Under The Wire: Angel’s Envy Cask Strength 2013

The final whisky for 2013 is one gaining late praise. Angel’s Envy has been around for a couple years, and I’ve covered both the standard offering and the rye. Both have been fun twists on an otherwise boring and increasingly overpriced sourced whiskey formula.

It seemed inevitable that we’d see a cask strength release, and here it is. After all, nothing screams “brand extension” like small batch/single barrel/cask strength.  There was a more limited release of Angel’s Envy Cask Strength that was positively received among those who tried it; this release presently on shelves — in a marketing narrative sense of the phrase “presently on shelves” — is a much larger release. It’s been called a “must-own” and has made some year-end best lists, but at its heart, we’re dealing with a familiar problem: Bourbon of uncertain source sold at a premium, justified by higher proof and a novelty finish.

Of course, I will say I thought the previous two releases more or less justified their prices as a novelty; I enjoyed them but they certainly weren’t of the type that I’d find myself enjoying on the regular. But I’ve definitely come back to the bourbon once or twice since I drained my bottle.

The Cask Strength changes the economics. It’s about twice as expensive as the standard line, roughly 20% stronger, still port finished and still of uncertain vintage and provenance. Effectively you’re paying $4.50 for an extra 10mL of ethanol per 50mL drink, assuming it’s apples to apples.

This is of course an unfairly reductionist approach to a whiskey; higher proof is generally taken to be a good thing. Perhaps it’s time to start expecting higher proof sourced whiskeys are going to cost over a hundred bucks. Of course, in Scotland, we know how old those sourced whiskeys are and where they were distilled – and generally the age is pretty damned old. Here we’re getting…. something… from… someplace in Kentucky. That effectively narrows it down to 99% of the bourbon made in the US by volume.

And to be honest, if I’m just looking for an enjoyable cask strength bourbon kick, I’m going to keep it simple and buy a $49 bottle of Jack Daniels Single Barrel (not bad) or Four Roses Single Barrel (pretty good) and pocket the extra $90 and put it towards my Berluti Andy fund. (Or maybe something else pointlessly consumery). Haunting liquor stores like some sort of ghost of Dean Martin waiting for limited edition bottles of whisky just doesn’t really seem fun anymore.

Here we are again. A glass of whiskey, some deconstruction of marketing (in the classical 4P’s sense) and a reexamination of the ever-changing situation the whisky buyer faces. It ain’t 2009 anymore, guys. The proof is in the glass. We don’t get to just throw cash down and walk out with a showstopper.

The nose of Angel’s Envy Cask Strength is a mix of toasty wood, some chestnuts and pecans,  a sweet-and-sour hint of corn, a hint of cinnamon, some nutmeg, and a little leathery port. To my nose there’s something a touch funky on the port side of things, perhaps a bogus cask slipped in?

The palate has some younger bourbon corn sourness; some fruity port notes and then they’re immediately followed by a punchy, aggressive and hot note of cinnamon. The finish is hot wood and cinnamon, but there’s some sour corn there, as well as some port fruitiness.

It’s got a lot of hallmarks of youth, with that heat and sourness. Adding some water may give us more clarity; it could just be a bit strong at the bottled strength.

Water chases down the heat a bit, but brings up some raw sugar notes and gives a funky bad hair salon smell (perms? barbicide? Not sure – it’s gross) – a note I’m going to put at the feet of the funkiness I detected on the nose, and assume is a port thing. Water doesn’t really improve anything.

It’s a bit of a letdown from Angel’s Envy who I thought normally put together unusual if worthwhile bottles. It’s got signs of youth that don’t seem to be balanced by age or the finish. I’d gladly trade this for two bottles of the standard offering; I’d have two bottles of superior booze.

At the end of the day, this represents two ideas for me.

1. Higher proof is not universally better.
2. Year-end awards shouldn’t be a de-facto thing done out of obligation yearly but given out as deserved.

Also, it should serve as a reminder that just because it’s limited and released at the end of the year, it doesn’t mean it’s a slam-dunk, must-buy whisky (see also the Woodford Master’s collection which will be falling off your local retailer’s shelf until mid-September).

