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A Singular Post On Serial Whiskeys
There’s something to be said for bourbon that tells a story
A few weeks ago I spent a couple of hours on Zoom with Angel’s Envy Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer Wes Henderson and his son Kyle (as well as a handful of other journalists) talking and tasting through ten whiskeys. That might seem a bit overindulgent for a Tuesday night, but we had a good reason for making our way carefully through each of the ten liquids. The Louisville-based distillery renowned for its bourbons finished in port wine barrels will release the tenth iteration of its annual limited-release cask strength whiskey at the beginning of December. To celebrate, the Hendersons walked our small group through samples of the entire series, from the inaugural 2012 bottling to the as-yet unavailable 2021 edition.
I typically don’t even like to write about these sorts of things, and not because I don’t appreciate them (I very much do). But if the general public can’t access a similar experience or even purchase the products in question — and good luck finding a remaining bottle of Angel’s Envy’s 2012 cask strength edition (only 611 were made) — it doesn’t really count as “service journalism.” At some point, recounting these kinds of exclusive experiences devolves into something more akin to petty braggadocio. If that’s what you’re after you should really just reference my Instagram.
But listening to father and son talk through a decade’s worth of whiskey that is itself a legacy of granddad — Wes’s late father Lincoln Henderson spent a celebrated career developing whiskeys like Woodford Reserve and Gentleman Jack before co-founding Angel’s Envy with his son in 2011 — got me thinking about serial whiskeys and the stories they tell. I’m not trying to overly-romanticize things here. But there is a romantic aspect to whiskey that, for many of us, is a big part of its appeal.
Consider: In an era of same-day delivery and on-demand everything, whiskey cannot be rushed. It’s produced, broadly speaking, the same way it was a century ago. Experiments in whiskey take time — decades in some cases — placing a huge premium on an individual producer’s experience and intuition. There’s a craft to whiskey that modernity has yet to measure, quantify, convert into code, and commoditize. There’s no app for it.
This is what makes whiskeys — and other barrel aged spirits, for that matter — so special, and nothing tells their stories quite like a thoughtfully crafted series. Some serial releases wander all over the flavor map (you may recall our recent love letter to Laphroaig’s exquisite Cairdeas series, which in recent years has introduced Laphroaig’s signature liquid to all stripes of finishing casks: wine, sherry, port, madeira, etc.). Some hew more closely to a singular house style, letting the particularities of the specific casks selected for the blend impart nuance and character to the liquid.
But they all tell stories, and those stories are best understood if consumed in the same manner as a serialized television show: in order, and occasionally all in one evening. For me, this is perhaps the single greatest argument for starting a serious bottle collection. Pouring out a few drams from different releases within a particular series allows you to identify and follow the threads that tie them all together. It makes for fascinating drinking.
The 2021 Angel’s Envy cask strength tells the story of a relatively new producer armed with very old wisdom settling neatly into a stride. Going back to the earliest editions of this series (2012-2014) you get a very quick study in maturation; Each edition is sourced from liquid that all went into the barrel at the same time, with each successive release expressing the influence of one additional year of maturation in oak. The transition to a new batch of liquid and a new set of port finishing barrels comes through in the 2015 edition, while an increase in production volume — and thus a significant uptick in the total number of casks needed to create the final blend — leaves its fingerprint on the 2016 release and those that follow.
Angel’s Envy 2021 Cask Strength distinguishes itself by including some older whiskeys in the blend. These six or seven barrels (out of roughly 50 total barrels used) of nine-year-old spirit impart more vanilla and oak notes than you’ll find in the typical bottle of Angel’s Envy. It puts off a dreamy nose of red berry fruit, apricot, caramelized sugar, vanilla cream, and just a whiff of leather. The palate goes from fruity (cherry and stone fruit) to creme brûlée, honey, oak and warm spice, landing deftly on a finish that’s a bit spicy and a bit smokey but mostly calls back to the port casks in which it was finished.
