In 2014, Cincinnati-based Queen City Whiskey launched the George Remus brand, a label later acquired by MGP Ingredients of Indiana, one of the nation’s largest whiskey distillers. “The George Remus brand is very appealing due to the strength of the brand concept,” Gus Griffin, president and CEO of MGP, said at the time.
The “brand concept” Griffin refers to revolves around the same individual whose name the whiskey borrows: George Remus, also known as “King of the Bootleggers.” One of America’s most notorious figures of the Prohibition era, the pharmacist-turned-lawyer-turned-bootlegger became known first for his shrewd courtroom defense tactics, then for his infamous Ohio bootlegging operation. His legendary life was later portrayed in books and TV series, and many believe he inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
Long before he earned a reputation as bootlegging royalty, Remus, who emigrated from Berlin, Germany to the American Midwest at age 5 in 1879, began his professional life as a pharmacologist and drug store owner. In 1900, he switched to law and quickly gained notoriety for his newsworthy and often controversial clients. In one standout case, he attempted to have his client, a man accused of murdering his wife, acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity. The unusual tactic failed but would prove useful to Remus in later life.
When Prohibition took effect in 1920, Remus spotted a lucrative business opportunity. A loophole in the law, which prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, allowed distilleries to offload supplies to drug stores for “medicinal purposes.”
Using his life’s savings, Remus purchased multiple distilleries and founded a wholesale drug company to distribute his new stock to pharmacies. To sell his bottles on the even more profitable black market, he began “hijacking” his own company’s trucks, transporting the loot to an isolated 50-acre property in Ohio known as the “Death Valley Farm,” due to hired gunmen who roamed the lone dirt road serving the property. Customers arrived from every corner of the country to purchase Remus’s wares — on good days, he raked in close to the modern-day equivalent of $1 million, all of it tax-free cash.
While roughly half the profits were used to line the pockets of corrupt officials, the rest supported Remus’s luxurious lifestyle. He hosted lavish parties at his opulent Prince Hill mansion, gifting his high-society guests gold watches, diamond-studded jewelry, and even cash. Such luxurious stunts are what many believe inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fictional playboy, Jay Gatsby.
Alas, the schmoozing and bribes were not enough to keep Remus out of trouble. In 1925, he was arrested and later charged with 3,000 violations of the Volstead Act, better known as Prohibition, and sentenced to two years in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.
A string of unfortunate events followed. While incarcerated, Remus revealed to an inmate that he handed power of attorney over his estate to his wife, Imogene. The “inmate” turned out to be undercover Prohibition agent Franklin Dodge, who resigned from his position and started an affair with Imogene. She filed for divorce in 1927 after selling off Remus’s assets.
But poor Imogene didn’t get off easy — or at all. On her way to the courthouse to sign the divorce papers, Remus, now free, pursued her in a car and ordered his driver to run her off the road. As she fled on foot, Remus chased her down and shot her to death in front of multiple witnesses.
At his murder trial, Remus represented himself and pleaded innocent by reason of — you guessed it —insanity. After deliberating 19 minutes, the jury found him not guilty, and he was sent to a state hospital for the criminally insane. Two months later, the serial conman successfully convinced the institution he was no longer unwell. He was released, and lived the remainder of his life in relative anonymity, dying at home of natural causes in 1952, at age 77.
Despite his wrongdoings, Remus’s life and crimes enjoy literary fame, both factual and fictional. Along with being immortalized in numerous biographies, his character is featured in the HBO period drama “Boardwalk Empire.” Of course, there’s the alleged Gatsby tie-in, too. And in July 2019, the MGP distillery announced the latest release under the George Remus label: a 14-year-old bottled-in-bond bourbon honoring the 100th anniversary of the Volstead Act.
As for why MGP is celebrating the murderous madman with a whiskey label, we are, like many of those he did business with, at a loss.