blueberry/blackberry medley aroma. The age comes across in a way that’s rich and indulgent with no bitter or tannic impressions.
Palate: Thick and positively coating; the finishing casks make their presence fully known by impacting the texture. Molasses, barrel char, and tobacco. Butterscotch and dates quickly give way to a surprisingly tannic backbone. Prunes and raisins emerge more on subsequent sips.
Finish: Lingering tobacco and oak presence with a building spice akin to red pepper flakes; almost feels like licking a charred stave in a humidor room. First sip finishes surprisingly clean, but after that it builds into something warmer and spicier. Fun stuff.
Now that’s rich. It’s been a while since I’ve had a whiskey with this much viscosity, and I fear other expressions I’ve described as thick may now come across as less so. What makes this even more impressive is just how well integrated the finishes are. Finished whiskeys practically infest shop inventory with their sheer volume and market share, the vast majority of which fall into one of two camps: subtle or inundative. This batch of Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend, while leaning more towards the latter, finds itself right down the middle.
How the finishing casks were integrated is so seamless it’s frankly extraordinary. Sherry and brandy casks can impact whiskey to a considerable degree, but the blend of well-aged bourbon with the impeccable use of each cask is nothing short of impressive. Were I served this blind, I’m not sure I’d be able to tell it was finished.
As fascinating as this whiskey is, I still can’t say it’s the profile I’d reach for with any regularity. I’m primarily looking at this whiskey on its own and not how it plays with a cigar, so perhaps this whiskey’s more spicy and tannic nature is better suited for pairing scenarios. Otherwise, this is a bottle I’d pour when I want something more contemplative than outright enjoyable. And when these can easily command anywhere from $180-$400, I find myself more hesitant than anything at the prospect of purchasing one. I wouldn’t rule it out at the lower end of the spectrum, but I probably wouldn’t spring without second thought at the opportunity either.