If you’re going to be in Louisville (or Kentucky for that matter), there is something very, very important that you must do. Go taste some bourbon! However, if you’re not already a bourbon drinker or if you don’t have a lot of time, it can be a little overwhelming trying to decide which distilleries to visit. So, if you only go to one, go to Angel’s Envy and take their distillery tour because they are making the most unique (and delicious!) bourbon in America right now.
Never heard of Angel’s Envy? Well, we hadn’t either! Prior to heading to Louisville, though, I had asked around to a couple bartenders, as well as the man leading a whiskey tasting I went to over the spring, to see if they had any recommendations for distilleries to check out while we were in Louisville.
Interestingly, three of these people that we had asked all suggested that we go and check out Angel’s Envy. Oooo, it seemed like we were on to something! Except. I couldn’t recall ever seeing it on a menu or in a bar in NYC, so I was a little surprised that everyone was saying, hey go there.
Fast-forward to earlier this summer, my husband and I were sitting at a bar in Brooklyn and lo and behold, they had a bottle of Angel’s Envy! We decided that if we were going to use our limited time visiting their distillery in Kentucky, we should at least find out if their bourbon was any good. We ordered a glass and O.M.G. It is GREAT. So, before we left for Louisville, I booked us tickets to tour their downtown Louisville distillery!
We were visiting the Louisville Mega Cavern and Churchill Downs earlier in the day, so we could only make it to Angel’s Envy for their last tour of the day. It’s always a risk to show up at day’s end because you never know if your guide is going to be all tired and bored and whatnot. Well, fear not. Our guide, Allie, was QUITE the ball of energy, and she kicked off our very fun visit with a bit of history about the company.
History of Angel’s Envy
Angel’s Envy is a small, family-run, craft distillery that has only been around for less than a decade. They began building out their distillery downtown in 2013 and officially opened to the public in 2016.
However, their short time on the market does not mean that they’re in the same class as all these new craft distilleries that seem to be popping up everywhere these days. Part of what makes Angel’s Envy so special is that its co-founder and master distiller was Lincoln Henderson, who is a bonafide legend in the bourbon world.
Lincoln spent around 40 years of his life working as a master distiller for the liquor conglomerate Brown-Forman. If you’re a fan of Gentleman Jack, Jack Daniels Single Barrel, or Woodford Reserve, you actually have Lincoln Henderson to thank because he was responsible for creating all of that.
In the 1990s, Lincoln won a lifetime achievement award from Malt Advocate, and in 2001, he was inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame (which I didn’t even know was a thing, but I’m so glad now that I do!)
Despite all the accolades, though, the one thing that Lincoln really wanted to do with bourbon was to experiment with secondary maturation, much in the way that Ireland and Scotland had already been doing with Irish whiskey and scotch.
Unfortunately, Lincoln never got a chance to do this while at Brown-Forman and he eventually retired. About a year later, though, his son Wes, said, hey, why don’t we make some bourbon together in the experimental way, the way you always wanted to try. And that’s where it all began.
So what makes Angel’s Envy unique, you ask? Well, based on all their experimenting, Lincoln and Wes created a secondary maturation process through which their Kentucky straight bourbon actually spends its last 3-6 months before bottling…in ruby port wine barrels.
They wanted to elevate all those flavors you normally associate with bourbon without overpowering it, and they discovered that ruby port wine barrels helped to add a very subtle ripe, fruity finish to their bourbon that was complimentary yet not overwhelming. And the end result is nothing short of amazing(ly delicious).
When you make bourbon, a small percentage is lost to evaporation, and this is commonly referred to as the “angel’s share” in the industry. Allie mentioned that when Lincoln tasted their creation, he said that though the angels got their share, what was left was for the angels to envy, and Angel’s Envy was born.
And while Lincoln was able to live out his dream of experimenting and creating a unique and superior bourbon with his son, sadly, he passed away just about a year after they broke ground on their distillery.
Today, though, Wes and several of his six sons currently run the business together, making Angel’s Envy a multi-generational family-run business. Two of Wes’s sons are not yet of age to be handling and selling liquor in the state of Kentucky, but who knows? They might join the family business eventually, too!
