By Richard Thomas
Updated July 3, 2014
The moment I heard of Angel’s Envy I wanted to get my hands on a bottle and try it, because on paper the bourbon is my life story in a bottle. I’m a born and bred Bluegrass boy, and during my teenaged years on the farm, I enjoyed the vapors blowing in from Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace. Decades later I married and moved to Portugal, a change that spurred my interest in other forms of whiskey, but also Port wine.
That is where Angel’s Envy represents an intersection in my lifelines, so to speak. The brainchild of Woodford Reserve’s retired master distiller, Lincoln Hendersen, Angel’s Envy is bourbon finished in old Port barrels. The idea of secondary maturation, or “finishing” as it is more commonly referred to, is a relative newcomer to bourbon. Woodford Reserve, Hooker’s House and some other companies have experimented with the idea of putting their bourbon into used barrels, a practice long associated with scotch-making. Angel’s Envy is something like Louisville shaking hands with Porto in a bottle, and this whiskey represents the first time portwood has been used to finish bourbon.
So, you can see why I was eager to acquire some Angel’s Envy, and let me tell you, my family and I went to no small amount of trouble to get that bottle to my doorstep. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever been as curious about what waited for me under the stopper of a new, unknown bottle of whiskey.
Angel’s Envy starts with its grain and water, and because the corn and rye are drawn from local farms, both are infused with the mineral richness of Kentucky limestone. After distillation, the new whiskey goes into charred American oak barrels for aging, just like any other bourbon. For the most part, the barrels are stored in the upper racks of the warehouse, which much like the typical attic, is the hottest part of the building. This placement is part of why the bourbon is called “Angel’s Envy,” since “cooking” the bourbon in the hottest part of the warehouse increases the rate of evaporation, and thus the “angel’s share.”
Primary aging lasts for a minimum of four years, with five to seven years reported as fairly typical. When ready, the bourbon is then transferred to those Port barrels picked by Hendersen, for a finishing of three to six months. As a small batch, Angel’s Envy is a blended bourbon. The whiskey is then bottled at 86.6 proof (43.3% alcohol). Despite the aging period, the bottle bears no aging statement.
The Angel’s Envy bottle is an artsy, slightly ovoid thing, with winged etching on the back and a wood-and-cork stopper. Once in the glass, the bourbon has a middling, coppery amber color.
The nose shows the corn and wood off well, carrying a sweet scent strong with maple and vanilla. There is a little red fruitiness in the nose as well, something I believe must come from the Port barrels.
The flavor is light, with the mild wood and tart spiciness standing at the forefront, and that maple and vanilla sweetness just behind. That hint of a red fruit note from the nose remains in the background, but is strong enough to add to the complexity of the bourbon. If I had to make a guess, the Port casks used to finish the bourbon must be mostly ruby and young tawny, since older tawny tends to be leathery and not particularly fruity. The finish is dry, mellow, a little spicy and a little fruity, but not especially long.
Angel’s Envy is certainly an interesting creation, and by far the best example I’ve had yet of a bourbon borrowing the predominately scotch practice of finishing in used barrels. Furthermore, I think bourbon and Port are a better match than scotch and Port, and as a resident of Portugal, it’s rewarding to see those barrels go to My Old Kentucky Home and find such a useful second life.
Addendum by S.D. Peters
I was mildly disappointed by Angel’s Envy’s exclusive and limited Rye expression, which I found to be a bit like a soul in Purgatory: doing the right thing to get to the next level, almost there, but not quite. Angel’s Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon, on other hand, is well inside the gates of Paradise. Imagine yourself on a lawn chair, relaxing in a sun-dappled meadow. A bowl of cherries, currants, and a several slices of Bartlett pear on the table beside you, are balmy and inviting. This expression invites a leisurely country siesta, with a taste of Fuji apple, honey, and Bartlett pear warmed by 46.3% ABV (86.6 Proof). The smooth, medium finish coaxes you from the meadow to the edge of a nearby wood, where you linger among the oak and pear that dominate the afterglow.
Addendum by Diana Karou Cheang
While perusing some liquor store aisle on a recent Friday night, the name “Angel’s Envy” caught my eye, bring up the term “Angel’s Share” as it does. Bourbon is typically not my “thing,” but I wanted something more than the consistency and safety of a single-malt whisky, and I was not disappointed with the smoothness and honesty of my bottle.
The color of the bourbon is a bit flat, uncharacteristically gold for a bourbon, but with appreciative dips of copper. The nose is open, just a touch sweet, swirling with hints of chocolate, vanilla, and a floral tulip imparting an intimate sillage. Not a lot of complex notes here, but it leaves one with an impression of darker flavors even though the rest is light and playful. Characteristic of an unremarkable strength, it did not play with the nose at all, and only warmed the nasal passage. At this point, I lifted an eyebrow imagining that it might be this easy-going all throughout.
Before the thought is finished, the palate chases the tongue with a smooth, easy-going consistency and respectfully backs off the inner cheeks: It’s not going to do more than just hold my waist. Though a plain ol’ mixture of sweet and bitter comes forth, it’s still a bit fun with spice on the tip of the tongue that slides and holds fast in the rear. It has the characteristic taste of a bourbon, but the port wine is starting to pull up in the rear. Fully coating the tongue will taste cherry and fruit, and almost to the finish, a cautious richness imparted notes of coffee. I ended up taking a few more sips than usual, day dreaming about a caramel chew. It’s not like it’s very sweet, but it does stick like candy to the tongue.
With a capful of distilled water the nose pulled up molasses and more sweetness. The palate changed drastically to fit a blueberry pancake, imparting creaminess and fruit, going to all-sweet without the sass. The jokes have stopped with that full bourbon taste, but it imparts the wine barrel more fully. Even the caramel chew becomes realistically sweet.The spiciness warms only in the back of the tongue now, making it even more mellow. If you’ve ever had a great cup of coffee, freshly ground and brewed with a French-press, you’ll notice that it’s just the tiny bit sour; same here.
Angel’s Envy is like a friend, welcoming and easy-going. It’s a bourbon that can be teased out of the shyness, if it is slightly diluted. It reminds me of sitting down and enjoying a glass of wine in sediment. As bourbons go, I was happy that my expectation of risk was utterly unfounded.
Angel’s Envy is supposed to go for about $45, give or take local taxes. You might find an internet retailer who has marked it down to $40, but that probably doesn’t include shipping and handling.
Angel’s Envy hasn’t been around long enough to rack up any medals yet, but it has met with rave reviews in the press. GAYOT named it a top spirit for 2011, Wine Enthusiast gave it a score of 98, and Maxim labeled it the Best Newcomer for its “8 Best Bourbons in America”.