Think of Kentucky straight Bourbon whiskey and a picture of racehorses grazing on rolling hills might come to mind, but few would conjure an image of the open sea. However, that's exactly the vision that Jefferson’s Bourbon is channeling with its new Ocean, Aged at Sea, a whiskey that did most of its aging while rolling through 10,000 miles of waves.
If you mull it over historically it's an idea that makes some sense. A few centuries ago still men across the globe independently lit up to the idea that aging spirits was an excellent way to improve them. And, in many cases, that insight came at the end of having shipped liquor in a cask from Point A to Point B and finding it tasted better at the destination. The time in the wood in sweltering holds had serendipitously matured the whiskey, rum or brandy. Soon, spirits makers were doing their aging before shipping in the more controlled environment of a rickhouse.
Enter Trey Zoeller hundreds of years later. The founder of Jefferson’s, a negotiant of Bourbons and ryes, was locked in late night discussion with friends when he advanced the idea that whiskey might also profit from the agitation that the motion of the ship affords. “Typically I don’t follow through on drunk talk,” he says with a wry grin. “But this time I did.”
The idea was to store barrels on one of his companion’s ships, a 120-foot Russian trawler that was getting on in years. Most of what Zoeller deals in has aged to some extent when he buys it, but in this case he barreled new-make whiskey and sent it off to sea, where it became quite the tourist, making six passages through the Panama Canal and crossing the equator. The Bourbon sloshed around for three-and-a-half years before coming back to Kentucky where it was further matured to bring its age to more than four years.
The result is a whiskey that is intensely colored and flavorful in light of its age. Zoeller lays that to two factors. The motion that the ship imparted on the casks (he likens it to a paint can in a shaker) certainly caused accelerated interaction with the wood. Zoeller adds that the temperature in the hold often topped 120° Fahrenheit as it sailed the tropics.
“It totally exceeded my expectations,” says the producer. “It actually caramelized.” He compares it to a dark rum, young but with a lot of composition. In fact, Zoeller thinks of the whiskey as having three separate influences: its birth in Kentucky, the temperature conditions enjoyed by a Caribbean rum, and the salt air atmosphere weathered by an Islay whisky.
The first batch, now rolling out in select stores, lost quite a bit of volume from the five barrels. Zoeller attributed that to a large angel’s share (alcohol lost in evaporation), the failure of some barrels under the stress of sea travel and what he suspects may have been sampling while at sea. The price of a bottle is $200 (compare that to his entry level Jefferson’s at $30).
While the small batch only afforded 250 bottles, Zoeller says, he is so excited with the results, “We are going to keep experimenting until we get it down to a science.” In a separate trial he has also stored barrels in duck blinds in secret locations across the country in an attempt to tap into that particular atmosphere. Zoeller further plans to try shipping whiskey from Kentucky down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers on barges. This would mirror the conditions under which Bourbon makers first discovered aging in the late eighteenth century: barrels were shipped on flatboats to New Orleans where they had improved in flavor even in the few months the trip took.
Although Zoeller does not reveal the source of the whiskey he bottles, he did disclose that he had it made with a higher rye content (about 30 percent) than is typical. Bourbon must have at least 51 percent corn in its grain recipe. Most use far more than that. The rest is usually made up of rye and barley.
(Tasting notes and cigar pairing on next page)
Jefferson’s Ocean, Aged at Sea Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (82.3 proof or 41.15 percent abv, $200)
APPEARANCE: Very dark copper color (almost maple syrup) with formidable legs that drip down the glass like a lazy comet with a fat head and thinner tail.
NOSE: Maple candy on first flush, the whiskey soon begins to release an elegant floral character as well as caramel and toffee. At the very end there is the reminder of the woodiness of a handle of a Louisville Slugger.
PALATE: Intense hard candy and maple syrup when it first hits the mouth. As the whiskey opens up across the palate out comes a huge spice quotient with mounds of licorice and nutmeg.
FINISH: The licorice informs the rather long finish, until it’s replaced with wild cherry at the very end of the voyage.
CIGAR PAIRING: We paired with the Padrón 1964 Anniverary Maduro Superior (6½ inches by 42 ring gauge, 89 points in the October 2012 issue of Cigar Aficionado, $10.10) a medium-to-full-bodied lonsdale with a wide spectrum of flavors including coffee, toast, nuts and vanilla. The two products hit it off right away. First, the nuttiness of the cigar found a similar, previously dormant partner in the Bourbon. Then they danced off together as the whiskey revealed sweetness and chocolate in the cigar and together they became a candy bar of toffee, cocoa, nuts and nougat.