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Sea Change

Bourbon pioneer Trey Zoeller rocks the boat

Author Leah Koenig


Trey Zoeller, founder and master blender of Jefferson’s Bourbon


CAPE COD, MASS. – “My grandmother never asked, ‘What do you want to drink?’ but ‘How do you take your whiskey?’” says Trey Zoeller, founder of Jefferson’s Bourbon. He’s standing in the boiler room of a 126-foot ship that’s bobbing several miles off the coast of Cape Cod. Before him stand four waist-high barrels of bourbon. Zoeller, power drill in hand and industrial-size pitcher at the ready, is breaking into one of them.

A descendent of a Kentucky moonshiner and the son of bourbon scholar Chet Zoeller, Trey joined the family business in 1997 with the launch of Jefferson’s and quickly made a name for himself in the rapidly expanding artisanal whiskey market. But it was five years ago, while having birthday drinks with his friend and former high school classmate Chris Fischer—who heads Ocearch, a research organization focused on the health of the oceans—that Zoeller had a potentially industry-changing idea. “Chris was about to leave for a voyage and I thought, ‘How incredible would it be to age some of our bourbon on his ship?’” Zoeller says. Distilled bourbon gets its mahogany hue and caramel flavor from years of aging in charred white oak barrels. While sloshing around on the high seas, Zoeller reasoned, the bourbon would encounter more of the barrels’ surface, which might accelerate the maturation process. He also suspected the salty ocean air and fluctuating temperatures could impact the bourbon’s flavor for the better.

Fischer—whose team catches 2,500-pound great white sharks, tags them with tracking devices, then releases them—humored his buddy, agreeing to stow five barrels on his research vessel. Two barrels burst during the ensuing expeditions, but three and a half years later, about 300 bottles’ worth of bourbon emerged exactly as Zoeller hoped: aged well beyond its years. It was high-octane and “nearly molasses colored,” he says, and had a lush, spicy flavor and a whisper of salinity. Named Jefferson’s Ocean, the micro run of the well-traveled booze sold out immediately.

Zoeller is currently hard at work replicating the experiment. Earlier this year he replenished Fischer’s ship with four barrels of four-year-aged whiskey, including the one he successfully tapped on board today. Proceeds from these sales will support Ocearch’s work. Zoeller also loaded 72 barrels on a container ship that crossed the Equator four times over the course of six months to make enough whiskey for a larger release. When round two of Jefferson’s Ocean is released to the public in early 2014, bourbon swillers around the globe will have the chance to test out their sea legs. Meanwhile, Zoeller has big, boozy plans for the future. “This stuff is so good, I eventually want to have a bourbon-filled ship out sailing at all times,” he says.

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