Jefferson’s CEO Talks History and Future of the Innovative Brand, Teases Upcoming Industry ‘Game Changer’
In celebration of Bourbon Heritage Month, Whiskey Raiders is diving deep on various bourbon brands in September. On the first day of the month, we present an exclusive interview with Jefferson’s Bourbon Founder and CEO Trey Zoeller.
When it comes to bourbon, you’d be hard-pressed to find a brand with deeper roots than Jefferson’s.
Founder Trey Zoeller comes from a long line of bourbon makers. His eighth-generation grandmother, Marian McLain, was arrested in 1779 for illegally making and selling spirits. Despite the risks, she passed down her knowledge and love of bourbon to her descendants and eventually Trey. Today, he continues her legacy by creating innovative bourbons at his family-owned distillery. Zoeller’s willingness to take risks and experiment with new techniques has led to some truly unique products, including Jefferson’s Ocean, a series of whiskeys aged at sea.
“My eight-generation grandmother was arrested in 1799 for moonshining and bootlegging,” Zoeller said. “She’s noted as the first documented bourbon maker in the American whiskey business or documented person in the American whiskey business through arrest records.”
When Zoeller began his bourbon career in the 1980s, the industry was not what it is today.
“At the time, bourbon was in a 30-year decline. Nobody outside of Kentucky or the bourbon belt, which would’ve been the Bible belt at the time — people were still drinking bourbon there, but nowhere else,” Zoeller said. “I became kind of a prophet. I was telling everybody how great it was. And especially at that time, single malt scotches were first starting to come on the scene in the late ’80s and early 90s.”
Aging Bourbon at Sea Comes Full Circle
When asked about the inspiration for aging his bourbon at sea, Zoeller replies that it came from a time when the founder and a friend were enjoying a dram on a boat. While watching the bourbon splash back and forth in the bottle, Zoeller considered that the same thing would happen to the bourbon in the barrel during the aging process, and Jefferson’s Ocean was born.
“So what we do is we take 6- to 8-year-old bourbon, put it in containers, ship it down to Savannah, [Georgia], and it goes on top of a ship, so it gets as much pitch as possible,” Zoeller said. “We cut sunroofs in those containers so [the bourbon] gets beat on by the sun. It gets rained on. It gets snowed on.”
The bourbon goes on a true intercontinental voyage, Zoeller explains, through the Caribbean and Panama Canal; around New Zealand; into the Tasmanian sea around Australia; past Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Japan; around the west coast of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico; back through the Panama Canal and Caribbean; past the East Coast; into Europe and the North Sea; back to the East Coast
It goes down through the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal, around New Zealand and into the Tasmanian sea around Australia. Then, it goes up Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Japan, back over to the west coast of Canada, us Mexico, through the Panama Canal, back through the current Caribbean, out the east coast, over into Europe, into the north sea, back to the east coast and down in span back.” Zoeller explains.
“The bourbon goes through everything, from the Tasmanian sea to the north sea crossing, the equator — you get that huge fluctuation of temperatures,” Zoeller said. “In theory, it should balance out, but what it encounters from hurricanes to cyclones to dead seas totally changes it. Every voyage that comes back, it’s like Christmas morning when I tap into it because I’m not tasting it throughout the process.”
Jefferson’s didn’t invent aging bourbon on the water. In fact, the practice dates all the way back to the early days of bourbon distillation.
“President Washington had to pay for the [Revolutionary] War, and he implemented the first tax, the whiskey tax, since he was by far the biggest distiller in the country at that time,” Zoeller said. “But most of the distillers went past the long arm of the tax man over the Appalachian mountains, into Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio, and started distilling.”
From there, the distillers would put their whiskey in barrels that had been charred to remove the flavor of whatever was stored in there prior to the whiskey (soap, fish, nails, etc). Then, they would put the whiskey on a boat and float it down, typically to New Orleans, where they would trade it for gold.
“Knowing how whiskey turned into bourbon for the first time, which was when people in Kentucky would put barrels on boats and float down the Ohio river to the Mississippi river and down to New Orleans, sail it around Florida and up the east coast,” Zoeller said, “It’s really kind of all of history coming together.”
The Future For Jefferson’s
Zoeller expressed his excitement for unexpected projects to look forward to in the upcoming year. “We’re celebrating staying alive for 25 years, which nobody would’ve thought would happen back in 1997,” he said.
“We’re launching something in 2023, in July that I think is a total game changer. It hasn’t been done in whiskey before. This is a culmination of everything we’ve learned along the way. It’s not just another finish or anything like that. We’re doing something completely different.”
Here at Whiskey Raiders, we do more than write about current events in Whiskey. We are the only media property reviewing whiskeys and aggregating the scores and reviews of other significant voices in the whiskey world in one place. We also scour the internet daily in search of the best whiskey deals out there. If you’re interested in having a great whiskey deal and the latest news and reviews delivered to your inbox each morning, sign up for our Daily Deal Newsletter!
This post may contain affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site. This helps support Whiskey Raiders at no additional cost to you.