When Trey Zoeller founded Jefferson’s Bourbon with his father in 1997, he knew it was time to try something new.
There were only eight bourbon distilleries operating in Kentucky at the time—10 total in the U.S.—and the industry was looking for a way to pull itself out of a nearly 30-year decline. To Zoeller, the way forward wasn’t found in the spirit’s history but in its future.
“I like to say that we push the boundaries of what bourbon is without bastardizing it,” says Zoeller, whose 8th generation grandmother was a moonshiner. “When you find something that’s really remarkable and different, but it’s done within the boundaries of bourbon, that’s fun because bourbon’s been around for a few hundred years.”
Heritage is a word often thrown around in the bourbon industry today to evoke a sense of place and pride, but Zoeller’s philosophy has always been to challenge convention.
He started by experimenting with blending bourbon—a practice that was relatively unheard of in American whiskey at the time. He mixed together bourbons that had previously been aged to maturity at other distilleries to create something entirely new. The brand launched with three of these expressions, including Jefferson’s Reserve, the oldest in its lineup and a bourbon Zoeller is particularly proud of creating.
Then, Zoeller focused his attention on another largely overlooked factor in American whiskey: the barrels used to age bourbon. He began working closely with coopers at the Independent Stave Company to explore how using barrels that previously held wine or other spirits would affect the flavor of his bourbon.
“I think the distillation of bourbon has really been perfected over the last 50 years, but maturation was always done pretty much the same way because of practicality,” says Zoeller. “But if you evolve it within the laws that define and uphold the integrity of bourbon, then you could do some really interesting things.”
This philosophy led him to develop the wildly popular Jefferson’s Ocean, which has become the brand’s lead innovation bourbon. The liquor is first matured in Kentucky and then the barrels are aged at sea for at least another six months aboard the Ocearch research vessel. The whiskey crosses the equator a total of four times during its journey. Thanks to the variable conditions of each Ocearch voyage, each release of Ocean bourbon is a little bit different.
“It’s kind of interesting and exciting when something works—and there are plenty of things that don’t—but it’s like peeling back the layer of an onion,” Zoeller says. “Every bourbon has an apex, so you want to keep peeling it back so it gets better and better until you start getting diminishing returns. Some things that you think are going to work don’t. That’s what’s fun about maturation.”
Zoeller has since added a variety of innovative whiskies to the Jefferson’s lineup, including two additional ocean-aged bourbons—a cask-strength one and a wheated one. He has also finished bourbons in used Cabernet Sauvignon casks and in former rum barrels to push the limits of what bourbon can be.
Now, more than two decades since its founding and about 200 experiments later, Zoeller’s restlessness and creativity have proven a boon for Jefferson’s. Unconstrained to a single type or style of bourbon, he’s using his successes to inform and inspire continued innovation.
“I’ve been working in a lot of different microclimates around the country, aging some barrels at different places that will give different influences than the ones that you’re going to get straight from Kentucky,” says Zoeller. “Those are still under development.”
Zoeller also plans to launch a special, 100-proof release of his Jefferson’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon in late 2020.
The enterprising whiskey maker will continue to look to the past to inform the inventions of the future. Right now, he has about 48 experiments aging, some of which will be coming out over the coming year and, no doubt, push traditional bourbon boundaries. In the meantime, the 21st edition of Jefferson’s Ocean is currently aboard Ocearch.
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