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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
Nose: 
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.

Another Visit From An Angel

The hype echoed through the whiskey nerdosphere this spring.

“Angel’s Envy… is releasing a rye!”

For some, the excitement couldn’t be contained. Rye, after all, is the whiskey that has the coolest record collection. Everyone wants to be rye, even if they won’t admit it. MGP has obligingly supplied everyone from Diageo (in the form of George Dickel Rye) to High West to a coterie of small bottlers, each with their own comically overwrought backstory and fanciful label.

In that respect, it wasn’t at all surprising to see the port-finished bourbon being followed by a rye. Slap a classy-looking bottle (it uses more or less the same bottle as previously, with gold type instead of white) in the rye section, and they will come – or so is the hope.

Of course, any half-wit can release a youngish LDI rye and slap a label calling it “Capone’s Cache” or “Boos Myllar’s Best” or something equally underthought. The Angel’s Envy twist was to finish it in Caribbean rum casks. It’s either an inspired choice or the height of idiocy.

I myself was in the uninterested camp – how many mediocre LDI ryes do you have to try before you know you’re going to end up with a mouthful of Pine-Sol, an empty wallet and a conscience gripped with regrets? The compulsion to keep trying sourced ryes is like the manic fury that drives a drunken roulette binge at 3 AM in a dark corner of the MGM Grand. The odds are long and almost crushingly hopeless, but the payoff – when it comes – may silence the doubts enough for you to throw another fifty bucks down at the next opportunity.

Even when the inevitable trophy shots came in from well-connected bloggers, clutching – always clutching – prized sample bottles, I was completely unswayed. Everyone loves free whiskey. I wasn’t going to be goaded into a purchase, no matter how many people I trusted who reviewed it from advance samples. You can forgive a lot of sins when it’s free. I’m remaining firm in my conviction: I don’t care who reviewed it or how good the marks were, I am not going to play the part of Pavlov’s dog when someone shouts “new rye whiskey”!

And then a few average Joes I know purchased bottles. And the whiskey the described was so outside the incredibly narrow expectations I had for this release that I started to pay attention. The notes were all very similar, but they painted a picture of something completely unlike what was on the market. Knowing that the roulette wheel had come up red the last five times I’d tried some LDI-based product, I threw my cash on the table. I knew, as anyone does who has played roulette long enough (gambler’s fallacy be damned!), that simple probability said this spin in rye roulette had to come up black.

I strolled into my local booze merchant, quietly ignored the suggestions that I should check out a bottle of Booker’s, and grabbed Angel’s Envy. I wouldn’t be a victim of rye roulette this time. My bet would pay off. This had to be the first enjoyable rye in a while.

I grabbed the nearest knife I could and slit at the strip trapping the cork on the bottle. I dumped a pour into my glass and waited. The moment of truth.

Immediately it was clear this was not the average rye. Everything I expected was missing. Instead, I got a big hit of gingerbread on the nose, followed by fruity, cooked (and sugary) pineapple, cinnamon, brown sugar and angel food cake. I could only laugh. “Angel’s Envy” manifest in the nose already. Even at arm’s length, caramel sweetness and the confectioner’s sugar qualities were readily apparent.

I lifted it up to my mouth and was rewarded with a mouthfeel that was unlike most young LDI ryes – this one actually had some weight to it. It didn’t cede its identity wholly to the dessert sweetness; it had some rough and piney rye notes, but they were more of a grounding base for everything else, kind of like a better IPA where the drier hop notes add complexity. Pineapple, angel food cake and cinnamon were abundant; there was a hint of ginger, and it was generally sweet like a dessert with flashes of rye dryness.

The finish started dry, with a touch of bitterness, but was balanced by the cake-like sweetness. Confectioner’s sugar, cinnamon, pineapple and a touch of vanilla rounded out the finish.

If Angel’s Envy Bourbon could be summed up as the speculative fiction of “What if Balvenie made a bourbon?”, then Angel’s Envy Rye would be, “What if Paula Deen was on your rye tasting panel?”