Laws of Bourbon
Before we got into how they make their bourbon at Angel’s Envy, Allie first gave us the run-down on what actually makes bourbon, well, bourbon. I confess that though I enjoyed drinking bourbon prior to our visit, I didn’t really know all the rules regarding what actually made it bourbon.
To begin, all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. There are some specific rules that need to be adhered to before you can call your whiskey “bourbon”, and these are actually regulated via federal law.
- All bourbon must be made within the United States. It does not, however, need to be made in Kentucky, although about 95% of it is made there due to a limestone aquifer in Kentucky that purifies their water and strips out iron, making it an ideal water source for good bourbon. (Fun fact: Bourbon is the U.S.’s only native spirit.)
- The mash bill must be at least 51% corn.
- You must distill your high-proof spirit to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume)
- All bourbon must be aged in a new, charred oak barrel – you cannot reuse barrels.
- Bourbon cannot enter the barrel at higher than 125 proof.
- And bourbon must be bottled at no less than 80 proof.
In addition to all of that, it cannot have any added flavors, colors, or other spirits. To be considered a straight bourbon, it has to be aged in a barrel for a minimum of two years, and to be a Kentucky straight bourbon it has to be aged in the state of Kentucky for a least a year and a day (the extra day, apparently, is so that the state of Kentucky can tax you in more than one tax year!)
Angel’s Envy acknowledges there is a little controversy around calling their product a Kentucky Straight Bourbon since they are using port barrels to finish their bourbon, and this does impact the flavor somewhat.
However, the laws regarding bourbon were originally intended to keep people from adding all kinds of weird stuff to their bourbon (including things that may have even been toxic!) and so by adding “aged in port wine barrels” onto their label, they feel they’re being transparent enough to still be considered bourbon. And most bourbon aficionados seem to agree!
So, now we know what bourbon is, but how do we get from corn to bottle? Well, it’s not a very fast process! But before I explain, let me tell you one VERY important thing if you plan to visit Angel’s Envy yourself (or any other bourbon distillery for that matter). Climate control is NOT a thing when it comes to making bourbon, so you might not want to plan a visit to a distillery on a 95-degree day in July like we did…
Our first stop in the distillery was at the mash cooker. Bourbon needs to be 51% corn, but Angel’s Envy’s mix is actually 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley. The more corn in your mash bill, the more sugar and, consequently, the more alcohol can be produced.
Rye adds some spiciness and barley is what adds the chocolatey and nutty tones you often experience with bourbon. Everything gets ground up into smaller bits, and about 19,000 pounds of grain and some good ole Louisville tap water all go into each mash-cooking cycle together.
Next, the mash goes into their 13,000+ gallon fermentation tanks where yeast goes to town eating all that sugar. After three to four days, it’s done and you’re left with what’s called “distiller’s beer”. Allie let us all sample some, and basically, it tastes a bit like warm beer with bits of crushed corn in it, so, you know, barffffff.
The distiller’s beer is then moved on to the column still and then later on to the “doubler” where it goes through a double-distillation process. After distilling, you’re left with “new make”, which is a super high-proof spirit. Angel’s Envy’s new make ends up at around 138 proof, which is close to 70% alcohol. At this point, the liquid is actually still clear, too, which I wasn’t expecting at all.
So, how does that clear liquid turn into brown liquor? Well, it all comes from the barrels, and the barrelling room is where we headed next. Allie mentioned that about 65% of the flavor and 100% of the color in bourbon comes from time spent in the barrel. And remember, all bourbon goes into brand new toasted and charred oak barrels.
The inside of the barrel is toasted, bringing the sugars in the wood to the surface. Then, it gets charred, which caramelizes the sugars. All of this is what helps create the signature color and flavor of bourbon.
We were able to see examples of a plain oak barrel, one that was toasted, and another that was toasted and charred so we could see the difference in the color and smell of each barrel. Angel’s Envy uses a lighter char than what you might see at distilleries using the highest level of char, also known as “alligator char”. This is also part of the reason Angel’s Envy is a bit lighter in color than some other bourbons, too.
Legally, bourbon can’t go into the barrel above 125 proof, so Angel’s Envy takes their new make, adds some water, and proofs it down to 124.7 and then into the barrel it goes. And then, my friends, the magic happens.
The barrels are sent off to a rickhouse about five miles away. Like the distillery, the rickhouse isn’t climate-controlled either, and this is actually super important to the bourbon-making process.
