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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