An unwritten law of capitalism (that I just made up) states that if something is popular and even just a little dynamic then virtually every qualitative and quantitative variation of that thing will be explored and consumed. Whether we’re talking about music, films, phones, computers, cars, food or clothes there are two constants: nearly all permutations of the form will be considered and both casual and hardcore enthusiasts will emerge.
Alcohol is no exception to the rule. Be it beer, wine, vodka, tequila, whisky, or the slew of other available spirits, new possibilities will arise and stake their claim on the world stage. When such a thing occurs, casual consumers will normally respond to accessible benefits like cost and approachability while hardcore consumers will be far more critical, placing the spirit under a metaphorical microscope and scrutinizing its every detail.
It’s with the latter camp that we enter “phile” territory, and when in “phile” territory one should tread carefully because the line between “enhanced appreciation” and “OCD level obsession” often gets skewed. True, it’s here in “phile” territory that one learns to enjoy alcohol for all its nuances, but it’s also here that one can develop an elitist attitude ultimately closing them off to something new–especially if that something new doesn’t align with preconceived notions on how a spirit is supposed to taste.
Which brings us to Angel’s Envy, a brand that touches down on virtually every arena of “alcohol as consumer sport”. Their bourbon, which is finished in Portuguese Ruby Port casks, has yielded tremendously broad appeal (they’re currently building a new facility to accommodate customer demand) and plenty of acclaim from casual drinkers and “philes” alike. However, there remains among the “philes” a small segment that scoffs at Angel’s Envy and its outside-the-box taste and lack of overt “bourbon” characteristics. Likewise, Angel’s Envy Rye (finished in rum casks) is downright controversial with some “philes” for an overly tropical essence that almost contradicts every flavour associated with the average quality rye.
In spite of a few party poopers, Angel’s Envy duly represents the triumphant spirit of innovation paired with seasoned expertise. Their Kentucky bourbon (and rye) offers a distinct, supremely drinkable pour that might challenge your concept of what whisky can taste like, but that’s kind of the point. I’m therefore delighted to name Angel’s Envy Kentucky Bourbon as our Spirit of the Month for November of 2016. Read on for a history of the brand, tasting notes, and an interview with Angel’s Envy Chief Innovation Officer Wes Henderson.
More than anything else the story of Angel’s Envy is the story of one man: Lincoln Henderson. Henderson passed away in 2013 but he remains nothing short of a legend in Kentucky, first as master distiller at Brown-Forman (makers of Woodford Reserve) and then as the founder of Angel’s Envy. Along the way he also helped Jack Daniels with their Gentleman Jack and Single Barrel expressions. As if all that wasn’t impressive enough, he was also the inaugural member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame and the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from Whisky Advocate Magazine (then known as Malt Advocate).
To quote Brown-Forman VP, “Lincoln was a titan of the Kentucky bourbon industry, having tasted more than 430,000 barrels of Brown-Forman’s bourbons to determine when the whiskey was ready to be bottled.” Other statements released upon Henderson’s death refer to him as an “icon” and a “restless creator”.
Suffice to say, Lincoln Henderson sounded like a “phile” done right, i.e. a passionate enthusiast who brought his love for spirits and a high standard of quality control to the job decade after decade. It’s therefore relatively surprisingly that after retiring from Brown-Forman, Henderson set out to craft a masterpiece that (pardon the hyperbole) was experimental at heart and definitely outside the box. Rather than focus on aging–a mainstay among premium bourbon–Henderson pivoted to focus primarily on finishing. The move was in no small part inspired by the single malts of Scotland that are finished in sherry casks and more complex and sweet as a result.
In 2006, Henderson, his son and grandson began finishing their bourbon in every variety of cask that they came across. Eventually they found what they were looking for with Ruby Port casks out of Portugal. Meanwhile, Henderson also reduced the amount of whisky that evaporates during the aging process, more commonly known as the “angel’s share”. Since the angels were now getting less they were naturally a little envious, hence the name.
