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If you’re in the alcohol business, you should be in the bourbon business.
After flat-lining in previous decades relative to vodka and other spirits, sales of bourbon, a whiskey distilled from corn and aged in charred-oak barrels, are soaring. Distillers are exporting $1 billion worth of American whiskey abroad, triple the amount exported in 2002, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. And domestic sales of bourbon are up 40 percent since 2008 -- a sudden growth spurt that has distillers racing to meet demand and others trying to differentiate themselves.
Among the latter is Trey Zoeller, the Louisville, Kentucky-based founder of Jefferson’s Bourbon, who made waves by placing a batch of barreled bourbon on top of waves -- or rather, aboard a large ocean trawler that roamed the seas for three years.
Bourbon, says Zoeller, derives 70 to 80 percent of its taste from the maturation period inside a charred-oak barrel over several Kentucky summers and winters. Time is crucial. And short of inventing a time machine, you can’t speed up that aging process. Or can you?
Zoeller may have found a shortcut. On his 40th birthday, he was sitting aboard the Ocearch, a shark-tagging research vessel, drinking bourbon with the Ocearch’s captain, Chris Fischer, whom he has known since childhood. At one point, Zoeller looked at the bourbon rolling inside his glass. A life-long bourbon enthusiast and son of a bourbon historian, Zoeller knew that distilled bourbon extracted more flavor the longer it sloshed against wood. He wondered: could the ocean, with its constant seesawing motion, mature bourbon faster?
He started an experiment. In 2009, he placed a five barrels aboard the Ocearch, which zig-zagged all over the world, exchanging hemispheres and various climates. Three years later, Zoeller extracted a sample; the bourbon was thick and black.
“It was much thicker than a typical bourbon,” Zoeller said. “We tasted it, and the caramel just shot out right away.”
And then there was the brininess. Zoeller believes the ocean air imparted a salty aftertaste -- or "finish" -- to the bourbon. “Certainly salt or a briny component is not typically found in bourbon. So it gave it a completely different feel,” he said.
Convinced he had innovated a distilling process that remained intact for more than 150 years, Zoeller placed 62 barrels containing 7-year-old and 8-year-old bourbon on several different ships. Zoeller said he’s still experimenting with the process; whenever one of these ships reaches port, the crew sends him samples so that he can taste how its aging.
But with demand for bourbon booming worldwide, Zoeller’s experiment is already proving lucrative. His second batch of ocean bourbon -- labelled Jefferson’s Ocean -- retails for $79.99, but supply is limited. Original batch bottles have sold for more than $1,250 online.