When it’s hot, the wood expands and the alcohol gets all up into the wood of the barrel. Then, when it’s cold, the wood contracts and the alcohol pulls out of the wood, bringing color and flavor from that toasty, charred wood with it.
Since they age their bourbon for 4-6 years, this process is happening several times while it ages. The longer the bourbon stays in the barrel, the darker the color and deeper the flavors will be.
Blending, Filtering, Finishing, and Bottling
Once mature, the bourbon is brought back downtown and is blended and filtered. Then, it’s moved into their 60-gallon ruby port wine barrels for finishing, or what’s called secondary maturation. They’ll typically have around 500 of these barrels on-site while the bourbon is finished over the next 3-6 months.
Then, it’s blended again, proofed down to exactly 86.6 proof, and bottled. And while they use a machine to bottle and cork the whiskey, each bottle is stickered, sealed, and tagged by hand, right in their downtown distillery (their label is super gorgeous, by the way).
They’re putting out about 9,500 bottles a day, which may seem like a lot, but apparently Jim Beam is producing that much about every 3.5 minutes, which really helps to illustrate why Angel’s Envy is considered a “craft” distillery.
And finally, it would be rude to have us walk through that sweltering distillery and not offer us a drink at the end so, naturally, a tasting was up next! And mercifully, the tasting room is air-conditioned.
Though Angel’s Envy also makes rye, we only tasted their bourbon, and Allie led us through tasting it in several ways. We started with an acclimation sip, or what Allie called the “Kentucky chew”, whereby you swirl the alcohol all around your mouth for about 8 seconds, exhale at the end, and then give your taste buds and pain receptors a few moments to prepare themselves for the rest of alcohol to come.
We took another sip, and everything was smoother. On the third sip, all of the flavors really started coming out, and each of us tasted a little something different. I tasted butterscotch personally! Yummmmm.
For our next pour, Allie added an ice cube, and the addition of that little bit of water mellowed everything out even further. Some may scoff at adding ice to bourbon, but Allie mentioned that their motto is that there is no wrong way to drink bourbon (responsibly), so you do you. If you want it neat, have at it. One the rocks? Go for it.
And finally, Allie gave us each a chocolate candy. We took a bite and followed it with a sip of the bourbon after, and it took on another whole level of flavor and complexity. It must be fun to be the person who tests out all the possible things that would pair well with their bourbon! Allie personally recommended pairing it with aged parmesan to get more of a smoky flavor or with dried cranberries if you want to drink “Christmas in a glass”.
And with that, our tour concluded and we were free to hang out in the private bar and sample some of their specialty cocktails, which, of course, we did. All in all, we already knew that we liked Angel’s Envy, but we really enjoyed getting to see first-hand how it’s made and learning a bit more about bourbon in general.
If you, too, enjoy bourbon or would like to learn more about it, I absolutely recommend booking this distillery tour if you find yourself in Louisville. And if you won’t make it there anytime soon, Angel’s Envy can be found in 38 states at the moment, and they hope to be in all 50 within the next year.
And, ironically, the liquor stores in my Brooklyn neighborhood sell it for a couple dollars less than what they were selling it for in Kentucky, so don’t think that you’ll be getting a bargain by stocking up in Louisville!
In any event, I hope you’ll try it and that you enjoy it as much as we do!
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- Angel’s Envy Distillery: 500 E Main St, Louisville, KY 40202
When to Go
- The distillery’s retail area is open daily. Check their website for their current hours.
- Tours are offered every day except for Tuesdays, and you must book your tour in advance.
- Since the distillery isn’t climate-controlled, you may want to consider visiting in the spring or fall when temperatures are milder.
Tips for Visiting
- You’ll be on your feet for the first hour of the tour, so wear comfortable shoes. They also ask that you don’t wear heels or open-toed shoes either.
- If you visit on a hot summer day like we did, dress appropriately and be sure to snag a complimentary bottle of water from their retail store before the tour.
- After the tour concludes, you’re welcome to stick around and try some cocktails in their tasting area and bar, which I highly recommend that you do!
- If you’re not able to make it for a tour, they do offer tastings in the retail shop, and they also have several classes, too.
- And if you can’t make it to Louisville, be sure to check out their website to see whether Angel’s Envy might be available somewhere near you!