The word “bourbon” and the word “barrel” have been part of the same sentence for centuries. Anyone who makes or drinks bourbon with relish more or less knows that aging it in oak barrels is essential to its taste and character. However, finishing bourbon in a separate cask to achieve a unique profile was very uncommon in 2006. Henderson and company were definitely taking a risk by investing so much time and effort into finishing their product in those Ruby Port casks.
Needless to say, the experimentation paid off in spades. Angel’s Envy is wildly popular (especially in the US) among drinkers, so much so that the company is building its own multi-million dollar distillery in Louisville, KY. Furthermore, the idea of finishing bourbon in something like a Port cask has been embraced to the point of arguably being overplayed.
Angel’s Envy, however, will remain an early adopter who did it with the utmost attention to craft and taste without the slightest concern for “gimmick”. After all his years in the industry, Lincoln Henderson knew that timeless craft and noteworthy distinction are the two most essential ingredients for making an enduring masterpiece.
Angel’s Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky is aged 4-6 years in American white oak barrels and finished in hand-selected Port wine barrels. The result of that process is a superb pour offering singular character and the same tier of complexity, smoothness and reward of a bourbon aged twice as long.
Angel’s Envy is also one of the most versatile and even elusive whiskies my nose and mouth have ever come across. Throughout the course of a bottle the character of the bourbon changed notably. For instance, after first opening there was an almost overwhelming presence of banana on the nose. However, by the time the bottle was halfway finished the banana was virtually gone. In its place was ripe fruit, caramel, spice and toasted nuts. Delicious!
Here’s a more comprehensive breakdown:
Nose: The first pour was almost like nothing that followed with an aroma of creamy, sugary banana. The scent was almost like banana custard or banana-flavoured crème brulee. As the bottle progressed, the banana receded and notes of citrus emerged like pineapple and orange peel. Also detected were caramel apples, vanilla, brown sugar, sweet Port wine and toasted coconut. Overall a sweet, creamy nose with plenty of ripe citrus fruit.
Taste: First of all this bourbon is exceptionally smooth, creamy and palate pleasing. Beneath that creaminess are bountiful notes of fruits like apple, pineapple, orange peel and cherry, followed by bursts of spice. Also noted on various tastings were raisins and salt and naturally some oak. Adding an ice cube brought a little more oak and spice to surface while slightly diluting the fruity essence (though sweetness definitely remained).
Finish: Super smooth and slightly spicy with hints of fruit, oak and Port wine. The burn was present but not powerful. Notes of orange peel lingered.
Angel’s Envy is prominently a smooth, drinkable whisky, but lurking just beneath the outermost layer is a world of diverse, uncommon and wonderful flavour. This bourbon is definitely for those who like to get to know a bottle. And let’s not forget the design of the bottle itself, with angel’s wings drawn on the back. Whether those wings are cool or corny is for you to decide, but either way there’s no mistaking the brand!
Lincoln Henderson seemed like the kind of guy who never wanted to stop working and from the looks of it he never did. He probably had whisky on his last breath and he’s still listed as the head distiller over there at Angel’s Envy. Truthfully it’s (Lincoln’s son) Wes manning the operation along with his son Kyle. Wes’ other son Andrew also recently joined the team.
Wes takes it one day at a time as far as stepping into his father’s shoes. Rather than dub himself master distiller he maintains the title of Chief Innovation Officer. We had a chance to ask Wes a few questions about everything from the process to the new distillery currently being built in Kentucky. Read on for his answers.
Has the process or recipe for distilling Angel’s Envy Bourbon changed at all since inception?
While there have been some subtle changes in process to accommodate our learning, by and large most everything has remained the same. When I started this company with Dad, we had a pretty clear vision of what we wanted to accomplish, how we wanted to get there, and we have remained true to that vision. Even as we increase volume, the core processes stay the same and we continue to blend in very small batches.
What tricks of the trade did Lincoln Henderson pick up during all his years in the industry? Also, what did he learn not to do?