That obviously carries some weight (ha!), but let’s be clear about what is going on. Angel’s Envy Rye is the sweetest tasting rye you’ll probably ever have. It’s pure southern dessert – angel food cake, amped-up caramel and pineapple sweetness, with just a touch of rye to keep it from going off the deep end.

As the bottle gets some air, the more punchy top notes and overt pineapple-and-caramel quality dampens a bit; it’s still a bit syrupy and a little more spicy on the nose. The palate actually starts to get into cognac territory and the rye asserts itself more. Think of a moderately hopped porter – the hops don’t become the focus of attention, but they add more complexity. So is the rye with time in Angel’s Envy Rye. Also, with time and air, this does become a little more minty and mentholated on the finish, tipping its hat a bit to the origin, but I still would never peg this as LDI.

If you don’t like sweet things, just stay away. I can’t stress this enough. If angel food cake drives you into a rage, you really should not buy it. If you want the same boring rye you’ll get in a bottle of Bulleit or Templeton, skip this. This will not be for you. I promise. You’ll miss nothing by skipping.

But on the other hand, if you’ve been burned for a zillion times running and you’re just looking for something different – Angel’s Envy Rye has that in spades. I can’t think of a rye that tastes remotely like this. I can’t think of a whiskey that really tastes quite like this. And because I think it’s so unusual, I’m sure we’ll be seeing copycats in the months and years ahead.

I’m not sure that Angel’s Envy is an everyday sipper, but in a world of bad rye decisions, this is one of the few options that won’t disappoint. I’ve revisited this bottle a few times now and it’s very much the same thing as my first impressions, with a bit more of the rye character making itself known over time. It doesn’t lose that angel food cake and pineapple sweetness though. For my money, while it’s definitely a very particular style, I happen to really enjoy what’s going on with this whiskey. It’s not a daily sipper, but then, you shouldn’t be having a big, sweet desert every day either.

However, while I say it’s not a daily sipper, I can’t deny I’ve come back to this bottle with regularity and am already thinking about picking up another…

At a glance:

Angel’s Envy Rye (95% Rye) – 50% ABV B
Nose: 
A really unusual mix of gingerbread, a touch of pineapple, some cinnamon, angel food cake, brown sugar. Caramel and confectioner’s sugar. With air and time, there’s a little more syrupy quality mixed with some gentle spice, but never losing that angel food cake quality. 
Palate: 
Moderately thick on the palate, the kind of rough and piney rye notes provide a bed; there’s a big pineapple/angel food cake/cinnamon top end, a faint hint of fresh grated ginger. Sweet in a very dessert-like way with flashes of rye dryness. As the whiskey gains more air, the rye asserts itself more directly with some cinnamon, and has a cinnamon/rye/caramelized pineapple tug of war. 
Finish: 
Dry, a touch bitter but against with that soft, cake-like sweetness. Confectioner’s sugar, cinnamon, a little pineapple and vanilla. Air leads this to be drier still, with an almost minty (but not full-tilt minty) or menthol top end, and a little more direct rye and cinnamon. 
Comment: 
The first LDI rye that doesn’t taste like everything else. Very sweet and desserty – indulgent. The elements pop out quite cleanly, but it also reminds me of a hummingbird cake. If you don’t have a sweet tooth (yes, on a rye!), you will not enjoy this. Almost has a cognac-like character at times.
Rating: 
B

Postscript

The bottle has a sticker on it noting the “95% Rye” mashbill. Obviously, this is a clear tip of the hand that it’s LDI rye. However, the fact that this is a sticker raises an interesting question: does Angel’s Envy have casks sourced elsewhere (e.g. Canada) with different mashes (100%? 51%+) waiting for a future release? Only the Hendersons know for sure, but it could be an interesting few years. Taking the whiskey used in WhistlePig or Mastersons and giving it an Angel’s Envy treatment (which seems to be summed up as “March to the beat of your own drummer’) could result in some really interesting choices.

