Today is a sad day in the bourbon world, as master distiller Lincoln Henderson is laid to rest. He died Sept. 10 at the age of 75 following a long battle with melanoma. He worked for nearly 40 years for Brown-Forman, where he created Woodford Reserve and served as a mentor to current master distiller Chris Morris, and then came out of retirement to work with his son, Wes Henderson, and later his grandson, Kyle, to create Angel’s Envy, a premium bourbon finished in port wine casks.
I spoke with Mr. Henderson just once, but it was a memorable meeting. It was April of this year. Six master distillers had gathered at the Brown Theatre for a taping of “The Moth,” the storytelling series. The event had open seating, so I kept walking down toward the front until I reached the third row. No one stopped me, so I took a seat. The man in front of me turned around and said, “Do you have permission to sit here??” I started to stammer something and he laughed and stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Lincoln Henderson.” We chatted for a bit before the show started. He said he was nervous, but you couldn’t tell it when he went onstage.
Master distillers tell the stories of their brands countless times in a year, but The Moth wanted them to tell their own stories, the stories of how they got into the business. It turned out that Lincoln Henderson had originally wanted to be a doctor. He got good grades, but the hands-on side of medical school tripped him up. “I couldn’t remember where the heart was, or the brain,” he said, chuckling. Instead, he took his chemistry and biology degrees to Brown-Forman, where he eventually worked his way up to master distiller.
Not everyone approved of his choice of employment, he said. Once, he found himself in a hardshell Baptist church in Oklahoma while visiting family. “The pastor was going on about the evils of drinking,” he recalled. “I just started getting smaller and smaller. The pastor ended with, ‘I want to take all the whiskey, wine and beer in the world and dump it into the river!’” And then the worship director stood up, Lincoln said, and announced: ”Our song will be, ‘Let Us Gather by the River.’”
When his son, Wes, was small, one of his teachers asked Lincoln Henderson, “Do you really drink 9 quarts of whiskey a day?” No, he said he replied – only 6.
“I never imagined that I’d be working with my son,” he concluded. “That shocked me. And to top it off, my grandson, Kyle, who was going to go to medical school, decided that whiskey was a better form of medicine.”
Perhaps one day, the grandson who wanted to be a doctor will, like his grandfather before him, become an M.D. – a Master Distiller.
(Photo from Angel’s Envy)