It was one of those lightbulb moments.
Trey Zoeller, the co-founder of Kentucky bourbon makers Jefferson’s, was celebrating his 40th birthday. He was having a drink on his friend’s yacht in Costa Rica.
“As we sat on the bow of his ship,” says Zoeller, “we drank bourbon and I watched the bourbon slosh around in the bottle. I thought this would happen in a barrel and change the maturation process. The more we drank the more we knew we had to make it happen, so we put five barrels on his ship and were off to the races!”
The first expression of Jefferson’s Ocean was born. The bourbon’s flavor profile was affected not just by the constant motion, but by the salty sea air being absorbed into the barrels. Extreme temperature fluctuations also had their impact. Spells of passing through hot climates meant more caramelization in the barrels.
“People say it tastes like salted, caramel, popcorn bourbon,” Zoeller says.
Jefferson’s is known for its experimentation. Zoeller has aged bourbon in cabernet sauvignon wine barrels, bought from different vineyards so as to compare the results. He’s used sauternes wine casks from Bordeaux. He’s worked with chef Edward Lee to create a bourbon perfect for pairing with spicy food.
Jefferson’s Ocean is by far the most radical experiment, though. After the first launch (so to speak) worked, Jefferson’s has continued to send barrels of 8-year-old bourbon on round-the-world trips. They stop at thirty ports on five continents and cross the equator four times.
The boat used is that very same boat on which the lightbulb moment happened. Zoeller’s friend is Chris Fischer, whose MV OCEARCH crosses the oceans studying keystone marine species such as great white sharks and tiger sharks. Now that’s definitely a great story for bartenders to share with their customers.