Angels & Devils

Every once in a while there’s an opportunity that you can’t pass up. Two of the most hyped bourbons released this year were Jim Beam Devil’s Cut and Lincoln Henderson’s Angel’s Envy. While these cleverly reference part of bourbon-making lore (more on that in a minute), that’s where the production similarities end.

Devil's Cut & Angel's Envy

So what’s the shared reference here, for those who have better things to do with their lives than be whiskey nerds? They’re both pointing to a phenomenon in whiskey production called the “Angel’s Share”. Basically, when you place a bunch of spirit in a barrel and let it age, some of it will evaporate. The lore was that this was the amount taken by the angels each year. The average loss is 2% by year – so if you’re wondering why that 18 year old whiskey costs more than the 12 – there’s part of your answer. This is also the mechanism by which Scotch whisky decreases in alcohol content over the years but Kentucky whiskies (among others) increase in alcohol content over the years. Well, that and some issues with humidity..

But that’s where the similarities end. The Devil’s Cut is made from the barrel remnants from Jim Beam bourbon that has aged 6 years. After they’ve dumped the barrels for the Beam, they’ve got barrels with bourbon in the staves. The Devil’s Cut is what they’re making from what they’re able to extract from the staves. (Sound like the dregs? It basically is, but don’t run off just yet.) Beam is tight-lipped on the process used, but Chuck Cowdery had a good discussion of this, which indicates there may be some water used in the barrel to “sweat” out the bourbon in the wood. Whatever the mechanism, we’re getting to the same underlying point: this is the stuff left in the wood after the barrel’s been emptied. (The “Devil’s Cut”, if you will…)

Angel’s Envy, on the other hand, is more traditional in its production. The sourced bourbon used in the whiskey is aged for 5-7 years in new charred oak casks, and then finished in a port pipe for 4-6 months. (Finishing, for my friends who are again blessed with enough of a life not to be stuck on whiskey minutia, is taking a whiskey from its original barrel and putting it in another barrel that held something else, to impart flavor. Murray McDavid has issued a lot of finished Scotch whiskies in recent years, though they call it “Additional Cask Enhancement”). This finishing is intended to impart some added dimension to the flavor of the spirit. Why “Angel’s Envy”? Well, this is made out of what’s not in the Angel’s Share, you see…

So how do they taste?

I will be honest and say my expectations for the Beam were low. Really low. I expected pencil shavings and gasoline. I was introduced to whiskey at the bottom shelf (with the expected results), and then when I got back into it from higher shelves, I’ve had the predictable reaction and looked down my nose at most major, mass-market whiskies. Beam was certainly no exception. With some hesitation, I poured a sample, trying to catch those early hints of gasoline, industrial degreaser, the pencil sharpener from third grade, and didn’t catch anything. Just a mild generic “bourbon” scent.

I nosed it, ready for my nostrils to singe. They didn’t. With some trepidation, I took a sip, and never got the heavy kick I expected. And the finish didn’t leave gasping like Jud Taylor in the Great Escape. You know what? It wasn’t that bad.

Actually, Devil’s Cut is decent enough if benign. There’s the expected corn, some moderate wood notes, light vanilla cream, and some clay earth and light cherry on the nose. The palate is surprisingly light – very light in the mouth, slightly warming, with a bit of the earthiness. After a moment, there’s a brief bitterness, and then some vaguely vegetal notes and some new-make sweetness with the turbinado sugar notes common to that. The finish is also light and on the short end of moderate. It’s got a light cherry note, but it dries out and becomes indistinctly alcoholic. The new make note also continues through with the turbinado sugar note again.

None of the expected harshness existed – it’s really light after the nose. It’s a C+; totally drinkable but lacking something after the intrigue of the nose.

The Angel’s Envy came with some loud hype as well this spring. While the Scottish have been fearless in finishing their whiskies; the Americans are more conservative on this point. Some people even questioned if it could still legally be called a bourbon since it wasn’t a to-the-letter representation of the law. (By addition, not omission)

I tempered my expectations on Angel’s Envy given some of the hype. And honestly, again, I was pleasantly surprised. Much to my surprise, the Angel’s Envy initially showed a stronger alcohol note on the nose. It had an intensely strong wine presence on the nose – tons of rich, red fruit and with that sugary richness of a port. That said, it was somewhat dry, and the bourbon made itself known with a little pepper and some oak.

