By Richard Thomas
When Angel’s Envy came out, the idea of port-finished bourbon caused me to remark “now there is my life in a bottle,” combining as it did My Old Kentucky Home with my wife’s homeland of Portugal. So it was with great interest that I noted the appointment of Kevin Curtis to succeed the recently passed Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Famer Lincoln Henderson. Since September, I’ve heard the murmurings as to what a steal it was for Angel’s Envy to get Curtis aboard, so I was doubly thrilled to be able to ask Curtis about not just Angel’s Envy, but also a little about the ins and outs of building a distillery.
RT: You worked with Hall of Fame distiller Lincoln Henderson when you were both at Brown-Forman for many years. How does it feel to step into his shoes and take charge of his personal project, Angel’s Envy?
KC: Honestly, nobody can fill Lincoln’s shoes. Just think about his life’s work. The man was one of the original pioneers of premium whiskey. He was an inaugural member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame. He had over a half a century of hands on experience working on and creating world-class brands. He’s a true inspiration. I feel lucky to have worked alongside him – and to now work with the Henderson family. But, Lincoln was the one with the tremendous vision that inspired us all to experiment with various taste profiles and ultimately introduced some very unique expressions.
Few know this, but Lincoln had an important role in my entry into the distilling industry. I had been working in R&D at Brown-Forman for about a year when the Woodford Reserve project was announced. I jumped up and down trying to get on board the production crew. My only experience was a little time spent at Early Times and the pilot scale distilling, fermenting, mashing and yeast propagation experience I had picked up in R&D. Upper management, for valid reasons, weren’t very impressed with my resume. But, Lincoln stepped up for me and told them I had what it takes. Long story short, I was able to join the team. It’s been a fun ride ever since.
I can still vividly remember the day the first whiskey came off the still at Woodford Reserve. Summer of 1996 and it was hot as hell. Lincoln, Dave Scheurich, JP Seppenfield, Steve Hughes, myself, some whiskey writer that I won’t name (he was determined to get the first drops off the still and damn near pushed us out of the way trying), various project engineers….all standing there soaked in sweat. It was an awesome day. JP was our first distillery operator and he and I were beyond excited since this was all relatively new to us. Everybody else had been in the industry for years. Been in distilleries, been through start-ups, etc. JP and I thought we were in heaven.
Lincoln steps up and grabs a snifter full of the whiskey after he had graciously let all us pups have at it first. He smells it, he takes a little sip, smells it again. Of course, we were all waiting for him to say something profound, something ego stroking, something memorable. Well, it was memorable alright! In fact, I can’t even repeat it here. JP and I almost fell on the floor laughing. You’ll have to ask me or JP for the details when you see one of us. He had basically told us we had made something worthy of the janitor’s closet. But, the way he said it was so gentle, so charming, so Lincoln. Of course, we were learning, figuring it out as we went, and never expected to nail it right out of the box. But, we didn’t think it was that bad. We figured it out in the end. But, it was memorable start.
Anyway, from that day on I knew Lincoln was the kind of guy I wanted to be around, to be like. Friendly, gentle, kind, honest, sense of humor front & center. He had that twinkle in his eye when he smiled that my wife always loves in a man. So, to answer your question, it feels great to be working on something that Lincoln imagined and started. The idea was on his mind a long time ago. While I was at Woodford Reserve, under Lincoln’s direction we put some partially aged bourbon in some used brandy barrels, sherry barrels, and port barrels. The idea never seemed to draw any interest from anybody else, so it quietly fell off the radar. Obviously, it didn’t fall off Lincoln’s radar, though.
Unfortunately for me, I joined the Louisville Distilling Co. team the day before Lincoln passed. I was so looking forward to sitting with him and talking shop, ideas, reminiscing, laughing. But, I never got the chance. I’m just glad I get to help make his dream a physical reality. It will be the definition of bittersweet. He is dearly missed.
RT: This is an exciting time for Angel’s Envy, as you have your Louisville distillery project in the works. Now, I heard in December that construction was stalled by various issues. Where does work on the new facility stand now?
