Monday, February 20, 2012
It’s no exaggeration to say that Lincoln Henderson is a living legend in the world of American whiskey. A member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame, Henderson spent nearly 40 years as Master Distiller and Research Fellow at spirits giant Brown-Forman, makers of Jack Daniels, Old Forrester and Woodford Reserve. During his time there he was a pioneer in the American premium whiskey market, creating small batch products like Gentleman Jack, Jack Daniels Single Barrel, and Woodford Reserve bourbon. His new project is Angel’s Envy bourbon, which after debuting last April is just being released in Wisconsin. I had a chance to speak with Henderson at last Saturday’s Distill America event to find out more about Angel’s Envy.
Madison Beer Review: For people who might not know your history and what you’ve done in the bourbon industry, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background and what led you up to Angel’s Envy.
Lincoln Henderson: I was very fortunate to work for one of the major spirit companies in the world, Brown-Forman. I worked their for 39 years and I had the opportunity to develop products like Woodford Reserve and Gentleman Jack, and all these different products that were new products, but I was also responsible for the whiskeys that Brown-Forman had been making for years like Old Forrester and Early Times. I retired from Brown-Forman in 2004, having just created Woodford Reserve, and I started working for Suntory International as a US spokesperson for their Japanese Whisky.
Then my son approached me about seven years ago and said “Dad, I’d like to get into the business.” And I said, “Son, I thought you had more sense than that.” But he kept at it and got investors together to get the money to start making whiskey. So we started making our bourbon about five years ago. We got a friend of mine to do our production for us with our yeast, our grain mash. So we’re here today with a bourbon we started making close to five years ago. But then we did something a little different. We put the bourbon, after it came out of the bourbon barrels, into port wine barrels for about six months, which is what we have today, Angel’s Envy. The port finish totally changes the mouthfeel of the bourbon, makes it much more acceptable to a lot more people than a typical bourbon.
MBR: You mentioned using your own yeast, your own mash bill. So you guys conceived this from mash to bottle, it wasn’t just sourcing other whisky to finish in port barrels?
LH: All the way through we designed it. In the beginning, we had to produce a whiskey that was very subtle, not very aggressive, in all aspects. You can modify your yeast, modify your fermentation, and especially your maturation in the barrel. So we controlled the yeast, we have a special yeast, the grain mash was different, the distillation was different, the maturation was different. We looked at this whiskey as it’s maturing and made sure we took it out of the barrel before it started picking up these woody components that you expect in a typical bourbon, so we would have something very subtle. Really, it’s so light, we were in between a typical whiskey mash and a vodka, it’s very light. So then you put it in the barrel and you have to watch it very carefully because if it’s in there too long it becomes woody, more astringent, which you typically expect in a bourbon. So it came out very nice, and after the port finish, it came out nicer.
MBR: So, I’m going to geek out for a second, I’m guessing it’s pretty close to the 160 proof limit for bourbon? (Editors Note: the distillation proof coming off of the still is a major determination of the body and flavor of a whiskey. The higher the distillation proof, the more “neutral” the flavor. Bourbon, by law, must be distilled under 160 proof, though in practice it is typically closer to 140 proof. A grain mash distilled to 190 proof is considered completely neutral and is the base for vodka.)
LH: Yeah. That’s true. 80 percent alcohol is the top distillation for bourbon. We’re actually a little closer to 70 percent. Take Woodford Reserve for example. When we started distilling Woodford, we did three distillations. Well, if you stopped at two distillations your fine, but when you went to three then you’re right on the limit of going over what bourbon should be. So we are very safe at what we are doing.
MBR: Just a little higher than maybe Beam or something like that?
LH: Well, probably not a whole lot. The major factor in making your whiskey different form anybody else’s is your yeast. Yeast are like your children. You have to raise these yeast and cultivate them to keep the same profile every time. If you don’t, than your whiskey is going to go all over the place. And then the barrel. When we had the barrels made for us, specifically, the toasting level was very important to us because we know what that does to the finished product. So all these things put together, we came up with Angel’s Envy.
MBR: Do you disclose who is distilling it for you?
LH: We can’t do that.
MBR: I figured, but I thought I’d ask.
LH: But if you come to Louisville in the fall, we’ll be set up to start distilling.
MBR: Oh, ok, so you are starting up your own place.
LH: It’s on what was called “Whiskey Row” on Main Street in Louisville. From the west part of Main Street to the east part, that’s where a lot of the distillery offices were located in the 1800’s. So we are going to be putting our distillery right in that area. It’s going to be unbelievable.
MBR: Awesome. Correct me if I’m wrong but I thought I heard that Mitcher’s was going down there too?
LH: Mitcher’s is, though they are not going to be distilling, just putting an office and a museum in there. And that’s great, we are really 100 percent behind anybody that wants to come in there, and the city of Louisville is the same way because that will be a place where people can come enjoy the heritage of bourbon and not have to go 80 miles away.
MBR: I’ve been through. It’s a lot of driving.
LH: And it’s a wonderful experience, but people can start in Louisville and then go on to the others.
MBR: Well that’s a great idea, very cool. The other question I had was do you foresee a lot of competition popping up in terms of people sourcing and finishing whiskey?
LH: Oh, sure. I think we will. But it’s not…we’re not worried about it. There’s so much room in this business for the artisan people and the small batches. What’s going to happen is the major players are going to start looking at it and saying “wait a minute now, this is not good for us.” With Woodford, I told Brown-Forman in… you know I worked on Woodford starting in 1992, in 1996 we started distilling, I’m thinking, we should go ahead and start doing something else, not just Woodford.
MBR: And Daniels, and Old Forrester…
LH: Right, Because Jack Daniels actually drives Brown-Forman. And I can understand that. But any time you put…like all these people here, put something on a shelf, we put something on the shelf, they put something on the shelf, well the shelf space is limited. But we know we’ve got something that tastes good, and people can enjoy it, so we’re not really worried. And we have a great marketing department, a great sales team. For me, the easiest thing is making whiskey.
MBR: Hardest thing is getting it out there?
LH: That’s right. Developing the bottle, which incidentally I thought was the dumbest looking bottle. But then after a year or so, it feels good.
MBR: Is there anything else we should know about Angel’s Envy before I let you explore around here?
LH: Well I think an important thing is, I really want to stress the fact that my son, who is the chief operating officer, Wes, and my oldest grandson, and myself, we’re in the business together. It’s the only...you have Booker Noe and Freddy Noe, and the Beams, Craig and Parker, but there aren’t any three generations, which I didn’t realize. And my oldest grandson, Kyle, is actually responsible for bottling. So if anything doesn’t look right I can call him up and say “you dumb ass, what’d you do this for.” So he’s a young guy, he’s 22 years old. And my son is a very good businessman, and he’s taking care of all the overhead stuff.
So we’re very happy. I think today’s consumer of premium spirits is very knowledgeable. I mean it’s unbelievable. Like you, you ask questions that I would not have expected people to ask, you know, 20 years ago. The bartenders, the mixologists, are much more knowledgeable. And the consumer, our target group, they will ask us questions like you are. And that’s great, I love it. I mean, I lie a lot, but I try to say a little bit of the truth.