Interview with Lincoln Henderson

imageYesterday I had the privilege of chatting with Lincoln Henderson, creator of Angel’s Envy, Woodford Reserve, Gentleman Jack, and a host of other spirits.  He immediately impressed me with his affable and gracious demeanor.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but when you’re talking to one of the inaugural members of the Bourbon Hall of Fame—a real legend in the industry—nerves kick in a little bit.  Mine were quickly calmed and we got down to business.

TWBB: You’ve had a long career in the bourbon industry.  Can you give us a bit of background on what brands you’ve worked on before?

LH: I was fortunate to join Brown-Forman early and worked there for 39 years. I started as chemist then was promoted through various jobs and was ultimately responsible for all the whiskeys at Brown-Forman.  Some of the whiskeys I was really proud of were Gentleman Jack; Early Times Kentucky Whiskey, which changed bourbon to whiskey; Jack Daniels Country Cocktails; Jack Daniels Single Barrel; and Woodford Reserve.  I was involved in all kinds of research and development, including tequilas, Canadian whiskey, American whiskeys, and imported whiskeys.  I never regretted a day when I had to go to work.  Brown-Forman is one of the best companies to work for.  I also developed a beer for Jack Daniels and whiskeys specifically for Japan.  I worked very close with Suntory International and was asked to develop a special Jack Daniels and Early Times (called Early Times Premium) only to be sold in Japan.  Japanese taste prefers more subtle and lighter whiskeys than we would expect in the U.S. 

TWBB: What made you decide to come out of retirement to create Angel’s Envy?

LH: My son.  After my retirement I became U.S. spokesperson for Suntory International promoting single malt whiskey.  About the same time my son approached me with another gentleman, Jay Maltby, to ask if I wanted to create something of our own. I said “Are you crazy? That will be too much work!”…just kidding!  Jay was the CFO and CEO for Bacardi rum and other companies who has started his own sales and marketing company and we sat down and talked, and I thought if Jay is in this too, it will be something successful. I didn’t know if they could get enough money to do it—it costs a lot to get enough start-up capital to store the whiskey for four to six years.  But it all came together.  I contracted out with one of my good friends in the industry to store our barrels according to our recipe, our yeast, our barrels.  Every day I can’t believe that this has taken off.

TWBB: Angel’s Envy bourbon is a unique concept.  How did you come up with it?

LH: Having worked for Brown-Forman then finishing my career with Woodford Reserve, every day I was at the distillery.  I was living in Louisville at the time.  Any time I was tired of the corporate atmosphere I would take off for Woodford Reserve, which is only about 50 minutes away.  The Scots and the Irish and others use all kinds of casks, and I had experience working with people in Scotland and elsewhere.  I spent time in California experimenting and had casks shipped from Spain, Portugal, Mexico, and some islands.  I filled them with Woodford Reserve and it worked.  Brown-Forman didn’t want to do it, but I had the experience and I knew it would work.  You come up with a very subtle whiskey and you put it in a port finish and it makes it smoother.  It changes the whole mouth feel of the alcohol.  You’re talking four, six years before people are even talking about it, before they even recognize it.

TWBB: Have you had any trouble acquiring enough port wine barrels to produce Angel’s Envy?

LH: No. You have to remember we are a very small batch.  We can get the same port barrels from the same producer.  And now we’re looking at other types of barrels based on my experience at Brown-Forman. The barrels are true wine barrels—toasted, not charred.  They come to us shrink-wrapped and it looks like they’ve never been used, except that they have the wine that has soaked into the wood.  We sniff them very carefully but don’t alter them.

TWBB: Bourbon is a product imbued with a great deal of historical significance and pride.  Given the strong views of many of its biggest consumers, have you experienced any resistance to Angel’s Envy as a bourbon whiskey that strays from the traditional production process?

LH: Not at all.  We’ve done so many different tastings in all kinds of venues, really upscale or otherwise.  People who are knowledgeable about the requirements of bourbon will ask about the barrels, and we say that Angel’s Envy is aged in new charred white oak barrels.  It becomes bourbon first and then gets aged a bit further in the port barrel.

TWBB: Are there any lessons from your previous career experience that you have applied to Angel’s Envy?

LH: The biggest is my experience with the consumer.  I was very fortunate to be involved with promoting Brown-Forman whiskeys around the world and I could see about ten years before I was retiring that the consumer was changing.  They’re younger now and my experience shows that you can’t just foo foo things anymore.  You have to give the consumers the straight answer.  Before you would look at the bottle and you wouldn’t know or care what the product was made of or where it came from.  But now people care.  Now the American young mixologists and bartenders are a big force in promoting this super premium whiskey.  They are very knowledgeable.  We have some working for us now in every major market.  We call them “whiskey guardians.”  They are young people (early 30s), they know whiskey, they know the market, they have bartender friends, and they are a big factor in promoting our brand.

TWBB: Is there anything else you’d like us to know?

LH: I have ten grandchildren!  No, more seriously, my son started this whole idea.  His name is Wesley Henderson and he is our COO.  I had no idea that Wes ever wanted to do anything like this.  But when I got close to retirement he started thinking about this and I’m glad he did.  Now his oldest son, age 22, is involved with bottling and shipping.  Now there are three of us, and I never expected them to be interested, but am so glad that they are.  We just have a wonderful team and we’re really excited. 

April 18, 2012 | Comments | Permalink |

Tags: Angel's Envy bourbon whiskey interviews 

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