Much has changed within the whiskey world since Trey Zoeller founded Jefferson’s Bourbon back in 1997. Over the last 25 years, there’s been an exponential demand for bourbon (and other whiskeys) and a boom in distillery development across the globe. All the while, Zoeller established Jefferson’s as a pioneer in experimentation and put out dozens of delicious, covetable whiskey expressions. Of the limited edition releases expected this year, we spoke with Zoeller around the debut of the already award-winning Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea Rye Whiskey. Zoeller and his team managed to impart as much flavor as possible into this exquisite rye, and that’s thanks in part to the salty air and occasional extreme heat of its voyage on a ship to 30 ports across five continents. It’s also just the latest in a long line of curious creations that have given the brand its clout over the years.
“My goal is to make this a globally respected brand,” Zoeller tells COOL HUNTING. Pernod Ricard acquired Jefferson’s Bourbon in 2019, and Zoeller stayed on as CEO (and much more). “Pernod has been able to give me the resources to achieve that,” he continues. “We’ve been on the forefront of innovation for bourbon and some of the innovations we have moving forward are really going to stretch that even further.”
Zoeller’s claim to be at the forefront of innovation is supported by his portfolio. Of course there’s the well-known aged-at-sea expressions, but there is also a New York edition bottled with local water, several collector-worthy Presidential Select iterations and all the improbable experiments (not on shelves) that Zoeller sometimes lets friends of the brand try. For instance, we had the privilege of tasting bourbon he’d aged in tabasco barrels and then diluted eight-to-one with water. An overwhelming experience, it will long be remembered.
“I am experimental by nature,” Zoeller says. “I get restless and want to see what else we can do. When we have something that’s successful, I think of it as peeling back the layers of an onion. I want to peel further and take the process farther. I want to see how far we can push something. It’s a risk because there will always be people who love to hate and want to question your innovations.”
When asked about what’s not working right now, Zoeller acknowledges bourbon he’s currently finishing in Japanese Mizunara casks. “We keep going back and tasting it,” he says. “It’s picking up more and more flavor but it’s still not ready. It’s not doing what I would have hoped it would but over time it will get there. That’s what’s so great about having so many experiments. If one doesn’t work, that’s OK. We’ve got so many more in rotation.”
That’s what’s so great about having so many experiments. If one doesn’t work, that’s OK. We’ve got so many more in rotation
Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea Rye Whiskey isn’t the liquor brand’s first rye. It is their first to age at sea, however, and it’s the result of one specific mission. “I drink bourbon on the rocks typically,” Zoeller says. “Rye has all that spice up front and then it’s quiet toward the finish. That’s why it’s so good in cocktails, but it doesn’t make for a very good sipping whiskey. I wanted to make a rye that I could drink on the rocks.”
“I thought we could do that by starting with mature rye,” he explains. Jefferson’s double-barrels 100% five-year-old rye in Kentucky. “75% of it is put in new ‘char 3’ barrels. 25% of that is put into toasted barrels, for a gentle marshmallow flavor. Then we send it down to Savannah, put the barrels in containers and then onto the bow of a ship,” Zoeller explains.
This marks the 26th voyage of a Jefferson’s product and it’s a trot around the globe that most travelers would be envious of. “It goes through the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal to New Zealand, around Australia and the Tasmanian Sea. Up to Malaysia, China and Japan, then over to the west coast of Canada, then the US and back through the Panama Canal, up the the east coast of the US, across the North Sea and then back.” Through all the jostling, the liquid extracts color and flavor from the barrel, while the wood filters out astringency. It’s quite an adventure for the rye and it pays off. Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea Rye Whiskey is one of the most successful conversions of concept to product and, simply put, it tastes great neat or on the rocks, just as Zoeller had hoped.
Images courtesy of Jefferson’s Bourbon