At Angel's Envy, Owen Martin Plans to Start at the Finish
November 21, 2022 –––––– Ted Simmons
When whiskey makers depart from famous distilleries—and that has been happening often lately—they typically continue to produce a style they’ve worked on. Yet, after six years producing American single malt at Stranahan’s in Denver, Owen Martin has made the move to Louisville, where he’ll serve as master distiller at Angel’s Envy, making bourbon and rye.
The job makes sense for Martin—who says a friend told him he’d be crazy not to take it—when you consider that Angel’s Envy became the first Kentucky bourbon maker to truly embrace cask finishing, now a widely accepted practice in the world of single malt.
“What I was doing in single malts was primarily research and development (R&D) through cask finishing. So, I've worked with a huge library of casks and gained knowledge of what works with them. If you think about it that way, then a hop over to Angel's Envy makes perfect sense,” Martin says. “For me, having played in the single malt space for a long time, I think this [opportunity] just opens up a lot more doors to do what I was already doing, but on a broader scale and with different whiskey.”
Martin speaks with Whisky Advocate after just two weeks on the job, and while it’s easy to jump right into his planned innovations, he’s adamant about getting to know the operation first. “My goal is to spend about a week with every department, if not more. I was on the bottling line last week following single barrels. My very first day, I was dumping rye casks. I think anyone in Colorado will tell you that I don't take the production side lightly,” he says. “If I don't know the process front to back and have everyone know that I have their back, then I can't represent the brand the way I need to.”
All that said, there’s no denying Martin has found himself with some sizable shoes to fill. Angel’s Envy was founded in 2006 by father-son duo Lincoln and Wes Henderson. Lincoln was a longtime Brown Forman employee, and credited with Woodford Reserve’s success in the late 90s. A true visionary, he had the idea of finishing Kentucky bourbon in secondary casks, challenging convention—and some are still firm in their belief that a whiskey spending time in anything other than a new charred oak vessel isn’t a bourbon. Lincoln passed away in 2013, and Angel’s Envy hasn’t bestowed the master distiller role on anyone since then—until now.
Coincidently, Woodford Reserve was the first distillery Martin ever visited. When he was 13 years old, he and his dad took a road trip from Kansas City to Gettysburg, stopping in Kentucky. It was then that Martin first learned of Henderson’s impact on the world of bourbon. Even today, he can remember the smell of the angels’ share in the rickhouse.
If you’re searching for Martin’s influence early on, look toward Angel’s Envy’s limited releases, which change from year to year. But expect the core range—a port-finished bourbon, a rum-finished rye, and a cask-strength version of the bourbon—to remain unchanged.
Martin studied brewing and distilling in Edinburgh before working for Stranahan's in Denver for six years. He now joins Angel's Envy as the first master distiller since 2013.
While he’s new to this role, Martin already has some ideas about how he might infuse his finishing expertise. “I really love using spirits barrels,” he says, having used cognac, rum, tequila, and even other whisky barrels as finishing casks in the past. “While wine barrels are perfect for adding a rich, fruity or dessert-like finish, I also appreciate the more subtle flavors and aromatics that other distilled spirits barrels can impart,” he says.
Angel’s Envy is owned by Bacardi which has a stable of other spirts that Martin will be able to pull from. While at Stranahan’s, which is owned by Proximo, he finished American single malt in casks that previously held Irish single malt from its sister company Bushmills—a single malt finished in single malt barrels. “Those sorts of ideas are what I can't wait to bring to the table. The reason I left engineering for this industry is because here you can leave your creative mark on things,” he says.
Martin also expresses an interest in second-use barrels, or finishing casks that have been used multiple times, noting the softer flavors and longer finishing periods they facilitate. He is quick to note though, that he hasn’t yet started any of these experiments at Angel’s Envy. “I've not filled a single specialty barrel here yet, and I don't know that we will before the end of the year, but I think there's room to play there.”
Today’s American whiskey market looks far different than when Lincoln and Wes first started Angel’s Envy. Nearly every distillery, large or small, is releasing cask-finished products, with the quality sometimes inconsistent as distillers fine tune their skills on variables like cask types and finishing length. For Martin and Angel’s Envy, it’s about continuing to lead the pack. “A lot of the newer producers are just slapping it in casks without knowing which direction they're heading,” Martin says. “When I'm putting things down, I want to be very purposeful about it.”