Dad spent a lifetime crafting fine spirits – Angel’s Envy was his masterpiece. Over the years, he learned to approach each spirit with a craftsman’s passion to experiment and improve. At the inception of our brand, it was important that we try something unique in the bourbon industry. I challenged him to think about special projects and things he worked on over the years and, the idea of secondary barrel finishes kept coming up in our discussions. The port finish we felt was a great starting point, hand blending batches of 8 to 12 barrels at a time. Each Angel’s Envy expression exhibits our passion for experimenting outside of conventional norms and producing unique whiskey steeped in tradition, but finished with a twist.
Do you use French oak Port Wine Barrels from Portugal for a specific reason (i.e. do these specific barrels lend the whiskey characteristics that other don’t)?
Dad and I embarked on an exhaustive worldwide search for the right barrels. Angel’s Envy Bourbon, finished in Port Wine Barrels, possesses a warm spirit, lacking any hint of edginess with ephemeral hints of port wine and a rich amber hue. It is distilled for an unparalleled smoothness, aged for 4-6 years in American white oak barrels and finished in hand-selected port wine barrels for an incremental 3-6 months. The final result is exceptionally smooth, nuanced and refined bourbon.
Is there one particular story from Angel’s Envy’s past that you would like to share?
There are so many great stories when you work with family. One of best memories I have is of me, Dad, Kyle, and some family friends working on the bottling line as we produced the first batch of Angel’s Envy. I have a picture of Dad carrying some of the first cases from the case sealer to the shipping pallet. That was the same day Dad dropped and broke one of the first bottles we filled. I said at that time dropping a bottle like that was either a blessing or a curse. I can say now, after a few years of success, that it was a blessing….
Angel’s Envy is steeped in family tradition. Are the Hendersons privy to certain in-house trade secrets (recipes, methods, etc) that no one outside the family is privy to?
If I told you I would have to kill you.
When will you know it’s time to replace Lincoln Henderson (in name/spirit) as “master distiller”?
Dad’s name will always be somewhere on the bottle. I haven’t really decided how to handle this transition, but it is not a title I think I will ever feel comfortable having, even if it’s only in deference to Dad and his accomplishments. I see one of my son’s, perhaps Kyle or Andrew, earning this title. For us, the title is not a marketing gimmick, like I have recently seen, and they still have a lot to learn, but they are well on the way.
What do you sip on when not sipping Angel’s Envy (preferably a non-affiliated brand)?
Big fan of Old Forester Signature, as was Dad. There are so many others, but I like to support the smaller craft minded companies when possible. A couple others would be Elijah Craig 18 and Eagle Rare.
As a brand that got in the door right before the current whiskey boom, do you have any words of advice for emerging craft distilleries around the country/world?
Make sure you stand out and be real. Angel’s Envy differentiates itself from other spirits because it enjoys very wide consumer appeal due to the smoothness and approachability, while at the same time, offering award-winning complexity and credibility. The flavour profiles emerging in popularity are ones with wide consumer appeal.
Favourite cocktail/recipe using Angel’s Envy?
While it may not be glamorous, my favourite is a proper whiskey sour with egg white.
Any new expressions in the pipeline?
There are so many unique ideas, recipes and samples, of various ideas and trials that we have a lot to choose from when the time comes. Some were created prior to Dad’s passing and others after. His innovative spirit is alive in both Kyle (Henderson) and I. We are working hard on a few innovative ideas. In addition to the base brand, each year we look forward to introducing our Rye and Cask Strength expressions.
What kind of changes do you anticipate in the company/product/operation once you open your new distillery?
With the distillery opening, we look forward to introducing the brand to even more bourbon enthusiasts and aficionados. Our greatest challenge will be keeping up with consumer demand – a good problem to have! The new state-of-the-art distillery, which is located in downtown Louisville, on the corner of Main Street and Jackson, is scheduled to open later this year. The distillery and brand experience center will bring the great tradition of Kentucky bourbon-making back to the city and make a great starting point for the Bourbon Trail. It will be open to the public for guided tours.
Reserve your tickets for a tour of the new distillery here.