Trey Zoeller is a curious man. The founder and distiller of Jefferson’s Bourbon, a small-batch whiskey producer based in Crestwood, Kentucky, Zoeller has made a name for his brand with experiments in what could only be called “extreme distilling.”
Jefferson’s is known for projects that take American whiskey in bold new directions. It gives nod to the wine world with its line of Bourbons finished in wine casks—including a Bourbon aged in barrels from Chappellet’s Pritchard Hill Cabernet, and another aged in barrels from Château Suduiraut. But Jefferson’s is perhaps best known for its Ocean series, where Bourbon-filled barrels are loaded onto freighter ships that sail around the world to age.
Jefferson’s Ocean began as an experiment to determine how weather, salt air and the motion of the sea would affect the aging of Bourbon. The resulting salted-caramel flavor profile generated heavy interest, and it was expanded to a full production line in 2012. Now on its 15th voyage, Jefferson’s has sent hundreds of barrels on journeys around the world.
Zoeller’s latest venture goes a step further, one that asks the question: What really makes Kentucky Bourbon different from other American whiskeys?
Last year, Zoeller began to test a hypothesis on why Kentucky Bourbon became so revered over history. Zoeller contends that Kentucky’s extensive waterway systems, which provided shipping routes to the East Coast via New Orleans, had a positive effect on the barrel-aging process that couldn’t be replicated in warehouses.
Zoeller set two barrels of his distillery’s whiskey on the journey to study the results. The barrels endured two hurricanes, multiple tropical storms and 4,000 nautical miles in their yearlong voyage.
How did it begin and what were the results? (Or, “The slow boat to New York City”)
The whiskey was distilled in January 2016, and it was housed in Kentucky for six months. The belief was distillers of eras past would wait until spring floods had subsided to transport their whiskey down the river.
“At this point, boat-wise, we were basically hitchhiking. It was, ‘Which way you heading? We’ll cover gas.’” —Trey Zoeller
“We were trying to keep it as historically accurate as possible,” says Zoeller. “We kept the boat at around 4.8 knots—basically just floating it along the water.” The barrels baked under the summer sun as the boat meandered roughly 32 miles per day down the middle river system of America.
“Bourbon hasn’t made this journey in 150 years,” he says.
It took 58 days for the Bourbon to reach New Orleans from Kentucky, where it was transferred to another boat owned by celebrity Chef John Besh, a friend of Zoeller. There, the journey hit a number of snags. Tropical storms delayed their departure from Louisiana, and after finally getting underway, Hurricane Hermine forced the boat to take refuge in Tampa, Florida.
The hurricane “absolutely tore up the barrels,” says Zoeller. After weather-induced warping caused a barrelhead to pop, intervention was necessary. “We even bolted the staves to keep the barrels closed.”
In Key West, they faced more delays. They had to wait for reinforced replacement barrels to arrive before they were able to load them on to their next boat.
“We had to have our cooperage send down new barrels specially made with galvanized steel bands that could withstand the weather,” says Zoeller.
Eventually, they continued on to Fort Lauderdale, where disaster followed. Once there, they discovered that their next boat—the fourth of the trip—had been severely damaged by Hurricane Matthew, effectively leaving the barrels, stranded.
“At this point, boat-wise, we were basically hitchhiking,” says Zoeller. “It was, ‘Which way you heading? We’ll cover gas.’”
Welcome to New York
Zoeller found a boat in Fort Lauderdale willing to barter space for his Bourbon for fuel, and the slow journey north along the eastern seaboard began toward its final destination: New York City. Eight months behind schedule and one year to the day after the Bourbon left Kentucky, the boat finally docked off of Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers on June 6, 2017.
The barrels, less than a year old, battered and sun-bleached, looked as if they were unearthed from an archeological dig. That they were still watertight seemed a miracle.
What waited inside was one of the most uniquely produced whiskeys anywhere in the world in the last century. “Probably the most expensive, too,” says Zoeller with an edge in his voice that made clear the unexpected financial drain.
Anxious to answer his hypothesis, Zoeller grabbed a nearby pair of pliers to pop open the barrel and pour samples. However, the air pressure inside the barrel had changed during the journey, and some of the world’s rarest Bourbon began to spray like an open fire hydrant.
“Who asked me how many cases we’d get out of this?” Zoeller called out after he sealed the leak. “I think your answer is, about four less than when you got here.”
What does it taste like?
A side-by-side comparison between Zoeller’s boat-aged Bourbon and a control group that was distilled from the same batch on the same day but aged in Jefferson’s Kentucky warehouse, shows a vast difference.
Jefferson’s Journey Bourbon was much darker in color: a deep, rusty amber, more typical of a whiskey aged for years, compared to the control batch’s straw yellow hue. Its color would normally belie years, even decades of aging.
While the control sample was still hot, grassy and grainy, the boat-aged Bourbon had intense notes of honey and the astringency had significantly mellowed. It still tasted like whiskey, of course, but with almost zero bite in comparison to the traditionally aged control bottle.
Where to go next?
So what comes next for Jefferson’s Journey? Like the Ocean bottling, will this latest experiment hit shelves near you?
“There’s no way to do this commercially on a large scale,” says Zoeller. “I can’t even begin to imagine how much I’d have to charge per bottle.”
Instead, Zoeller plans to bottle and release the Bourbon on a limited scale by the end of summer/early fall. Parts of the proceeds will go to benefit The John Besh Foundation.
Zoeller also plans to save samples to unlock the mysteries of what happened during the Bourbon’s journey on a molecular level. Based on taste alone, Zoeller believes there’s merit to his hypothesis about the reason behind Kentucky Bourbon’s famed reputation.
Two if by sea…
As he stands on the boat’s deck, a hint of dissatisfaction remains in Zoeller’s voice, as he laments the project’s limited commercial viability. The captain of the boat—the one met in Fort Lauderdale, who traded space for Zoeller’s Bourbon in exchange for some gas, who has been listening along—clears his throat and speaks up.
“You know, I do have a guy. He has these kind of…used skiffs for sale. Light barges. Small enough that you’d still get a good roll off the waves, but could fit 10, maybe 20 barrels on each one. I’m sure he’d let them go for a good price.”
Zoeller pauses and narrows his eyes, seemingly going through the mental math of how having a dozen barrels on a small fleet of boats would affect the cost of producing his whiskey. Reaching an apparently satisfactory conclusion, he nods and excuses himself. He and the captain retreat to the stern of the boat to talk skiffs. There’s Bourbon to be made.