With all the ink that has been spilled over sourced whiskey, I was surprised when one of our most loyal readers expressed some confusion about the terminology.
This coincided with my having been handed a sample of a sourced bourbon with an exotic cask finish and a hefty price tag. Rather than reflexively write a screed against the practice of sourcing, I recognized this as an opportunity to do some education and to critically re-evaluate my own preconceptions.
To clarify, we must first define non-sourced whiskey. Simplistically, this is when the person or company selling the product is the same one that distilled the whiskey. This will be the case with the vast majority of bourbon whiskey out there. Buffalo Trace owns a distillery, they ferment grain and distill it and mature it themselves, and – Bob’s your uncle – they sell it as Buffalo Trace bourbon. So far, so good – right?
Sourced whiskey, on the other hand, is purchased from the distiller but bottled, labeled, and re-sold by someone else. In the U.S., MGPI’s Lawrenceburg distillery is a major producer of wholesale whiskey, though the larger Kentucky distilleries such as Heaven Hill and Brown-Forman will also sell whiskey in bulk.
It should immediately become apparent why this could become problematic, at least for the type of people that write for (and read) this site. We value good whiskey, and we believe that good whiskey is the result of the integrity of the production and maturation processes. Without transparency into where and how something was made, it’s hard to assess whether it was made well or poorly; whether it was made by someone who cares about the quality of the product, or by someone who cares mostly about making a quick buck.
Those who source whiskey fall into two camps, as I see it. The first camp are the starter craft distillers, such as Blaum Bros, who lean on an industrial-size distillery while they get their own stills up and running and await the maturity of their own distillate. They’re “getting a name out there,” albeit without any guarantee that their eventual output will at all resemble what they’ve put their name on to begin with. It’s potentially a risky strategy, but one that is widespread enough that I suspect it’s a profitable one. It’s far from my favorite approach, but I don’t attack it harshly so long as it’s done transparently.
The second camp is comprised of the dedicated sourcers, those who have no interest in distilling themselves and no intention of ever starting the practice. To name and shame: I recently came across Virginia Black whiskey on the shelf of Target. Quoting directly from their unselfconsciously absurd fundraising site, Virginia Black is “a collaboration between award-winning spirits producer, Brent Hocking, and Grammy-award winning, platinum selling recording artist, songwriter, rapper and actor, Drake, combining their shared passion for style, music and the pursuit of taste.”
What does Drake, full-time most annoying NBA fan (pace Spike Lee) and part-time rapper, know about whiskey? Nothing, probably. And who cares?!? There’s a flashy gold and black box, labeled “Decadent American Whiskey,” with an elaborately textured bottle. Small text on the back of said bottle reads “Aged two years… Distilled in Indiana… Not from Virginia.” So, what would you pay for a 2-year-old whiskey from MGPI, bottled at 40%? How about $36.99, which is actually the retail price? I’ll give you a second to compose yourselves…
Jokes aside (and that price is quite a knee-slapper) I have intentionally picked the most egregious example of the pure sourcing approach to prove a point. However, there’s a lot of stuff that exists in a gray area between “grain-to-glass” and “a collaboration with Drake.”
Take J. Henry & Sons, for example: They grow their own corn and mature whiskey in a rickhouse on their own farm, but rely on 45thParallel for contract distilling. Sourced, or not? Or how about Van Winkle, which has a partnership with Buffalo Trace to produce whiskey, but is also selling stuff produced at the now-inoperable Stitzel-Weller distillery, as well as other various bourbon from miscellaneous distilleries? How would you classify them?
With all of the above in mind: if you asked me what I think of sourced whiskey, I’d probably shrug and say, “it depends.” Pressed for details, I’d say that I’d have to consider who was sourcing it, where it was sourced from, how transparent they were being about it, and what they were charging. I’m skeptical of the category but not willing to make a blanket condemnation of it.
Hopefully all of the above clears up some misconceptions and establishes a framework for the following review. First, though, a short history of Angel’s Envy, the house that… well, you know where this is going.
Angel’s Envy was started in 2006 by erstwhile spirits consultant Wes Henderson, who enlisted the help of his father Lincoln Henderson to execute some of the wood finishing experiments that he had long been toying with. Lincoln was previously behind products such as Woodford Reserve during his 40-year tenure as Master Distiller at Brown-Forman. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s deeply ironic observation that “there are no second acts in American lives” clearly applies here.
The core product in the Angel’s Envy portfolio is a sourced Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. It’s “typically aged for up to 6 years,” followed by a three to six month finishing in 60-gallonruby port barrels in “hand blended batches of 8 to 12 barrels at a time.” They bottle it at 43.3%.
