In a dimly lit New York City venue, Wes Henderson of Angel’s Envy stands talking about one of his favorite topics – bourbon. People gather around to listen in on the co-founder and chief innovation officer’s stories and compare tasting notes. All of the attendees were brought together to enjoy a preview the brand’s limited release 2017 Cask Strength Bourbon. A yearly happening, this audience is clearly eager to get first tastes of this round.
Hosted in the Library Hotel’s Poetry Garden, the classy but comfortable environment is perfect for sipping on Angel’s Envy. The crowded space stops short of being stifling, allowing guests to roam and mingle. In this room full of suits, Henderson’s casual demeanor should seem out of place. However, it is immediately apparent that his ease with people and comfort in conversation would cause him to fit in anywhere. Henderson is one part businessman, one part boy next door – and entirely the picture of a person who loves his work.
Stepping away from the crowd, Henderson was kind enough to spend some time with thecelebritycafe.com. He shared with us his thoughts on sustainability, family and the future of this fast-growing brand.
A Bourbon family tree
TheCelebrityCafe.com: I am hoping you can talk a little bit, for those that aren’t familiar with the background, about how this got started.
Wes Henderson: We have a long history in the business. Dad was a master distiller at Brown-Forman for about 40 years. So at Brown-Forman Dad created Woodford Reserve, Gentleman Jack, Jack Daniels Single Barrel and a bunch of other amazing products. And I worked at Brown-Forman as well, years ago. Left the industry. Dad had retired – he’d retired for about two years and I don’t know what hit me or why I thought that I wanted to do this, but I thought as a family it might be good – As a family it might be fun to start a bourbon brand.
We had no idea how we were going to do it. We had no idea if we could pull it off. So I came to Dad and I said ‘Dad, I want to do this, will you join me?’ And of course he said ‘Sure.’ So he came out of retirement. We started with my dad, and my oldest son was with us as well. Now my two oldest work for me. So we just started out a small brand, at the right time, with the right product.
TCC: How does that family dynamic play in the creation of your product?
WH: It plays in everything we do, because everyone is really involved in the creative process. Everybody has ideas that they bring to the table. We collaborate with each other, we’ll vet each others ideas. We all have such a great relationship…
When I go to work I have fun – not just because I’m in the bourbon business. Look, if you can’t have fun in the bourbon business, you can’t have fun anywhere. Right? So, but when I go to work and I see that beautiful distillery that we built… I’m like holy shit, you know, this is ours. We built this from nothing.
TCC: In regards to that space, can you talk about where it is?
WH: We are in downtown Louisville. We’ve got the only full production distillery on the bourbon trail downtown. We’re on Main Street, very close to the center of downtown... it’s an area of Louisville that’s growing and being revitalized. So we are right in the middle of this kind of renaissance. It’s a great space. It’s a historic building, the main building was built in 1902. It had been abandoned for 30 years so we came in and restored it
Rooted in sustainability
TCC: Bourbon traditionally has a tie-in with the land, because you are taking these ingredients that are grown and making this amazing product out of it. Can you talk a little about where you get the ingredients?
WH: Our bourbon, grains from whiskeys, a lot of them are sourced from different places around the county because they’re grown in different environments. For example, corn is grown all over Kentucky. It’s one of the reasons why a lot of distilling was done in Kentucky 150 years ago. So grain is very readily available. We have a single farmer that we get our corn from.
Part of the plan going forward, I’ve got some experimental products I’m working on that involved non-hybridized grains and legacy grains. So, strains of grain from pre-prohibition. So in that case, we would probably look to local farmers to grow everything, maybe malt our own barley. I don’t know. I think it’s important to use the resources. Like our still was built by a company in Louisville. Our tanks, Louisville. Our architects, Louisville. Everything we could relating to the brand, we tried to keep as local as we could. It’s important.
Building toward the future
TCC: You’re talking about family, this historic building, sourcing from local farmers. It seems like you are building some deep roots very quickly. Speaking of roots, can you tell me about your Arbor project?
WH: The project we call Toast to the Tree. Angel’s Envy Toast to the Trees. For people that [add] #AE4TheTrees, on a picture with Angel’s Envy, we’ll plant an oak tree. Last year we did over 6,000 oak trees. This year, we’re shooting for 8,000…
I was born in the '60s, I’m a child of the '80s. We definitely were the over-consumption generation. You know, we weren’t real mindful about sustainability and things like that. It’s taken a while for me to really ‘get it.’ With this program I kind of ‘got it,’ you know. And now, it’s a very important part of what we do to know the impact we’re making.
And we’re planting trees in the Daniel Boon forest, for example, in Kentucky. Areas that were deforested, in some cases for coal mining. These trees are used for erosion control, for revitalizing areas for a habitat for animals. It’s a lot more extensive than just planting a tree that we can eventually use for a bourbon barrel.
The long-winded answer is that something that, at the beginning, didn’t seem like it was something that was really meaningful and relevant to me, has become very relevant. And it is very relevant to our consumers. Especially, you know, younger people are much more mindful of those issue than I ever was. So they are very readily behind what we are doing – they are very supportive.
Growing with every sip
TCC: Can you touch briefly on why we are here tonight and what it is we’re tasting?
WH: Tonight is a preview of our 2017 Cask Strength release. I believe it’s one of the best ones we’ve done, if not the best one. We do this every year, it’s a very limited release. This year we only did a little over 10,000 bottles nationwide. At barrel proof, it’s a little over 124 proof. It’s very deep, dark, rich. The bourbon really comes out distinctly. The port barrel finish also really comes out and you get some dried fruits and some really cool notes from that. It’s just an explosion of flavor.
And even at high proof, it doesn’t feel like you’re drinking something that’s 124 proof. You know, its got that smoothness to it. So, we’re really excited about it, you know. And this is a good chance for us to come to New York and preview it for folks that will appreciate and understand it. And in some cases, they write about it! It’s always good to share with people that are kind of familiar with what we’re doing and have these discussions. It’s fun.
TCC: Any last thing you want people to know about Angel’s Envy?
WH: You know, I am eternally appreciative for where this brand has gone. The brand is a very organic brand. We don’t do national advertising and we don’t enter contest for metals and all that crazy ass stuff. It’s been very hand-to-hand, people sharing the story, and we treat people like family. I just have gratitude for where we are and how we got here and the fact that people are sharing our story. That’s it. There’s nothing more real than that.