KC: The Angel’s Envy Distillery project is not stalled and there are no structural, financial or construction issues. The owners performed a full remediation of the building and now the EPA has to sign off on the work. When that happens, the EPA will issue a ‘No Further Remediation’ letter. We fully expect this will take place and, once we have the letter, Angel’s Share Brands, LLC will close on the property and proceed with construction. Any redevelopment project is a process, but we’re very enthusiastic. In the meantime, we continue to blend and bottle Angel’s Envy as we’ve always done.
RT: Angel’s Envy’s bourbon is finished in port, and your rye in rum barrels. Finishing is basically what you do right now, so what’s the next finish? Perhaps taking an American malt and putting a spin on that?
KC: Interesting idea you have there. As a new brand, we are so proud of our flagship and now Rye and Cask that we think we should stay focused in the immediate future. But, who knows? Lincoln’s innovative spirit is alive in Wes and Kyle, his son and grandson.
In fact, Wes and I recently had a conversation about a particular wine varietal that he had experienced, and tracking down the barrels that it is aged in. Of course, I can’t divulge the details. But, suffice it to say he is always looking down the road just like Lincoln did. He was a malcontent and always tinkering. He left so many unique ideas, recipes and samples of various ideas and trials that we will have so many to choose from when the time comes.
I enjoy being involved in the creative side, but, to be honest my forte is the technical, mechanical, nut & bolts stuff. I enjoy talking about yeast propagation, the biochemistry of fermentation, the physics of distilling, whiskey maturation science, the smells and sights in a distillery or a barrel warehouse. Nothing better than walking into an unheated barrel warehouse on a cold January morning and sampling a well-aged barrel. Liquid nirvana. You drill a hole in the bottom of the head, listen while air is sucked into the barrel because of the vacuum that has built up during the cooling of the whiskey, the gurgling stops and the whiskey starts to shoot out in a little stream right into your sample bottle. It’s ice cold, so you can’t help but take a little sip. Those are the times when you feel so lucky to be in this industry. I try not to take them for granted. What was your question?
RT: Angel’s Envy Cask Strength was a big hit among diehard bourbon fans, myself included. Is there any chance of it being brought into regular production?
KC: You’ll be happy to know that we have plans to produce it again this year. You should see it in the fall of 2014. And a little birdy told me that it looks to be a limited release every year. Cheers to that, right?
RT: Your bourbon now has fairly widespread distribution in the United States, but I know many in Europe are wondering when it will start showing up in their liquor stores. Any chance Angel’s Envy will expand across the Atlantic in the near future?
KC: We’ll get there eventually. However, we still have quite a few states to expand into in the US. I think we have enough on our plate right now with US growth. It’s been phenomenal. Probably another couple years before we start planning for European shipments.
RT: Before coming to Angel’s Envy, you were involved in the planning of both of the two new plants under construction for Michter’s, and before that the renovation of the historic Labrot and Graham distillery in Woodford County. You also have a consulting firm, so saying you have some experience in distillery-building would be a severe understatement. Can you tell our readers a bit about the basic, common challenges in starting a distillery?
KC: In my mind the only challenges are having enough patience to get through the seemingly endless waiting for permits and inspections (TTB and state permits, building permits, environmental, wastewater, fire marshal inspections, electrical inspections, boiler inspections, etc.) and having the organizational skills to stay on top of the planning, scheduling, equipment orders & lead times, deliveries, installations and logistics of the project. That being said, I don’t see myself as patient or organized. That is the beauty of the industry as it exists in and around Louisville. I have, in my cell phone, the contact info of any number of mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, structural engineers, architects, equipment vendors, packaging experts, material handling experts, chemists, biologists, barrel makers, still makers, and most importantly… crusty old retired distillery managers and maintenance managers that just love to offer their advice and opinion about anything related to distilleries or bottling. The best part is they are all in, or within a 40 mile radius of, Louisville. I might not know the answer, but I know who does!