Featuring Founder and Chief Strategist of Jefferson’s Reserve
By Joe Daily
Photos by Andrea Hutchinson
I have spent the majority of my adult life studying beverages with a focus on distillates for the most part. This month I am joined by Founder and Chief Strategist of Jefferson’s Reserve, Trey Zoeller. When I first came across Jefferson’s Reserve, I immediately appreciated the brand. Now let’s skip a couple of years into the future when I discovered Jefferson’s Ocean Aged At Sea.
I thought I knew every avenue and angle skewed around the bourbon and so forth, but this one got me. The ability to age at sea for a bourbon had not even remotely crossed my mind. My mind jumped from place to place. I asked myself, is this legal? Next, my mind went straight to the point of, I need to taste this bourbon!
How did Jefferson’s Reserve come to be? From what I gather, it’s in the blood of your family history?
Like most of us born in Kentucky, we have relatives who were involved in the bourbon industry one way, shape or form. We can trace our bourbon roots back to 1799 when my 8th generation grandmother was arrested for producing and selling whiskey, making her the first documented woman in the American Whiskey Business. However, when my Dad and I started McLain & Kyne Distillery in 1997, it was because I had moved out of Kentucky to half a dozen cities in the U.S. where people did not drink bourbon. Bourbon was in a 30-year decline, producing an ocean of great older bourbons available for us to purchase and start blending. We wanted to introduce super-premium bourbon to the market when most brands cut their price. I thought that bourbon was superior to single malt scotch popular at the time. I thought if we crafted the bourbon together to make it complex and balanced, we could compete with the premium, more popular scotch brands.
For our readers interested in checking out the distillery, where are you guys located?
Our home is in Crestwood, KY, 14 miles from downtown Louisville at Kentucky Artisan Distillery. We are open for tours from Wednesday to Sunday. Please come out and see us!
Alright, so like many of the questions I want to dig into. What in the world is Jefferson’s Ocean?!
Jefferson’s Ocean is one of 21 expressions of Jefferson’s bourbon that we have produced. We are currently bottling our 26th voyage. We take fully mature bourbon, load the barrels in cradles and place them in containers. They are shipped to Savannah and put on ships that travel to approximately 30 ports on five continents, crossing the equator several times. We have a regular voyage every year and a wheated and cask strength voyage. The rocking back and forth of the waves makes the bourbon continuously in contact with the wood, which imparts more flavors, and the wood acts as a filter, taking out the astringency of the alcohol. The extreme heat caramelized the wood’s sugars when the ship crossed the equator, bringing forth a very viscous caramel flavor. Finally, when the ship is out on the open ocean, the salt air permeates the barrel and gives it a salty flavor. Many people that have written about Jefferson’s Ocean say they thought it was a gimmick until they tried it. Now it tastes like salted caramel popcorn bourbon.
How did the idea for Jefferson’s Ocean come about?
I was drinking bourbon with some friends on the bow of a ship in Costa Rica. As I noticed the bourbon rocking back and forth in the bottle, I thought if this would happen in a bottle, surely it would do the same in a barrel. That agitation and change of environment and temperatures would drastically alter the maturation process. We ended up putting five barrels on a ship for three and a half years. What came back was almost black, thick, and absolutely delicious.
Is there a specific path your team tried to take with the bourbon aged at sea?
Well, at first, it was merely an experiment. We now have completed 26 voyages. What is impressive is that all but two of those voyages have gone on basically the same route. However, what it encounters on each voyage changes the taste and feel of each voyage. Whether we depart in the summer or winter, what storms we encounter, hurricanes, typhoons, rough seas in the Tasmanian Sea, freezing temperatures in the North Sea, dead calm seas around the equator. All make a difference. Voyage 24, we kept the ship in sweltering, humid temperatures around the Caribbean and Central America, the bourbon matured differently than all of the other voyages. We now get lots of data from each voyage, whether it’s relative seas conditions (calm, moderate, rough, very rough) as well as average water and air temperatures. This information gives us a good idea of what we can anticipate the voyages will taste like and how to replicate those flavors. We want to continue experimenting and find the right conditions to craft the best bourbon.
Would you mind shedding a little light on the science of Jefferson’s Ocean aged at sea?
The science is taking fully mature bourbon and enhancing it by introducing constant agitation, extreme temperature fluctuation and brine. We have sent samples of bourbon that have been on the journey and those barrels that we distilled on the same day and aged in Kentucky and had them broken down molecularly by Jordie Lab in M.A. They produced a 300-page document that proves how the whiskey had metamorphosed from its start to the end. Historically speaking, it was similar to how people in Kentucky initially brought their bourbon to market on the East Coast (where there were people), which changed whiskey into bourbon for the first time.
So, to close things out: do you have a favorite cocktail in your arsenal?
I keep it pretty simple; I like my bourbon on one big rock. If I am going to drink a cocktail, it is typically an Old Fashioned or a Sazerac.
Jefferson’s Ocean Aged At Sea is one of the most extraordinary origin stories of any bourbon on the planet! From a product going out to sea as an experiment to being one of the finest bourbons to taste against itself via different voyages. The discernable differences make this product a fun find in the wild, and I look forward to the new voyages as they arrive.
What a great way to start the year. As always, thank you all for joining us this month!
Cheers and Best Regards,
Kentucky Artisan Distillery
6230 Old LaGrange Rd.
Crestwood, KY 40014
Tools required to tipple your senses:
• 1oz and 2oz Jigger (A bartender’s tool to measure)
• Yarai Mixing Glass (This is 90% of the time a glass vessel, but there are some metal versions as well)
• Stirring Spoon (This is a spoon designed to stir cocktails)
• Hawthorne Strainer or Julep Strainer(I prefer Hawthorne strainers for all applications)
• Old Fashioned Glass
• Y-Peeler (This is for peeling the garnish)
• Ice Scoop (The tool everyone forgets including me)
Where the magic happens:
• 1.25oz Jefferson’s Reserve Bourbon
• 1.25oz Cognac (Dealer’s Choice)
• 2 Dashes Angostura Aromatic Bitters
• 3 Dash Peychaud’s Bitters
• ½ Teaspoon of Water
• Absinthe Rinse
• Sugar Cube
• Ice: No Ice In Finished Cocktail
• Garnish: Large Swath of Lemon Peel
Rinse a chilled rocks glass with absinthe, discarding any excess, and set aside.
In a mixing glass, muddle the sugar cube, water and the Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters.
Add the rye and cognac, fill the mixing glass with ice and stir until well-chilled.
Strain into the prepared glass.
Twist the lemon peel over the drink’s surface to express the peel’s oils, then garnish with the peel.