On June 7, Louisville’s Jefferson’s Bourbon launched an excursion as old as whiskey production in this country—floating two barrels of bourbon down the river system of middle America and up the Atlantic Ocean as a means of transportation. Founder and whiskey maker Trey Zoeller has taken a 23-foot Sea Pro boat downstream and will land in New Orleans in early August for a launch party in partnership with Chef John Besh, award-winning chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, and philanthropist. Zoeller and Besh collaborated on this project, as it closely links Louisville and New Orleans. From New Orleans, the bourbon will be loaded onto Besh’s renovated rum runner boat and transported to Key West with Zoeller and Besh before being loaded on a sailboat to sail north up the Atlantic, landing for a tasting party in New York City at the end of September.
The purpose of this reenactment is to gauge the different ways in which the bourbon matures on water, as opposed to in barrels on dry land, and figure out how transportation means of the past affected the taste and finish of early bourbon production. Since the beginning of whiskey production in the U.S., buyers and sellers in cities up and down the East Coast clamored over barrels coming from Kentucky, west of the Appalachian Mountains. Zoeller theorizes that this is due largely in part to the transportation method: floating on water.
“My personal theory is that as the bourbon constantly sloshed around in the barrels, the constant contact with the wood accelerated the maturation process,” says Zoeller. “The barrels also sucked in the salt air and the sun caramelized the sugars in the wood and sped up the maturation process, producing a much different final product than we know today. It’s a bourbon that, in my mind, tastes much more similar to Jefferson’s Ocean than bourbon that is now aged in Kentucky—that’s what made Kentucky bourbon so desirable and unique a 150 years ago and why buyers in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston demanded the bourbon from Kentucky and were willing to pay more for it.”
Much like what the brand has seen when making its own Jefferson’s Ocean: Aged at Sea, in which barrels of 8-year-old bourbon are loaded onto container ships and sailed around the globe, Trey thinks the rocking motions, the briny air coming off of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean are the reason why this bourbon is so unique.
As the whiskey from Kentucky landed in New Orleans, the French unloading the barrels first formed an affinity for the whiskey that had been aged. As a steward of Louisiana dedicated to preserving the regional traditions and cuisine of his city, Besh was a natural fit for this collaboration. Upon arriving in New Orleans, Zoeller and Besh will host a landing cocktail party to celebrate the first leg of the journey. The event will offer the best of Chef’s Creole, Southern fare complimented by Jefferson’s Bourbon cocktails and neat pours.
“I am very excited to be a part of this adventure of helping Jefferson's Bourbon reenact its historic journey from Kentucky down the Ohio, Mississippi and from the Port of New Orleans to the world. Trey embodies those rare passionate qualities that enables him to create the most interesting and exquisitely delicious bourbons on the market today and it's an on honor to be a part of that process,” adds Besh.
A month later, in late September, Zoeller and team will have a launch event in New York City as the journey comes to a close.