There are plenty of family-owned distilleries in America, but only one can claim the first documented woman in American whiskey history. Jefferson’s Bourbon is located in Louisville, Kentucky, and run by Trey Zoeller. His 8th generation grandmother, a widow with mouths to feed, was arrested in 1799 for moonshining and bootlegging.
“It’s how she supported herself,” Zoeller told me. “And If you went to my own grandmother’s house, she’d ask not what you wanted to drink, but how you took your whiskey.”
Jefferson’s Bourbon has an advanced repertoire, including collaborations with local chefs, tours and tastings at artisan distilleries, and old-school plans for floating barrels down the river.
“I’m about to set afloat barrels on the river,” Zoeller said, excitement evident in his voice. “We’re gonna land it in New Orleans, then take a rum-runner to go from New Orleans to Key West. And we’ll take it to New York, to taste what it would’ve tasted like years ago.” Prominent NOLA chef John Besh, said Zoeller, will be collaborating to create paired dishes.
Aside from a dozen years in Vail, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, and New Orleans, Zoeller has spent his entire life in Louisville, born and raised in a laissez faire city when it comes to business. “One thing that’s interesting about Louisville is what drives the economy. Obviously bourbon, but gambling, horse racing, tobacco, and marijuana.”
Because corn grows readily in Kentucky, what isn’t stored for livestock is best used by a distillery. “It’s amazing if you look at what a distillery did to a community in Kentucky,” said Zoeller. “You had to harvest the wood, so you have to pay lumberjacks. You had to employ the people who made barrels, you paid the people who drove the trucks.”
Given Zoeller’s expert take on Louisville, and his relationships with restaurants, distilleries, and local commerce, I asked him to recommend his favorite haunts around the cities. The list makes me want to get on the next flight to Kentucky: parks designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, a haunted hotel that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a restaurant that pairs Zoeller’s bourbon with chicken and waffles, among others. Read ahead for his complete list:
"Edward Lee, owner and chef of Milkwood, is one of my very good friends and my partner in Jefferson's Chef’s Collaboration Whiskey, which we crafted to pair specifically with dishes off his menu. You cannot beat the Chicken and Waffles."
"My friends and I always have an over and under bet on how many specials Chef Michael Crouch will have before the waiter starts his five-minute monologue of deliciousness. Also, nothing’s better than sitting on the deck sipping their signature barrel-aged bourbon cocktail, Wild Bill. Ask them the story behind the cocktail…"
"Silver Dollar is Louisville's version of Austin, TX, complete with classic country vinyl and Stroh’s beer."
Kentucky Artisan Distillery
"My brand, Jefferson's Bourbon, recently found a home at the KAD. In addition to bottling a small portion of our bourbon here, we give tours and special tastings, and have an awesome crowd most days just hanging out, drinking, having a great time. Even though it's a little ways outside of the city, it's a destination for bourbon geeks or anyone else who loves a good glass of whiskey!"
KAD is also a great place to experiment, said Zoeller. “We have the original stills for it. That’s where we grow our corn, rye, and barley. The slop is taken by a farmer. Cows might even be buzzed.”
"More traditional (and haunted!), The Seelbach served as inspiration for the hotel in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It’s also home of the famous Old Seelbach Bar, which houses over 100 bourbons." Zoeller added: “Right around the Derby, sports writers show up and order drinks, so there’s plenty of characters around. People would order drinks there to get the tips on the horses.”
What to do if you have a few hours to kill:
Walk Cherokee Park
"The mastermind of famous landscape architect and park creator Fredrick Olmsted, Cherokee is practically my 400-acre back yard. With dozens of miles of trails, it is a great escape, but only 10 minutes from downtown Louisville."
"Super chic clothing and accessories, plus there’s a full-service beauty bar in the store. It’s really brought a unique style to Louisville."
The Fashion Post
"Classic menswear that is old-school Southern. Tailored suits and sportswear from brands like Southern Tide, Scott Barber, and Peter Millar."
Favorite Local Brands
Bourbon Barrel Foods
"I’m in full support of Keep Louisville Weird, which supports local businesses and encourages people to shop small. I’m a huge fan of Bourbon Barrel Foods. Matt Jamie keeps finding great items to age in bourbon barrels like soy sauces, smoked sea salt, and bourbon vanilla sugar. He also has an in-house kitchen that features visiting chefs. You have to go!"