Happy new year, everyone. Let’s hit 2014 with clear heads. There’s good stuff out there, but “limited” and “cask strength” are no longer sufficient to be good signposts.

At a glance:

Angel’s Envy Cask Strength (2013 edition, Port Finish) 61.5% ABV Batch 2C
Toasty wood, a light chestnut/pecan aroma; some corn, a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg; a leathery port note.
Palate:  A mix of slight corn sourness and some fruity port notes with heat and plenty of cinnamon hot on its heels. Water settles down the heat (as expected), brings up some raw sugar, also brings up a funky hair salon smell. (Fried perm smell? Barbicide? It’s gross).
Finish:  Hot, wood and cinnamon with a slightly sour corn note followed by fruit.
Comment:  Hints of a younger whiskey masked by the finish and the strength. Not up to the mark set by the standard offering.
Rating: B-

If you factor cost into rating this would be a mid-C at best.

5 thoughts on “Under The Wire: Angel’s Envy Cask Strength 2013”

  1. Every time I see something like this I have to wonder if the owners are actually trying to build a sustainable business or just milk the trend for all its worth.

    1. For the independent bottlers who have also distill (High West, Willett), I’m sure it’s a bridge strategy with some opportunism.

      For the ones who hope they’ll still be able to get bottles as stocks tighten, it’s either short-sighted business or milking.

      I’m not sure how long Angel’s Envy can keep it interesting. The Rye was a curveball, the bourbon is fine, but the cask strength is a real disappointment — especially when it’s supposed to be taken seriously against the year-end releases.

      I know there’s a lot of hype around this one: I don’t buy it for a second. This is a really mediocre whiskey.

  2. Nice review Tim. Makes me wish I’d bought a bottle of the JD single barrel when my liquor store had it on sale for cheap for what seems like months. I’m even more glad however that I didn’t shell out for this stuff.

    “Fried perm smell? Barbicide? It’s gross,” nice.

    Nice thought about higher proof not always being better. I know that’s pretty easy concept, but it didn’t stop me from buying two bottles of Cuttysark Prohibition at a recent tasting (why?). “100 proof, yay!,” I was thinking, I guess. I got to taste a lot of good whiskey and somehow ended up walking out with two bottles of Cutty’. It it tastes like new make with a hint of “scotch” smell. I’ll be passing the second bottle off to my brother-in-law. Unless you want it? you could do a review of it, maybe Cuttysark will send you some high quality jpeg’s!

    I went on a quest and tried a few of the higher proof bourbons last year, and Wild Turkey Rare Breed was my favorite. I had a small amount of that, old grand dad 114, charter 101, and something else left over. mixed them all together and added some Weller 12 yr to clear out my cabinet a bit and it was of the best bourbons I’ve ever tasted. I originally was just going to make barenjager out of it but now I treasure it. I may try to recreate it, but it probably wouldn’t be that great.

    1. With JDSB, I’m sure batch variation could be quite significant given the industrial scale of their operation. I will say the two I’ve had are substantially better than the regular offering and head and shoulders above anything bearing the name. Heck, they may be the class of Brown-Forman. That said, law of averages says there’s some godawful barrels floating out there. It’s definitely worth a stop if you haven’t tried it though.

      I tried a higher strength Cutty Sark last year (something like mid-50s ABV?) It was a Master of Malt / bottle. Quite underwhelming – I appreciate the offer but even if I had to shoot my own photos, I think I’ll pass on more Cutty for a while. :)

      Definitely a great thing to do with old bourbons though. I don’t seem to have the blender’s touch, which is a shame; perhaps I should devote more time to it. Somehow every time I do it, all the stuff I hope will be pulled out gets minimized and the stuff that I hope will recede gets reinforced. Guess that’s why I’m a fan of Perkins and Glaser at their best!

      Happy new year!

  3. The Bourbon Mafia gave them ‘Whiskey of the Year’. Oh, did I forget to mention that the Henderson’s are also part of said group? This was a sham award and a way for them to help hype a seemingly mediocre whiskey to the unsuspecting public. It also seems to help answer the question about whether they are milking…

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