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Aquatic Barrel Aging Gives New Meaning to "Whiskey and Water"

When two barrels of Jefferson’s Bourbon—caged to the back of a 24-foot runabout—set off down the Ohio River at Louisville, Kentucky, last June, Walter Tharpe kicked himself. Symbolically, at least.

“I said, ‘Dadgumit! I knew somebody was going to do it,’” said Tharpe, owner of Cane Land Distilling Co. in Baton Rouge, La. “I’d thought about doing it for a long time—sending some (barreled) whiskey down river to see if it would change it much—but I guess I thought too long.”

Given that Jefferson’s Bourbon cofounder Trey Zoeller had already conducted a similar blue water aging experiment with his Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea bourbon several years ago, the idea wasn’t new. And to be fair, neither was Zoeller’s Oceans work either. Moving barreled booze across blue waters has happened for centuries, and pushing it across the brown waterways of the southern U.S. became common in the 19th Century. It’s how Kentucky whiskey got to big ports like New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

Jefferson's bourbon
Jefferson’s bourbon cruising down the river (image via Nate Morguelan)

With the same aim of recreating that journey and testing its effects on whiskey, Tharpe, like Zoeller, wanted to peek back into history for a closer look.

“What we did is certainly nothing new, but it’s reenergizing what was done,” said Tharpe, who shipped 150 barrels of his whiskey to Louisiana aboard a barge last month. “I think a lot more people are going to do it as a result.”

Perhaps they’ll do it his way—aboard a modern barge pushed by a diesel-burning tug boat and stored away from the elements below weatherproof cover—rather than Zoeller’s more rustic approach. His Jefferson’s Reserve barrels were left out in the open to endure the intense summer sun, hail storms and salt water spray of the Gulf of Mexico as it moved toward its currently unmet goal of landing in New York City. By the time the barrels got to Sarasota on Florida’s west coast, their heads warped and their metal hoops rusted. To save the whiskey, he had to transfer their contents to new barrels and continue the journey, which stopped in Ft. Lauderdale.

“We wanted to be in New York by September of last year, but the weather caught us,” Zoeller said. Inhospitable encounters with Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew and an unnamed tropical storm slowed progress dramatically. “On any given year, you could encounter a tropical storm and two hurricanes—or encounter none at all. But that’s part of why we’re doing this: to experience what these guys did a long time ago.”

A Bold Beginning for Cane Land

As the owner of Alma Plantation & Sugar Mill, Tharpe’s Cane Land Distilling Co. was predestined to make rum. Tharpe’s burgeoning spirits business has all the raw materials it needs to turn Louisiana sugar in to high-proof sipping and cocktailing juice. Each year the plantation produces 370 million pounds of cane sugar and 10 million pounds of molasses.

Set to open this May, the distillery will have multiple rums for sale, but whiskey will follow when head distiller and vice president of operations, Jonny VerPlanck, begins mashing grain at a nearby brewery later this year. Having grains and sugar in the same distillery, he said, creates a cross-contamination issue he wants to avoid.

“When we do whiskey, I’ll do a single malt, kind of done Irish style on wort, and a straight bourbon,” VerPlanck said. “Two bourbon batches, actually: probably a heavy rye and a lighter rye with more sweet corn.”

To get 150 barrels of whiskey to ship on the barge, Cane Land sourced whiskey via private contract from a Tennessee distillery. Born of a bourbon mashbill, the spirit was aged in twice-charred barrels for 5.5 years. In barrels, the whiskey was trucked to Owensboro, Kentucky, an Ohio River port town with easy southwesterly access to the Mississippi River.

Cane Lane whiskey
Cane Lane’s whiskey ready for its barge trip. (image via Cane Lane)

In late January, 150 barrels were loaded onto a river barge for what was expected to be a 14-day trip. Twenty days later, they arrived in New Orleans and later trucked to Baton Rouge.

So far, the whiskey from 70 of the 53-gallon barrels has been siphoned into three Remy Martin cognac vats with a combined capacity of 7,000 gallons. The whiskey will rest in the vats for three months before bottling. It’ll be named Original Mississippi Floated Whiskey (or OMFW for short) and is expected to be 80 proof (40% ABV).

Tharp said the final sale price will be $60 per bottle and that most of it will be sold in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and New Orleans, and a limited amount distributed outside the state.

Given the effort invested in moving that liquid, it’s amazing the final product will cost so little. The first estimate he received for moving the whiskey down river was $100,000, but he got another carrier to do the job for a fraction of that. The final cost was affordable enough, and the process of making it happen so streamlined, that he plans to do it annually.

“I’d like to ride along with the whiskey down river someday,” Tharpe said.

A chat with Zoeller, however, might lead him to reconsider. His boat’s captain, Ted Gray, remained aboard the runabout for 58 days that included record heat, storms and unexpected delays navigating the locks on the Tombigbee Waterway.

“This has been a pain-in-the-ass journey the whole way,” said Zoeller, who joined Gray on the boat for short segments.

Knowing winter storms can be just as bad as those in summer, Zoeller left re-barreled whiskey to winter in a warehouse in Ft. Lauderdale, Fl. He plans to continue the journey up the U.S.’s East Coast in March with a goal of arriving in New York in April.

“It’s the most expensive whiskey ever made: I’ll guarantee it!” he said, referring to the difficult and costly voyage. But apparently, it’s a dandy. “When we siphoned it off in Key West to move it to new barrels, it was the smoothest bourbon I’ve ever had because the astringency had been taken out.

“I’m not saying it’s the best, but it’s unbelievably flavorful and has big amount of wood. By the time we get it to New York, it’s going to be delicious and taste a lot different from the bourbon aged in Louisville.”

Steve Coomes

Steve Coomes is an award-winning journalist and book author specializing in whiskey and food. In his 30-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including USA Today, Southern Living, Delta Sky Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, Restaurant Business, Bourbon + and American Whiskey magazine. In 2013, he authored “Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke,” and in 2020, he authored "The Rebirth of Bourbon: Building a Tourism Economy in Small-Town USA." When not writing about food and drink, he leads large-scale, intimate and virtual food and spirits pairings.

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