Why Whiskey Is (Still) the Ultimate Father-Son Business
The father-and-son bourbon makers behind Jefferson's and Angel's Envy share their secrets to success
When you hear the story of whisky, it inevitably involves family. Even in bourbon, which doesn’t quite have the centuries-long history and tradition of, say, Scotch.
American history’s whiskey glass is filled with stories of fathers and sons — and the occasional and hopefully growing number of interested daughters — so this Father’s Day, we reached out to them to ask why the brown-spirits industry is so likely to attract multi-generations of family interest.
“Bourbon is something that’s handed down from generation to generation, or at least it was for me in Kentucky,” explains Jefferson’s founder and Chief Strategist Trey Zoeller. And it wasn’t just about his whiskey historian dad. “Just about everything my grandmother cooked was smothered in bourbon — and if you went to her house, she didn’t ask what you wanted to drink, but rather, how do you take your bourbon.”
“I think whiskey is a very personal business and very relationship oriented,” adds Angel’s Envy Co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer Wes Henderson, who founded the brand with his father and now has several sons working alongside him. “If you look back, the bourbon industry has really been upheld by a handful of family brands — large and small — making the family dynamic ingrained in whiskey culture.”
With that in mind, we asked the guys behind Jefferson’s and Angel’s Envy for some insights on what makes a successful father-son partnership. (And if you want to get even more into the family dynamic of whiskey, we spoke with a few generations of Russells at Wild Turkey two years ago.)
Trey Zoeller was bound to get into the booze business — it runs deep in his family. The founder of Kentucky’s most inventive bourbon brand had an eighth-generation grandmother arrested in 1799 for bootlegging and moonshining, the oldest woman documented in the American whiskey business.
And Trey’s father Chet is a historian who wrote the definitive book on distilling in Kentucky. “It’s not the most colorful book,” Trey told us a few years back, but nonetheless, son used his dad’s research to inspire his bourbon.
“Dad was also a serial entrepreneur,” says Trey. “I think the pride he had in Kentucky resonated and made me want to pursue making a historic product there in an entrepreneurial way. And my dad had the skills I needed to learn in the business. It just seemed natural to follow this path together.”
And Chet was more than willing to collaborate. “We made the decision together to get into bourbon,” he tells us. “And there were no hard parts working with Trey. When we started, it was just the two of us.” (Admittedly, it probably helped that Trey was usually on the road and Chet was manning the office.)
Trey admits there was a learning curve. “I think the most difficult part was believing [dad] was always right,” he admits. “I don’t think I had my confidence until later, so I defaulted to him early. But he was always great to work with. He’s pretty even keel.”
The Louisville-based craft distiller produces small-batch finished whiskeys that are starting to get a lot of notice (we’re loving their brand new Tawny Port-finished bourbon release).
Which is pretty special for a brand that only launched in 2011. And Angels’ Envy actually features a unique father-son-grandson relationship: it was co-founded by Wes Henderson and his father (the late Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson), and it’s now a family tradition that continues with Wes’s sons Kyle, Andrew, Connor and Spencer.
“When I started building Angel’s Envy with my father, I definitely kept Kyle, my eldest son, close to the process in case there was a possibility he would be interested in joining the team one day,” says Wes. “At the time, he was in college and had other plans, but as the business developed, so did Kyle’s interest.”
“My friends thought it was so cool that my dad worked in the spirits industry,” Kyle tells us. “Around the time I was in college, my father moved the entire family to Kentucky from Florida to start Angel’s Envy with my grandfather and asked if I wanted to help. After a short period of time I knew it was something I wanted to turn into a career.”
Both dad and sons have navigated through the highs and lows of working together … and admit it’s hard to leave the job at work when they get home. “We could probably do a better job at managing that, but it’s difficult for those two things to not bleed together,” admits Wes. “Additionally, I sometimes find it hard to take a step back and let my sons make mistakes which would ultimately allow for important lessons learned.”
But there have been perks of working together, which might be the biggest reason dads and children get into the whiskey business together in the first place. “I get to spend time with my dad as part of my job,” says Kyle. “A lot of people don’t get to see their parents and family as often as they’d like, so it’s certainly a great part about working together. I think my relationship with my dad and my brothers is better because of it.”
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