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25 Years Later, Jefferson’s Bourbon’s Trey Zoeller Still Wowing Fans

Trust me, most press releases aren’t enjoyable to read—especially the boilerplate info at the bottom of those documents. This is usually self-congratulatory wording, often borderline dubious and, in the case of public companies, so interlarded with tedious legalese that long-suffering insomniacs who’d read them might be cured.

Among the exceptionally rare exceptions to this rule is the boilerplate on a recent Jefferson’s Bourbon release (keep reading). Like all of them, the wording is florid and needing editorial polish. But its saving grace is the reader gets a thorough look at the 25-year-old brand and its founders. For example:

Since its launch in 1997—Jefferson’s Bourbon has continued to make its mark on the category. As the brainchild of Trey Zoeller and his father Chet, a famed bourbon historian, they were continuing a family whiskey tradition that goes back to Trey’s 8th generation grandmother who was arrested in 1799 for the “production and sales of spirituous liquors.”

Trey Zoeller
A quarter of a century later Jefferson’s Bourbon’s Trey Zoeller still knows how to keep his fan base engaged with experimental whiskey releases. (image via Steve Coomes/The Whiskey Wash)

Impressive! From son to dad to an 8x granny in a single sentence ending with a jail sentence!

His curious and experimental mindset has allowed him to push the boundaries of bourbon whiskey. Upholding tradition, yet always discovering new possibilities. Trey’s unique and sometimes unorthodox approach to the maturation process and the art of blending have allowed him to achieve the distinct characteristics and unique flavors Jefferson’s is known for today.

All fair, all true and without the usual unctuous self-aggrandizement. I like that. And if you know Zoeller, that’s him: a great storyteller who’s usually in his tales but not the star of them. Let’s continue:

With Jefferson’s new releases constantly pushing the boundaries of bourbon while upholding the traditions that define the spirit, this is one bourbon brand that will forever continue to operate at the frontier of whiskey, challenging the definition of bourbon while never forgetting its past – striking a perfect balance between innovation and tradition.

OK, this is PR guns a-blazing, but the next text block saves it:

The Jefferson’s portfolio consists of Jefferson’s Very Small Batch, Reserve, OCEAN, OCEAN Rye, Reserve Single Barrel, OCEAN Cask Strength, Reserve Pritchard Hill Finish, Reserve Old Rum Cask Finish, Reserve Twin Oak, Chefs Collaboration, Rye Cognac Finish, OCEAN Wheated Voyage 29, and The Manhattan.

Translation/summary: Trey Zoeller likes experimenting—a lot! And a lot of those one-offs have sold well enough to become repeats. But even those listed above don’t show half of what he’s done in the brand’s quarter-century history. Missing is the deeper story of how, in the 1990s, Chet and Trey launched the brand by sourcing legendary distilleries’ neglected barrels at rock bottom prices. Problem was, only a precious few would pay barely-above rock bottom prices for that precious and eventually legendary liquid.

It doesn’t discuss the absurd effort made to produce the OCEAN line, namely placing 300 or so barrels on sea-going vessels that float them around the globe to 30 different ports of call and subject the whiskey to constant temperature changes and ceaseless agitation. (Note: All barrels are stored on those boats’ decks within containers that shield them from the sun and sea water. So, no, you don’t taste saline in the bourbon. Let’s end all that “wishful drinking” for good.)

It also doesn’t tell Trey Zoeller’s story well: an entrepreneur whose palate persuaded him to bypass the corporate world and pimp the ever-lovin’ life out of bourbon—a spirit whose star had all but fallen way before he started selling it in 1998. They see Modern Zoeller, the ever-traveling, polo-playing bon vivant who’s done well blending an endless array of others’ whiskey to make a shelf-stuffing amount of SKUs that spend little time on said shelves.

Modern Zoeller now has his own whiskey supply flowing from three different distilleries, and, even better, he’s got the full backing of Pernod Ricard, which bought the brand in 2019, and is spending $250 million for a workhorse operation now under construction in Marion County, Ky. For those who track such nerdy numbers, that’s almost double the cost of Heaven Hill’s expected tab for its new Bardstown distillery, and more than double the cost of what Wild Turkey has gobbled about for its new distillery in Lawrenceburg.

Earlier this year, Zoeller gathered some journalists in Louisville to talk about it all, pour a lot of his experiments-gone-well while touting a new release he’d created to honor another whiskey entrepreneur: the aforementioned 8x granny, Marian McClain. According to the storyteller himself, McLain was one of America’s earliest documented whiskey women—not for creating a legendary brand, but for going to jail. McLain was a mother of five and widowed when her husband died in the American Revolution. In need of income to feed her brood, she made and sold whiskey, a combination that ran afoul of the law.

In 1791, eight years prior to McLain’s arrest, President George Washington—a serious distiller in his own right—led the passage of a whiskey excise task to whittle down the nation’s deep debt incurred in the Revolutionary War. By 1799, when too few distillers were paying taxes on their whiskey, the feds were ticked off, and that might explain why a widow and mother of five got jail time rather than a pass for making tax-free booze. Just two years later, an irate Washington would amass his largest army ever to end the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania and convince at least a few Americans to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

In the predictable way that brand stories are desperately lean on facts, that’s all that Zoeller has on McClain. But what he knows for sure is she’s an ancestor who deserves a bottle bearing her name. True to Jefferson’s form, the 102 proof (51% ABV) Jefferson’s Marian McLain Bourbon is a blend of several whiskeys: 21% 14-year-old Tennessee straight bourbon whiskey; 40% 11-year-old Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey; 14% wheated double-barrel whiskey; 17% rum cask finish whiskey; and 8% 8-year-old Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey.

Such careful sourcing of geezer liquid comes at a price, of course—$300 in this case—but par for Zoeller’s course, it’s good. Darn good, in fact, and especially if you pour it, let it breathe at least 10 minutes before nosing. It’s sturdy, big bodied, long on oak and stone fruit, but well rounded in every respect. (Yes, I was provided a free bottle of it, but I also got to taste the finished results—and all five of its whiskey pieces individually—in March. I know it well and truly like it. And I repeat, let it breathe a bit. It’s a testament to the claim that old whiskeys benefit from stretching their legs a bit.)

And this is cool: The once-struggling but now successful entrepreneur wants to help others like him. Zoeller is partnering with business icon Barbara Corcoran (“Shark Tank,” if you watch it) to launch the Marian McLain Entrepreneurial Fund. The fund’s first year entry process has passed, but keep watch for its annual renewal if you have a business idea in need of funding. History proves that this pair knows a thing to three about launching businesses.

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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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