Louisville’s Most Elegant Urban Distillery
By Richard Thomas
Kentucky Bourbon tourism is an overflowing cup nowadays, with so many distillery options to choose from that “spoiled for choice” doesn’t even begin to describe it. In just Louisville, a visitor has four whiskeyfied tourist destinations in the city (Evan Williams Experience, Beam Stillhouse, Peerless Distillery and Angel’s Envy), with a fifth (Old Forester) on the way.
Convenience isn’t as much help in narrowing down the options as it used to be, so another way to look at it is what does one distillery offer that the others do not. In the case of Angel’s Envy, what they have is the most elegant distillery in Louisville.
A Piece Of Urban Americana
Leaving elegance aside for a moment, the location is rich in Louisville history, and this is besides being an outstanding spot in and of itself: Angel’s Envy is situated across the street from Slugger Field, the Derby City’s Triple A baseball stadium.
Part of Louisville’s late 19th and early 20th Century industrial heritage, the building started out as the American Elevator Equipment Company, closed in 1946/47. It then became the home of the Vermont American Tool Company, which in a bit of serendipity once employed a very young Lincoln Henderson,* before Henderson went on to work in the Bourbon industry and found Angel’s Envy. Finally, the building found itself abandoned in 1986, and became a typical example of downtown, post-industrial America.
A particularly Louisville-style bit of Americana is found running between the warehouse and the bottling line, where the Bourbon tanks are found: Billy Goat Strut Alley. Long before Churchill Downs was built, Louisville’s workers had a passion for racing, and two alleyways running more or less parallel to Main Street were the seats of their inner city goat races: Billy Goat and Nanny Goat. They are in indelible part of Louisville’s quirky past, and one of these is basically the spine of Angel’s Envy.
A Bourbon Cathedral
Visitors to Angel’s Envy receive their introductions in the lobby/gift shop, where displays tell the story of how the aforementioned Lincoln Henderson, the Hall of Fame distiller and longtime Brown-Forman man who co-founded Angel’s Envy along with his son Wesley in 2006. Although the company is now owned by Bacardi, it remains a family affair, with many of Wesley’s sons working there in capacities great and small.
From there visitors are ushered into Louisville’s cathedral of whiskey-making, a great rectangular and vaulted nave lined with cookers and fermenters, and with a 35-foot, Vendome-made copper column still occupying the apse. It really is just a spectacular and tastefully designed presentation, yet at the same time thoroughly functional and industrial. Anyone who appreciates architecture to even the slightest degree should count Angel’s Envy as a must-see for this reason.
A further thoughtful, thoroughly Louisville point is the “stopper” on the spirit safe, fashioned from the butt of a Louisville Slugger baseball bat.
Cathedral To Closer
From the cathedral, the tour moves on into barrels and bottling. Anyone looking for a romp through a rickhouse shouldn’t be looking in downtown Louisville for obvious reasons, and Angel’s Envy’s principle warehousing is done elsewhere. However, because bottling is done at the distillery, plenty of casks are always on hand.
Finally comes a tasting, and the tasting room and bar is another example of the elegant design. Heavy on the wood and accented with copper, the tasting facility is both traditional and stylishly modern at the same time, and sports a striking view of the Ohio River. It’s destined to become one of the city’s prime event spots, and I’m told Harvest and Against The Grain (noted both for their beer and their barbecue) do much of their catering.
* Correction: Lincoln Henderson’s father worked at American Elevator Equipment Company, not Lincoln himself.