On the River With Jefferson's Journey
“Every time I taste a new voyage it’s like Christmas morning. I’m anticipating tasting it, but I have no idea what it’s going to be like. I try to push the boundaries of bourbon with out bastardizing it and tipping my hat to the traditions and foundations.” ~ Trey Zoeller
As these words hit the screen, there is a soon-to-be famous raft floating down the Mississippi River with two beautiful barrels of bourbon. Left to suffer the slings and arrows of being exposed to the elements, these casks are going through the same fate their ancestors traveled on the same route over a hundred years ago. Distilled in January of 2016, this bourbon was barreled and then waited an anticipation-filled six months for its journey to start.
Dubbed “Fantastic Voyage” and “I’m on a Boat” these brothers in staves are breathing life into a tradition and style that was slowly extinguished by the railroad. Trey Zoeller of Jefferson’s Bourbon had a crazy idea: what if we made a whiskey that followed the 19th century processes and then shoved off from Kentucky down the great Middle-American thoroughfare towards the end destination of New York?
What flavors would the constant slipping and sliding impart? Would the brine of the sea seep in just like it had on the previous Jefferson’s Ocean voyages (which spends several months on an OCEARCH shark research vessel to impart maritime influences), and if so to what degree? This blazingly bold gamble will be unveiled as the raft touches ground in New Orleans for a quick sampling. Then both barrels will be loaded onto Chef John Besh’s fully-restored, hundred-foot Rum Runner to navigate its path to the Florida Keys, only to find a new home on a sail boat bound for New York.
I had the chance to speak with Zoeller about this unique voyage and a few of this thoughts on the world of bourbon.
Ryan Stevens: I’ve heard the story of the Mexico trip with the bourbon sloshing around sparking your idea for Ocean, but what was this journey? Where did the idea come from to take it down the river to Gulf and up the East coast?
Trey Zoeller: I’ve had this idea for a few years now. My dad [Chet Zoeller] wrote a historical guide to Kentucky distilleries from his years of digging around towns and city halls. He detailed a whole of things that were pretty boring like ownership, bushel amounts, output and pretty much everything that could be documented. But there was one chapter that struck a chord with me, and it went into depth about the details of bourbon making the trip to market from Kentucky down the Mississippi to New Orleans. From the Gulf, it made its way around Florida, and then set its course to the Eastern Seaboard where there was higher demand.
“This is what turned American whiskey into bourbon. Most of it was rye, and drank off the still before this, similar to a vodka or gin, never hitting the wood. During this time, the sloshing, and continuous exposure to the wood gave bourbon its distinctive profile.”
RS: How did Chef Besh become a part of the process?
TZ: I was down in New Orleans working on a different project, when my path crossed with Chef Besh. The conversation turned to bourbon and the deep, rich connection between Kentucky and New Orleans. As the idea began to take form, Besh offered his hundred-year-old restored Rum Runner and with that we forged ahead.
Loaded onto the raft on June 6th, these two barrels boast 30% rye with a lower proof hovering around 110. Trey is keeping this process as close to historically accurate as possible, even going as far as to keep the raft moving steadily at 4.8 knots to mimic the traveling speed of the old bourbon vessels.
RS: What is the expected release date that the public will be able to get their hands on this amazingly unique spirit, and how many cases will be available?
TZ: Good question. Hurricane season will play a big part, for both the Gulf and Atlantic coast legs of the trip. Since we’ll be on small boats, we have to very cognizant of the weather. We are hoping to land in New York by the end of November, and then after a few tasting parties have it ready for bottling by January.
RS: Finally, with bourbon coming into another trending golden age, what other styles and tricks might we see in the coming years?
TZ: Bourbon mirrors the history of the country, paralleling and forging trends, and that’s what’s bourbon is all about. I’m working on a number of things, and as with the best projects, ideas come organically (Editor's note: two such experiments, Jefferson's Barrel Aged Manhattan and Groth Cask Finish Bourbon both took home medals in the 2015 NY International Spirits Competition). Simple discussions with people that come from different perspectives and skill sets always seem to bring about the best results.
When you deconstruct the flavor profile of Jefferson’s Ocean, you’ll find both subtle nuances and characteristics imparted from beating against the wood and sucking in the hot air. While the hot air caramelizes the sugars, the salty sea air infuses a layered bite of salt throughout the sip. If tasting through Voyage 8 gives us any preview of what might be in store for our palates from this journey, then revisiting the past may be the new trend for the future.
Tours are available at the Jefferson's Vistors' Center at Kentucky Artisan Distillery in Crestwood, Ky, 20 minutes from downtown Louisville.