Whiskey, tall tales, and a summer evening on the Bourbon Train

Many have traveled and enjoyed sampling spirits along Kentucky’s bucolic Bourbon Trail, but for a relaxing ride accompanied by tastings of — and facts and stories about — one of America’s favorite adult beverages, there’s also the Bourbon Train.

This excursion doesn’t take place in the Land of Bourbon, Kentucky, but departs from the quaint Ohio town of Lebanon, best known as the home of The Golden Lamb Inn. It’s also the headquarters of the Lebanon Mason Monroe Railroad, a historic train that operates on 16 miles of track between, well, Lebanon, Mason, and Monroe, of course.

The Bourbon Train is a slow, rolling ride through the southern Ohio countryside from Lebanon Station to a place called Hageman Junction, where a hundred or so years ago, two rail lines intersected.

While those lines still carry some freight today hauled by the Indiana & Ohio railroad, they mainly ferry leisure excursions like the Bourbon Train, a trip that, while still in its infancy, has been almost instantly popular.

“This is the third time we have offered it, and in each instance, we have essentially sold out the tasting,” says Carrie Murphy, a spokesperson for the railroad.

The LM&M Railroad is an arm of the Cincinnati Scenic Railway, which operates excursion trains and is best known for the Cincinnati Dinner Train.

Upon boarding the Bourbon Train in downtown Lebanon, passengers are greeted by an attendant handing out the I&O Cocktail, a light, delicious blend of bourbon, cranberry juice, lemon juice, and simple syrup. If one is not sufficient, more are available for purchase in the bar car.

The passengers find their seats in a coach car originally built for the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad in 1930 by the famed Pullman Company.

As the train lurches to a start, powered by a restored GP30 locomotive that dates to 1962, a passenger asks, “Where are we going?” With no reply forthcoming, it’s clear that the destination doesn’t really matter, and an attendant makes the rounds with shots of the featured whiskey.

On this evening, it is Eight & Sand, a blended whiskey released in February by MGP Ingredients. To complete the lesson that not all bourbon must come from Kentucky, MGP is a Kansas-based company that owns the massive, 170-year-old distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ind., where Eight & Sand is created. On an Ohio railroad, propelled by an Indiana bourbon made by a Kansas company, the train begins inching down the line.

Our guide for the evening, Robin Carnes, a marketing manager for MGP, explains that Eight & Sand is a nod to the tradition of the American railroad. The name refers to the eighth (and fastest) notch on a train’s throttle and the sand used to add traction to the train’s wheels. To wish an engineer “eight and sand” is to wish them a safe and speedy trip, she relates.

While this ride is safe, it is far from speedy and is, in fact, luxuriously slow, perfect for sipping bourbon and listening to tales from the storied history of the whiskey.

The next round of shots is of another MGP brand, George Remus. It’s named after a legendary bootlegger who made his way to Cincinnati and whose story is, to say the least, colorful.

As the passengers sip a shot of the namesake brand, Carnes relates the George Remus story.

Remus came to Cincinnati from Chicago, where he had been a law-abiding pharmacist and graduate of the Chicago College of Pharmacy. By his early 20s, he had purchased a couple of drugstores, but became bored with the business and became a lawyer. He was a successful one, defending high-profile criminals such as Al Capone against crimes that included murder. Although he made a good living, he saw that his bootlegging clients were leading a richer lifestyle than he during the Prohibition years and he decided to join them on the wrong side of the law.

With his legal know-how, Remus found a loophole in the Volstead Act, the law that established Prohibition, which allowed him to buy pharmacies and distilleries and produce bonded whiskey — for medicinal purposes only, of course.

Remus would have his employees hijack his own liquor so it could then be sold illegally at much higher prices. The man who became know at the “King of the Bootleggers” moved to Cincinnati because the Queen City was within 300 miles of most of the bonded whiskey manufacturers. Remus bought many of them up. He made tens of millions of dollars and threw lavish parties.

But his personal life was a violent soap opera. Remus was eventually arrested and convicted of violating the Volstead Act. While in prison, he confided to another inmate that he had ceded control of his money to his wife, Imogene Holmes. That “inmate” was in fact an undercover Prohibition agent gathering information on the bootlegging king’s operations.

Rather than report this information, the agent resigned and began an affair with Remus’ wife, even going so far as to liquidate his substantial assets and hide the money.

When his wife filed for divorce, the then-freed Remus tracked her down and, on the way to the courthouse, fatally shot her in Eden Park. Remus pleaded temporary insanity and a jury acquitted him in a matter of minutes.

He then moved to Covington and lived the rest of his years in relative quiet until his death in 1952 at the age of 77.

In 2013, Cincinnatian J.B. Kropp and his Queen City Whiskey startup resurrected the Remus story and created the George Remus brand of whiskey. They sold it to MGP in 2016.

As Carnes finishes the tale of George Remus, the passengers finish their shots of the 94-proof, high-rye bourbon that comes with a little sweetness on the front and a little spice on the back.

Then it’s time to disembark the train, basking in the glow of a summer evening in small-town Ohio, the warmth of a five-year-old bourbon and the tall tales of Prohibition-era whiskey making.

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.