Father’s Day Interview With Wes And Kyle Henderson of Angel’s Envy Bourbon
By Richard Thomas
One thing I’ve observed about the whiskey business is how many prominent figures may have started at the bottom, but entry to that bottom rung was secured by family connections. Indeed, whereas in other industries a family dynasty might be frowned upon, in whiskey they are seen as a romantic part of its history.
How these family tree whiskey stories get started can be seen at Louisville, Kentucky’s Angel’s Envy. The company is very much a father-to-son-to-grandson affair. That chain began with Brown-Forman man Lincoln Henderson, the bourbon industry legend who was instrumental in the development of Woodford Reserve and passed away in 2013. From there it links on to his son Wes and Wes’s son Kyle, both of whom told me about Angel’s Envy as a family business.
RT: Wes, you co-founded Angel’s Envy with your Dad, Bourbon Hall of Famer Lincoln Henderson. Can you tell me about the genesis of the port-finishing idea with you and your father?
WH: When I approached Dad about starting Angel’s Envy, it was important that we try something unique in the bourbon industry. I challenged Dad 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. While there had been a few attempts at secondary barrel finishes of bourbon’s over the years, we felt that not only could we create something extraordinary, but the timing was perfect. The port finish we felt was a great starting point. We had experimented with other finishes as well, and some of these will probably make it to market one day.
RT: When I first met Wes and Kevin Curtis, Angel’s Envy’s distillery manager, y’all described what you were doing as basically that Kevin was getting the copper up and running while Wes looked around for new and intersting barrels and developed what Angel’s Envy actually tastes like. When I read about the Bacardi buy-out, it sounded as if Wes was moving more towards a more ambassadorial role, and Kyle was stepping more into the finishing and “what does it taste like” role. So what is the division of labor with you two?
WH: Within that question is a pretty accurate description of how things are running at this time. I very much enjoy meeting our consumers, and also thrive on innovation, so the opportunity to do both of these things has really resonated with me and fits into our business objectives.
KH: We split time between field and warehouse. He spends a little more in the field and I spend a little more in the warehouse. I need my dad involved weekly with tasting on select barrels and dealing with the blend profile of the overall brand, as its important to both of us to work together on that. I spend some time in the field, even more so as the brand grows as one man can’t handle every event we have that we want a family member to be there for.
RT: The norm about families and business is that they often don’t make it into the second generation, due to family conflicts. Hotel and restaurant reality TV wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for that sort of thing. Three generations in and you folks are beating that curve. What’s your secret?
KH: We actually like each other! My dad didn’t try to force me into the industry in any way, I almost had to beg him to let me work with him. Had it been really pushed on me, I’m not sure I would be as happy with what I am doing.
WH: My father, Kyle and I have always worked well together. We always remained solid in spirit and our determination to create the best possible whiskeys together.
RT: When you broke ground on your downtown Louisville distillery site in 2013 and then it took more than a year for you to get started, the response in whiskey blogging circles was skeptical, to put it mildly. Now major construction is under way. How does it feel to be moving forward, and what is the ETA on getting your copper installed?
WH: Early 2016 seems to be our best guess to open the new facility, and it feels great. I understand the skepticism, but we had a brand to grow, in addition to laying the groundwork for a very complex and expensive distillery, and these things are all major undertakings.
RT: Kyle, you are the third generation of the Henderson family in the whiskey business. Do you think the Hendersons might have a future as a bourbon dynasty, like the Beam-Noes or the Russells?
KH: Sure, why not! We love what we do, and there are several of us involved on the production side now. In a big Family, in a big, and fun, business, with a big role in that business, I think it is fair to say that the Henderson family will be active for a very long time.
RT: I won’t ask the obvious question of what’s next in the Angel’s Envy line. Instead, I’ll simply ask if you’ve discovered any finishing wood you might want to try to do something with down the road. Some ex-sherry wood from Jerez, or perhaps some old Madeira barrels…?