Jefferson Bourbon founder Trey Zoeller lives a charmed life as a bourbon maker, but the best day of it may have been catching and tagging sharks in Costa Rica off his friend's boat for his 40th birthday.
"We were there really to surf and fish and drink lots of alcohol," Zoeller says in his thick Bluegrass State accent.
He was plenty coherent. Examining the bourbon sloshing around in everyone's cups, Zoeller came up with an idea that changed the company forever. "What if this were to happen in the barrels?" he wondered. "I was hoping this would accelerate the maturation process and add flavors that we wouldn’t typically get, which is exactly what happened."
This experimentation emboldened Zoeller to take bourbon–a spirit made from methods established over more than a century of distilling–in a new direction. "When I started playing around with the maturation and agitation process," he says, "that’s when I started to push the legal definitions of bourbon without bastardizing it, at the same time tipping my hat to the tradition."
They placed five barrels of clear whiskey on the ship to age them out on the ocean. After three and a half years, the ship had sailed around Panama four times and returned to the Florida Keys, where Zoeller got his first look at this ocean-aged bourbon. The whiskey had turned black. "It was thick and it had a briny taste," Zoeller remembers. "The ocean air had penetrated and given a nice savory taste to it," Zoeller says. "We sent it back to the engineer and found out it had caramelized through the barrels. Because it had been slapping up against the wood it was very rounded and didn’t have that astringency of the alcohol. You could taste the wood. He also likens the taste of Jefferson's Ocean blend to salted caramel.
Bourbon is practically in Zoeller's blood–and not because of how much he has consumed. He started Jefferson's small batch bourbon with his father Chet, a famed bourbon author and historian. The two continued a family tradition that goes back to Trey’s eighth generation grandmother who was arrested in 1799 for the “production and sales of spirituous liquors,” or moonshining, as it's often referred to today.
But it was 12 years after founding Jefferson's, on that enlightening day at sea, that Zoeller discovered a need to routinely introduce new flavor notes to his bourbons.
"For the last 150 years bourbon was pretty much left alone," he says. "But its just now that theres an audience that wants to taste. Everything that we do, I want to do it within the legal definitions of what bourbon is. But I want to push those definitions." He compares his process with nature vs. nature – the distilled product represents the bourbon in its natural state that is then nurtured, or manipulated, by Zoeller to enhance the flavors, maturation and quality of the finished product.
"For the Ocean blend, some of the real bourbon traditionalists, they thought this was not the most traditional method of aging bourbon, but in fact, it is," Zoeller says of the initial criticism. "This is why bourbon proliferated in the first place. If we didn’t send bourbon down the waterways, up the Kentucky river, down the Ohio river, down the Mississippi River on ships, shipped across the straights of Florida, up to New York and where there were people, it would be just another distilled spirit coming off a still. I've got a pretty damn good argument that the ocean-aged is the most traditional aged bourbon….It probably tasted a lot more like Jefferson’s Ocean than any other bourbon today."
As part of the Jefferson's Experimental Series ($99.99) that will be available in January, customers can buy a gift pack of five 200 ml bottles containing some of Zoeller's most experimental batches. For the past two years, Zoeller has been carrying out 13 different treatments on aged bourbon–aging it in wine barrels, charring some barrels, toasting the staves of others– all of which affects the flavors. "For instance, there was one barrel that was absolutely incredible after 60 days," Zoeller says. "It tasted like a butterscotch bomb. I thought, 'It’s great at 60 days, I can't wait to taste it at 90 days.' At 90 days it had turned and tasted like green wood. So every time we went up there and tasted it I was getting different flavors to come out."
Jefferson's Gorth Finish ($79.99) is slated for a February launch. In a twin wood aging process, Jefferson's is extra matured in French Oak casks that once held Cabernet Sauvignon from Groth Vineyards & Winery in Oakville, Napa Valley, adding a lush fruit flavor, soft, supple texture and sweet vanilla character. When he is not drinking bourbon, Zoeller likes either cheap American beer or Cabernet Sauvignon. "We took 6-year-old bourbon this time and put it into the Groth barrels, and put it into what I call a 'hotbox,' which is nothing more than a shipping container out in the sun," he says of the process. "Matter of fact, we had to cut a number of holes in there and put fans because of the vapors coming off of it. A spark hits and it was going to blow that thing." Zoeller says he wants to make the next batch by shipping the bourbon to be aged in wine barrels in Napa to see if the change in climate produces a change in flavor.
Jefferson's Rum Finish ($79.99) will come out in either February or March. Zoeller aged 4-year-old bourbon in dark rum barrels that had been aging rum for 14 years. He says the Jefferson's took on "that molasses flavor," and made it "thick with a heavy pour."
There is no timetable for a release, but Zoeller is also concocting a barrel-aged Manhattan.
Zoeller may have celebrated his 40th birthday that time in Costa Rica, but he looks back on it as a rebirth. "I don't know if it was putting it on the boat that was so enlightening as much as when I took the bourbon off the boat three years later," he says of the bourbon's dramatic transformation to resembling molasses. That thrill is still driving his company. He is constantly looking to collaborate with new distillers, purveyors, chefs and anyone else with a innovative idea. He'll put a bourbon barrel just about anywhere to see the affect. The new products coming out in 2015 come from some of his most modest experiments. Far wackier is that currently he is aging barrels inside duck blinds owned by some of his hunting buddies.
"Kentucky has been great for bourbon," he says. "But is that the end all, be all? I don't know yet."