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Interview: Trey Zoeller Talks All Things Jefferson’s Bourbon

The Jefferson’s brand of whiskey has been at the forefront of innovation and flavor since its beginning more than 25 years ago.

And since its inception, Trey Zoeller set out to challenge the definition of bourbon while continuing to strike a balance between innovation and tradition.

Trey is the founder, whiskey maker and chief strategist for Jefferson’s Bourbon, and is a lifelong bourbon enthusiast. Born and bred in Kentucky, Trey and his father established Jefferson’s in 1997, continuing a family tradition that goes back to 1799 when Trey’s 8th generation grandmother became the first woman in the American whiskey industry on record (and arrested for the “production and sales of spirituous liquors” otherwise known as moonshining).

Trey’s approach to the maturation process and the art of blending brings out the distinct characteristics and unique flavors Jefferson’s is known for today.

His experiments with different aging techniques, collaborations with different experts in other fields, and a desire to craft innovative bourbon, all inspired Trey to age bourbon in unconventional locations and agitations.

His whiskey has been aged at sea, in wine and other spirits barrels, in fresh and saltwater duck blinds in Arkansas and Virginia, and on a flatboat that traveled down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and up the eastern seaboard to New York.

Trey recently visited with The Whiskey Wash about the genesis of Jefferson’s, where the brand is heading, and what makes it unique in the whiskey world.

Trey Zoeller
We chat with Trey Zoeller about the genesis of Jefferson’s, where the brand is heading, and what makes it unique in the whiskey world. (image via Jefferson’s)

The Whiskey Wash: What was the genesis moment that led you to create Jefferson’s?

Trey Zoeller: “It was not really a moment, it happened over time. Growing up in Kentucky, I never really thought about bourbon as it was just a staple. Everyone drank bourbon. It was not until I moved to a half dozen places around the country, and no one was drinking bourbon, I was telling everyone they should be drinking bourbon and why it was so great.”

“Around the same time, my dad was on a Delta flight, and in the back of the in-flight magazine, he saw an ad to buy a barrel of Bushmills Irish Whiskey. This was way before any single barrel programs, he and four friends chipped in $1,000 each, bought the barrel and took a trip to Ireland and visited the distillery.”

“I thought, if he can buy a barrel from Ireland, why can’t I buy barrels from my friends here in Kentucky who had a huge reservoir of barrels, as the bourbon industry had been in decline for 30 years. That was in 1997. I was able to cherry-pick esoteric lots of bourbon from several distilleries. I decided to look at bourbon the way winemakers blended wine, and started blending bourbons together.”

TWW: Did you know from the beginning that you were going to take a different approach with whiskey, more experimental?

TZ: “When I started buying the barrels from various distillers, they all told me the same thing … that 65 to 80 percent of bourbon comes from the maturation process. However, everyone was maturing the bourbon basically the same way. I thought it would be fun to experiment with different ways to mature the whiskey. The experimental side was exciting to me, to see what I could do to push the boundaries of bourbon without bastardizing it. I was not trying to cheat or accelerate the process, that’s why we always use fully-mature bourbon and then put more time, money, and effort to push flavors.”

TWW: As a young man, what was your introduction to the world of whiskey?

TZ: “Back then, in Kentucky, bourbon and water, and gin and tonics, were the go-to drinks. I rarely hear anyone ordering a bourbon and water anymore. When I first started drinking bourbon, I preferred bourbon and ginger ale.”

TWW: Ocean Age, how did that come about?

TZ: “I was on a friend’s ship in Costa Rica where we would sit on the bow of this ship and drink bourbon each evening. I saw the bourbon rocking back and forth in the bottle and thought if this happened in a bottle, then it would happen in a barrel.”

“I was also familiar with how whiskey used to be transported from Kentucky to the east coast and how it developed so much depth, character, and flavor. I sent five barrels of new-fill bourbon out on the ship for three and a half years. When we finally tapped into the barrels, the whiskey was black, thick, and delicious.”

“We then looked at how we could commercialize this kind of method of maturing bourbon. So today, we take mature bourbon from Kentucky, put the barrels into containers, and ship them to Savannah, Georgia. Here, they go on the very top of the bow of the ship, ensuring as much pitch as possible, and send the barrels to around 30 ports, on five continents, crossing the equator multiple times.”

“The barrels go all the way down to the Tasmanian Sea and up to the North Sea, giving huge weather swings. The bourbon is continuously sloshing in the barrels, the extreme heat caramelizes the sugars in the wood and the sea air permeates the barrels … resulting in a salted, caramel flavor.”

TWW: And now there’s similar experimental whiskey, but with rye?

TZ: “Yes, I love rye whiskies for the upfront spice, however, they get dry on the back end. This makes them fantastic for making cocktails, however, I drink my whiskey on the rocks. So, I wanted to create sipping rye. To do that, I took mature rye and before sending it out to sea, we double-barreled the rye. Taking it from a char 3 barrel into either new char 3 barrels (75%) or new toasted barrels (25%) to give it more depth and texture before sending it out to sea.”

TWW: What have you been pleasantly surprised by within the bourbon-making business?

TZ: “The amazing characters I have met over the years. This industry is filled with icons, in the early days it was like the wild west, and I have seen and experienced so many incredible things. There is great competition between brands, but at the end of the day, there is also a brotherhood of extremely passionate bourbon enthusiasts. There is also a lot of room to experiment and now there are consumers that want to see what you can do to hopefully improve traditional bourbon.”

TWW: What’s a challenge you see that needs to be met head-on in the spirits industry?

TZ: “You must tie up a lot of capital for years before you get revenue on that capital.”

TWW: Where is Jefferson’s headed in the next one,  five, and 10 years?

TZ: “We just broke ground on a new, 100,000-barrel-a-year distillery in Lebanon, Kentucky. The visitor experience we are putting together is like no other tour I’ve seen. We also have two very different innovations coming out this year, one is a nod to the past and the other one is, I think, the next frontier of whiskey innovation. It’s a culmination of what we’ve explored over the last 25 years. I think we have an amazing future ahead of us and are continuing to evolve our portfolio. We’ve bottled more than 30 different expressions of Jefferson’s to date, and the next 5-10 we have teed up are exciting for us.”

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Gary Carter

Gary Carter has been at the helm of metro newspapers, magazines, and television news programs as well as a radio host and marketing manager. He is a writer/editor/photographer/designer by trade, with more than 30 years experience in the publishing and marketing field. Gary enjoys working to build something great, whether that be a novel project, a start-up, an organization, a fresh-face to the journalistic world, or even something as simple as a short story. A native Texan and a Pacific Northwest convert, he is a whiskey enthusiast who cut his teeth on it ... literally!

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