As a point of calibration: a 750 ml of this core bourbon retails for $50 at my local which seems… fine? Assuming an average age of five years (the midpoint of the regulatory four-year minimum for bottling without an age statement, and the aforementioned six year data point from Angel’s Envy) and adding a small premium for the cask finish, this is neither laughably overpriced nor a screaming bargain, judged against comparable options available. It’s OK, it’s fine; I’m fine with it.
Since 2012, the company has been releasing an annual Cask Strength bottling each November. This is comprised of barrels that attracted the special notice of the team and were subsequently set aside for additional maturation. The 2013 edition was ranked “Best Spirit in the World” (truly) by some guy with an opinion, so my expectations are high going into this tasting.
This is the 2018 edition, bottled at 124 proof (62% ABV). MSRP is $200, which is damn expensive for a bottle of bourbon. I can hear the protests now: “But, it’s cask strength! But, the guy with an opinion said it was the best spirit in the world! But… but… it comes in a really nice-looking box!”
Fortunately, this was a sample from Carl, who remains a generous donor and deserves the thanks of the whole MALT community. Thus I am able to review it without any of the bias (positive or negative) that might come from dropping two Benjamins on a bottle.
So let’s see what $200, roughly 7 years, and some time in a port cask gets us, shall we?
Angel’s Envy Cask Strength Bourbon (2018 Edition) – review
Color: Medium-light rusty orange
On the nose: Immediately, this has a note that is both syrupy and metallic, similar to the first sip of cola from a can. There’s grilled nopales, fennel seeds, hard pretzels, and lemon-scented furniture polish. With water, a sweetly smoky aroma of mesquite charcoal is noticeable.
In the mouth: All woody heat on the entrance. A momentary sweetness carries this to the midpalate, where it begins to numb the mouth with a fiery all-over burn from the high alcohol content. At the middle and back of the tongue, this tastes like a tight mineral crust around a molten core of red fruit.There’s a burst of citric flavor before this disappears; for being finished, it doesn’t have much of a finish. A numb and tingly tongue is the sole souvenir of its visit.
Adding a few drops of water softens this up considerably. The mouth still tingles a bit, but an abeyance of the heat allows this to express more of the mineral character, which is manifest in a very firm and drying limestone feeling. Water also brings out more of the port cask influence, with the tannic off-dry fruity flavors of the wine whispering subtly on the roof of the mouth and around the edges.
Look, if you poured me a glass of this and I didn’t know anything about it, I’d sip it contentedly and say something mildly complimentary like, “that’s nice bourbon” and we could carry on chatting about other things.
If you told me you paid $200 for a bottle, I’d say, “Wow, really? Thanks for sharing it with me!” Would I be silently judging you, maybe more than just a little bit? That’s between me and God.
If you told me that you had another bottle and were willing to sell it to me at cost, I’d make up some lame excuse about promising my wife to lay off buying the expensive booze.
If you wouldn’t take “no” for an answer and really pushed, and started badgering me about how this was a selected blend of extraordinary barrels, and finished in port casks, and opinion-having-guy said it was the best, and it’s allocated, and collectable, and check out that box… well, I’d look you straight in the eye and I’d tell you point-blank that my wife was really serious when we had that conversation about the expensive bottles.
You understand, don’t you?
To finish (Get it? “Finish!” You get it?) the Angel’s Envy story: the Hendersons broke ground on their own distillery in 2013. Unfortunately, Lincoln passed shortly thereafter, at the age of 75. The company was acquired by Bacardi in 2015 for an undisclosed sum. 2016 saw the opening of the distillery, which is now producing from a mash bill of 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley. Angel’s Envy has yet to release any of their own product, which (presuming a 4-year maturation to preserve the Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey labeling without an age statement) should be coming our way sometime in the next year or two.
Will it be as good as this was? Perhaps. Will it be a fair deal cheaper than this? I hope so, but why would it be? Bacardi will be looking for a return on their investment, and the market has already proven that it can bear this level of price. With my most skeptical hat on, I’m prepared to expect more of the same.
All-in-all: this is pretty good whiskey with a ludicrous price tag. I have no idea where it came from (besides Kentucky) and I’m not sure it would matter if I did. This, then, is the rub in the sourced-whiskey game: when people will buy anything at any price, regardless of where it came from, the business becomes about giving it to them (good and hard, in this case).
To put a very fine point on it: those of you looking to splurge on a fancy bottle have my strong recommendation to seek out something else. For the rest of you: as always, it pays to do your homework, ask tough questions, and follow all rivers (even rivers of whiskey) to their source.
Photograph sourced (geddit) from Angel’s Envy.