It took Angel’s Envy‘s Kyle Henderson half a decade of asking around, working the phones, and crossing his fingers to finally get his hands on just a handful of Japanese Mizunara oak casks. “It took a good five years from the concept to actually getting ahold of the barrels and getting them to the U.S.,” he says, ticking off the issues that make this coveted wood so difficult to obtain. “It’s so controlled, the growth of the trees is so slow, it does not like to grow straight, it’s porous as heck so there’s a lot of issues with constructing [the barrels]…”
Working with Mizunara oak (when you can get it) presents a number of challenges, in other words. So when Henderson, production manager for Angel’s Envy distillery, managed to land a few brand new Mizunara oak barrels from a cooperage in Japan, he and his colleagues—two of whom happen to be his father, Angel’s Envy Co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer Wes Henderson, and his brother, Lead Distillery Operator Andrew Henderson—knew they had to create something special with it.
The resulting whiskey, properly titled Angel’s Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Japanese Mizunara Oak Casks, is a blend of four-year-old and nine-year-old bourbons finished for two years in Japanese oak before bottling. On its face, that may sound unremarkable, as cask finished whiskies—those that spend a little time in barrels that formerly held other liquids—are very much en vogue these days. But Mizunara oak barrels are no conventional casks, and Angel’s Envy is not in the habit of turning out conventional whiskey.
A decade ago Wes Henderson and his father Lincoln—an industry legend by any telling—introduced their first batch of bourbon into used port barrels, a practice deemed not only unconventional but somewhat heretical at the time. Angel’s Envy was born, and port finishing became something of a signature for the brand even as it continued to push boundaries with other experimental cask regimens. This latest bottling is a tribute to both the legacy of Lincoln Henderson (who passed away in 2013) but also to Angel’s Envy itself, which celebrates 10 years to the day since Wes and Lincoln filled that first port barrel with bourbon on August 19 and set the tone for a decade of forward-thinking experimentation.
The use of Mizunara oak to finish this bourbon nods to a tradition of doing what’s difficult in the pursuit of good whiskey. Mizunara is very old-growth oak—a 150-year-old tree would be considered young for harvesting—that is highly regulated by Japanese forestry authorities. As Kyle Henderson notes, it grows crooked and porous, making it frustratingly difficult for coopers to craft into watertight barrels. As such, Mizunara casks are rare, expensive, and notoriously difficult to come by even for Japanese distillers. You’ll be even more hard pressed to find American distillers holding Mizunara barrels in their warehouses.
Older wood also requires more time to impart flavor to a whiskey, even if the barrels have never held whiskey before. Finishing a whiskey in European oak casks that once held sherry or port wine takes just a few short months. Mizunara requires much more time and patience. Two years makes for a very long cask finish, but as the Hendersons’ perseverance in both procuring and deploying these barrels shows, good things really do come to those who wait.
Going into the bottle at 97.8 proof, their Mizunara cask finished bourbon comes out of the bottle with aromas of toasted sandalwood, cut red apples, and a whiff of fruit-filled, frosted breakfast pastry. On the palate come oaky notes of vanilla and spice, but also caramelized banana, cinnamon, apple, that give way to a finish that’s peppery, lightly smoky, and pleasantly long. Though rich in body and somewhat decadent in flavor, there’s a certain lightness and liveliness to it, closing the loop between source liquid and finishing vessel.
Unfortunately, the scarcity of good Mizunara casks begets a scarcity of Mizunara cask finished whiskies, something that makes this limited 10th-anniversary offering from Angel’s Envy unique but also potentially as difficult to obtain as the barrels themselves. Members of the distillery’s 500 Main fan club can access a pre-sale of the 1,200 available bottles—which come packaged in a crystal decanter—starting August 19 for $350. After that, remaining bottles will be available at the distillery and select retailers around Kentucky.