It’s really good, in other words, and if you haven’t been following along with Angel’s Envy for the past decade this 2021 release offers many very convincing reasons to get on board. The 14,760 limited-edition bottles produced this year will go on sale across the U.S. starting December 1 at an SRP of $229 (just in time for the holidays).
And it’s not alone. Below, find a very non-comprehensive list of some recently-released limited-edition/serial whiskeys worthy of consideration. Some of this year’s releases are already a bit difficult to find, as collectors and bourbon fanboys tend to buy them up quickly. Don’t sweat it. The nice thing about annual releases: There’s always next year.
Maker’s Mark FAE-02 ($60) // After decades of sticking to its core product and its core product only (Maker’s 46 being the exception), the good people at Maker’s Mark started dabbling in experimental wood stave finishing techniques a few years ago. The results suggest they should’ve started sooner. The Maker’s Mark Wood Finishing Series has yet to turn out an uninteresting bourbon, and the latest release — catchily titled “FAE-02” — was designed to dial up the mouth-filling texture of this dram by introducing specially-treated French oak wood staves to the liquid for several weeks prior to bottling. If you’re the kind of person who gets hyped at the mere mention of things like “fatty acid esters,” this bottle is for you. And at a suggested SRP of $60, it’s a serious steal. This one is increasingly hard to find out there in the wild, but it is still available at retail to the determined shopper. If you see this, buy it.
Little Book Chapter 5: The Invitation ($125) // Eighth-generation Beam distiller Freddie Noe makes this tribute to his grandfather, Booker Noe, every year, and every year it brings something delightfully different. Now in its fifth iteration, the series aims to create the kind of outside-the-box blends Booker himself was fond of crafting. Past releases have been anchored by brown rice bourbon, for instance, or included whiskeys from Beam’s Small Batch Collection that generally aren’t available to consumers. Chapter 5 creates a unique marriage of young and old, blending two very young whiskeys — a two-year-old bourbon and a three-year-old 100% rye — with a 5-year-old bourbon and a practically ancient 15-year-old bourbon whiskey that layers dazzling complexity atop the base of younger spirits. Sumptuous, slightly spicy, and ever-so-tightly dialed in. SRP: $125 (Though you may have to pay a bit more for this one, as supply is dwindling.)
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2021 ($150) // I almost feel bad recommending this one, as the SRP is $150 (reasonable!) while the current going price for these bottles online is, uh, somewhat steeper. But it’s roughly impossible to talk about special bottles of limited edition bourbon without talking about Four Roses. The multi-mash bill, multi-yeast method by which Four Roses assembles its whiskeys is unique within the industry, and the resulting blends — this one comprising four different distillates ranging in age from 12-16 years — tend toward the spectacular. The 2021 edition is rich in red berry fruit, peppery spice, orange zest, warm toasted oak, and vanilla cream, all in balanced lockstep. It’s a series worth returning to every year.
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What We’re Drinking: Good Deeds Malt Whiskey
As long as we’re talking about limited edition whiskeys while simultaneously barreling headlong into the season with a reason, it’s worth offering a quick nod to Good Deeds Malt Whiskey. This brand new limited-production series marries nine whiskeys, each sourced from a different U.S. craft distiller (needless to say, this kind of collaboration across distilleries doesn’t happen very often). Benefitting the STEPUP Foundation — a diversity and inclusion initiative providing internships and training within the craft spirits industry to underserved and underrepresented individuals — this year’s batch was created in February of this year via two days of marathon blending, drawing from casks donated by distilleries across the country including Balcones (Texas), FEW Spirits (Illinois), Rogue Spirits Distilling (Oregon), Sonoma Distilling (California), State Line Distillery (Wisconsin) and a handful of others.
Exuding lovely dried fruit and malt on the nose, this inaugural release of Good Deeds brings dried fruit, toasted nuts, and honeyed bread on the palate, making it a pretty perfect accompaniment to fall-going-on-winter weather. A full 100% of proceeds go to STEPUP, and with a retail price of just $75 and ready availability online via Seelbach’s, this is easily the most obtainable bottle listed in this post. Think of it as an easy way to do some good while spreading cheer this holiday season.