Right now, on the seven shining seas across the globe, hundreds of barrels of Jefferson’s Bourbon are rocking to the current, the liquid inside hypnotically sloshing to and fro. Before the loot, stashed mostly on cargo ships, returns stateside, it’ll cross the equator five times and visit more than 30 ports on five different continents.
So the Bourbon you drink: How is it aged? Traditionally, whiskey is left in charred white oak barrels for anywhere from a few years to a few decades, where it matures and takes on its complex, caramelized flavor. Much of the process, in fact, is dictated by law. But Trey Zoeller, founder of Jefferson’s Bourbon, had a light-bulb moment in 2008 as he watched a bottle of his small-batch Jefferson’s Reserve rocking back and forth on the bow of his buddy’s boat. After an experimental voyage in 2012, he had a Bourbon that aged incredibly quickly (on a boat, the liquid comes into contact with more of the barrel’s interior, since it’s constantly in motion) and that took on a briney, salty quality from the ocean air.
Today, voyage eight is aging at sea, while seven was recently bottled at Jefferson’s Kentucky’s headquarters. “Every time a voyage comes back, it’s like Christmas morning,” says Zoeller, who’s still experimenting with the perfect equation for Jefferson’s Ocean, a runaway success. Each voyage has slightly different qualities, depending on the weather and conditions. Case in point: Voyage eight made it through last year’s Hurricane Joaquin.
Zoeller’s outfit is quite literally making waves in an industry long dictated by tradition, one that he downright respects. “Traditional Bourbon companies do a great job distilling,” says Zoeller, who founded Jefferson’s Bourbon in 1997 with his father, Chet, a Bourbon historian. “They’ve perfected that process. I want to build off what they’ve done and push the boundaries a little—without bastardizing it.”
Next he partnered with Napa Valley’s Groth Vineyards to test a new hypothesis: If you aged Bourbon in vessels that once held Cabernet Sauvignon, would the spirit pick up notes of wine? After six years in American oak barrels, he transferred Jefferson’s Bourbon to Cab-Sauv casks for just under a year. The result, Jefferson’s Groth Reserve Cask Finish was released in 2015. “I call it our elegant Bourbon,” Zoeller says with a laugh. “It’s got a fruit flavor at the front and on the finish, which brings out another dimension. And it’s a great gateway for wine drinkers.” He just bottled up some 7,000 cases, which will hit the market soon.
Then there’s Gosling’s rum: “We just took barrels that held Gosling’s for 14 years and put 8-year-old Bourbon in them,” he says. “That’s been aging since last December, and it just keeps getting better and better.” Zoeller hopes to release that concoction—a slightly sweeter and oh-so-smooth Bourbon—come May.
That’s the thing about great Bourbon, whether it’s experimental or traditional: it takes time. But from a business perspective—especially since demand in today’s golden age of Bourbon shows no signs of slowing—Zoeller has little patience when it comes to pushing the envelope.
So what’s next? He’ll test out another theory that, in some ways, goes back to where this all began: “Over 100 years ago, when Bourbon was brought from Kentucky up to Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, it went on a flat boat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, where it was loaded on a ship and sailed to the northeast,” he explains with a bit of a wicked smile. “I think what folks were drinking back then is actually closer to Jefferson’s Ocean than to today’s traditional Bourbon.” So he’s building an old-school flat boat, one that he plans to send down the Mississippi in early summer. It’ll trace that age-old route, hugging the coastline as it makes its way to New York by, say, September. Modern-day pirates and bourbon drinkers take note.
For more information about Jefferson’s Bourbon visit their website.
Photos 1,3,& 4 courtesy of: Jefferson’s Bourbon