The palate was a treat – very rich, very coating, like a thick wine – and some warmth. The wine notes were very clear with berries and fruit again. The wood came through after a while as did a light dusting of pepper. The finish, however, is where it asserted its bourbon character with a more traditional bourbon heat. There were black cherry notes all over it with some earthiness and a hint of vanilla. The port hangs on at the tail end of the finish as well as some dry wood flavors, but it doesn’t become bitter. A light dusting of cinnamon hangs on the finish as well.

Angel’s Envy drinks very much like a scotch – it’s actually got some similarity to sherried whiskies. It’s not in the class of the very best sherried malts, but it would hold its own against many midlevel whiskies, and certainly beats those that have become overtly raisiny (e.g. Aberlour A’bunadh batch 32). It doesn’t have the “grapey” profile of the other wine-finished bourbon I’ve had (the abhorrent Woodford Sonoma-Cutrer – a story for a different post).

It’s not quite a bourbon in flavor, it’s not quite a scotch. It’s just fun and drinkable. An easy B. I don’t know how it will hold up for a full bottle, but that too will be worth noting in the future.

It’s interesting to see how these bourbons have played with the lore of bourbon. One experiments with the nature of what can be considered a bourbon by borrowing  a page from Scotland, and succeeds. Is it the envy of the heavens? Hard to say, but it’s certainly an interesting and promising experiment for American whiskey. The other seeks to extract every drop from the wood, sweating it out in an age-old fashion. Does it deserve the dark sided image? No. It’s not going to win bourbon of the year, but it’s a fun and light bourbon. If you’ve got a taste for new make, you might enjoy it!

UPDATE:
According to the Angel’s Envy Twitter account, the batch I’ve reviewed won’t be on the shelves much longer. If you’re interested, now is the time!

At a glance:

Jim Beam Devil’s Cut 45% ABV
Nose: Initially shows up with some corn notes, as well as a slight clay-like earthiness. Light vanilla cream, moderate wood. Slight cherry note.
Palate: Light mouthfeel, slightly warming, the clay earthiness comes through. Fairly lightweight – not a lot of flavor on the palate. Gets somewhat bitter after a brief bit, with a vague vegetal note. Has a low-level new-make sweetness as well, with that unrefined sugar note.
Finish: Warm but fleeting. Light cherry note and moderate length, but it dries out and becomes just sort of indistinctly alcohol-like. Not strong though. Also has the new-make note on the finish with the certain grainy sugar.
Comment: There’s just not much happening past the nose here. It’s not bad – at all – but there’s just not a lot to it. This is right on that cusp of C+/B- and if there was juuuust a little more to it it’d be safely into B range.
Rating: C+

Angel’s Envy 43.3% ABV
Nose: Much stronger on the nose in terms of the alcohol content, and has a very strong wine presence upfront. Somewhat dry,a little bit of pepper on the nose. Some medium wood.
Palate: Rich and coating, with some warmth. Again, definite red wine, berries and fruit, some wood emerging over time. Light pepper.
Finish: Warming initially and then it goes down. This is where the bourbon presents most strongly – the black cherry, earthy notes, a hint of vanilla. There’s some port hanging on the finish as well as some slightly dry wood – but it doesn’t verge into bitterness. Light dusting of cinnamon in there.
Comment: The port is all over it with sweetness and a definite rich wine note, but it doesn’t have a “grapey” thing happening like some wine-finished bourbons (Woodford Sonoma) do. To be honest, there are elements of this that remind me of a good midlevel sherried scotch (that isn’t drowning in subpar sherry and has that SunMaid gone bad flavor). I’m not sure how the bottle life of this one will be but it’s enjoyable. Not quite a bourbon, not quite a scotch, just something fun and drinkable.
Rating: B