Big things are in the works for the little whiskey company that makes the Port-barrel-finished Angel's Envy Bourbon.
According to its creator, Lincoln Henderson, the former master distiller of Brown-Forman and originator of Woodford Reserve Bourbon, not only is a cask-strength Angel's Envy debuting over the holidays, but a number of other special finishes are waiting in the wings and a distillery of its very own is in the company's future.
After a career of nearly 40 years at Brown-Forman, maker of Jack Daniel's and Old Forester, Henderson retired in 2004, but soon took a job as the spokesman for the Japanese whiskey-maker Suntory in the United States. Meanwhile his son Wesley started Louisville Distilling Co. in an effort to lure his father back into the production end of the business. Eventually it worked, "when Wes got the money from the big guns," Lincoln recalls. And two years ago this coming April, Angel's Envy was released.
Henderson says the seeds were sown for that whiskey when he still worked for Brown-Forman and was experimenting with different types of wood finishes. (In whiskey parlance a finish is an added aging process at the end of normal maturation in which the whiskey is placed in a different type of wood previously used to age another spirit.) "I had about 10 different ex-barrels. I had Port barrels, Spanish Sherry, American Sherry, Brandy, rum, Tequila. I had these barrels coming out of my ears."
Although he deemed his experiments a success, Brown-Forman didn't think they were worth producing on a large scale. "I'm glad they didn't go with it," he says in retrospect, "because now we have Angel's Envy. My friends at Brown-Forman aren't happy, but that's how it goes."
Other finished Bourbons are destined to see the light of day. "We have some really neat things ready to go," when distribution of Angel's Envy widens, Henderson promises. (Currently, the whiskey is available in 23 states.) "I don't know if they'll be called Angel's Envy, but they're coming."
The original Angel's Envy was produced with the philosophy that it should not taste overtly like Port. The point of the finishing, Henderson says, is that the Port would modify the Bourbon, eliciting maple, vanilla, Madiera and toasted-nut components. He started out thinking the finishing process would last three months. But in practice, he found he was wrong and extended the time in Port casks to six months. Henderson says the length of finishing depends greatly on the location of the barrels in the warehouse. Including the time in ex-Port casks and new Bourbon barrels, the whiskey ages between five and six years overall.
Henderson says he set the alcohol level at 86.6 with the thinking that he didn't want it to be overwhelmingly strong so it would appeal to female drinkers as well. "Women don't like astringency," he posits. The lowest proof allowed by law is 80, but he also felt that that was too low as at that level whiskey requires too much chill filtration, a process that keeps whiskey from clouding when it gets cold, which some say robs it of tasting notes and hue. "At 80 proof it dances on the fence of having enough flavor and color." The 86.6 level, he says, allows for the whiskey to undergo a minimum of chill filtration without the risk of clouding.
The new cask-strength version is totally different, Henderson says. At the level of 123.7 proof, the Port influence is irrepressible on the palate and the deep color is an obvious clue to its origins as well. He adds that the large alcohol quotient means it can be lightly filtered. "We put it through a loose filter without chilling it. You can put it in your freezer and it won't cloud up." (The new whiskey is premiering in Kentucky and Nashville, Tennessee, in a batch of 600 bottles that cost $149 each.)
(Tasting notes and cigar pairings on next page)
While Henderson oversees aging of the whiskey, he currently does not distill the new-make spirit. That is done at an undisclosed distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, a town often referred to as the capital of Bourbon. He does, however, set the standards by which the spirit is made. He has kept the same mashbill that he used for Woodford Reserve and Old Forester: 72 percent corn, 18 percent rye and 10 percent barley.
Maturation is performed in Indiana, but the source of the new barrels used in the process is another a throwback to his earlier career; they come from Brown-Forman's Bluegrass Cooperage, which he feels offers the best uniformity from barrel to barrel. Barrel consistency, he says, is especially important for small-batch producers as they don't have as many casks with which to achieve blend consistency.
Eventually, Angel's Envy will be distilled in Louisville Distilling's own facility on Louisville's Main Street, a thoroughfare once called Whiskey Row because of the number of whiskey-makers located there. Recently, Michter's announced it would open its own distillery and visitors' center there, and the city has renamed a section of the street Bourbon Row. The road also contains the Louisville Slugger factory and a Triple-A baseball stadium and so is becoming a tourist attraction of its own. Henderson sees the development of a sort of "Urban Bourbon Trail," which will rival the rural Bourbon Trail, which stops at many of the largest distilleries in the state, but is more far flung. He envisions the new facility having a 55-foot-tall column, which travelers will see as they cross the Ohio River on their way from Indiana. "It's a very exciting time for us."
Angel's Envy (86.6 proof or 43.3 percent alcohol by volume, about $44.99)
APPEARANCE: Light yellow, almost Champagne pink, medium-speed, thick legs
NOSE: Beguiling on the nose with a tantalizing mix of red berries and floral notes with vanilla, caramel, maple and topped with a slight, spicy cinnamon scent.
PALATE: Similarly sultry in the mouth as the red berries go to work on the palate, but then the whiskey relinquishes caramel and toffee notes with maple sugar candy, licorice spices and, finally, black tea.
FINISH: The end is long, but with no sting at all—just nuts, fruits and vanilla. Perhaps a quarter of an hour later it delivers a taste of tangerine
CIGAR PAIRING: La Unica No. 100 ($6.84, 8 1/2 inch by 52 ring gauge Double Corona) A well-balanced cigar with an earthy character. It has such sweet spice flavors as nutmeg and a pleasant and nutty component. The cigar and the whiskey balance out perfectly in body, while the flavors offer agreeable contrasts. The La Unica's nutty and spice content complements the fruit of the Bourbon, drawing out the licorice notes from Angel's Envy. The cigar tastes sweeter in the deal. Both gain extra depth.
Partagas 1845 Robusto ($7.70, 88 points, April 17, 2012 issue of Cigar Insider) This dark, rustic-looking cigar is finished with a bumpy head and sandy wrapper. Primarily earthy in character, each puff also carries black pepper and woody flavors. The Partagas with its coy flavors makes the Angel's Envy seem downright heavy duty, and surprisingly the lack of balance is a plus. All the notes of the Bourbon come to the forefront and slowly the cigar begins to harmonize with it, building its own style of savoriness and kicking out toasty, nutty depth.