Bourbon’s Mad Scientist

[This article was originally published in October of 2014. To see what Trey has been working on lately, click here!]

Trey Zoeller is a Bourbon man who marches to the beat of his own dram.  He and his father, Chet, started Jefferson’s Bourbon in 1997 and ever since then, Trey’s imagination has taken Bourbon drinkers on a voyage they thought they’d never be a part of.

Jefferson’s has a long list of “firsts” for a company that has not yet been around for 20 years.  They were the first Bourbon company to bring us Bourbon aged on a boat that traveled the globe with their Ocean’s line.  They were the first to team up with a chef (super chef Ed Lee) to develop a whiskey that was tailored to pair with food with their Chef’s Collaboration.  They were into rye whiskey before it became the next big thing.  They were one of the first popular brands that didn’t own their own distillery to freely admit that they buy whiskey from other producers, and apparently do whatever the hell they want with it.

Trey highly respects what the big distilleries do.  He’d be a hypocrite if he didn’t because he admits that he gets the juice that he plays with from more than one “large distillery” as he puts it.  But he feels the big distilleries are getting a little too used to making the same product over and over and he worries while also seeing an opportunity to expand what Bourbon consumers come to expect from Bourbon makers.

Trey says, “I’m trying to reinvent what the big distilleries have perfected by engineering a different flavor profile that you wouldn’t normally experience.”  He continues to reflect on how the Ocean’s Bourbon project opened his mind to how the environment can affect the flavor profile more than any other variable.

He expands on his thinking process by using the Nature vs. Nurture example.  Trey feels the nature of Bourbon making is in the recipe, or the work that goes into the distillation process and everything else before the whiskey is put into the barrel.  The nurturing is what happens while the whiskey is inside the barrel and Trey feels that’s where he excels in developing his whiskies.

Don’t’ worry about Trey running out of ideas anytime soon for pushing Bourbon’s boundary.  At the end of this year fans of his creativity will be treated with several new offerings.

After Trey wrapped up the first Ocean’s bottling, he started working on another experimental project.  The Jefferson’s Experimental Series started out with 14 different barrels of what was then four year-old Bourbon.  This Bourbon was then re-barreled with some of them having 4-5 different flavoring altering factors they were exposed to, like aging in toasted American wine barrels or aging with coffee flavored tubes in them.

For two years, Trey sampled each barrel every 30 days.  Out of the 14 barrels, only 10 made the cut.  Here’s the really neat part.  This will be packaged and sold in two separate five-bottle packages.  Each expression will be available in a half-pint or 200ml bottle, so each package of Jefferson’s Experimental Series will come with five different bottles. Consumers can compare and contrast each experiment Trey performed.

Another expression of Jefferson’s will also be launched in late November of this year. It came about after a night of drinking with a well known media executive.  Last year, Trey tagged along with Chef Ed Lee (the same chef he did the Chef’s Collaboration with)  to help Lee promote his hit cookbook, Smoke and Pickles.  At the release party, Trey ran into the editor-in-chief of Esquire, David Granger.  After some initial male bonding, Trey and David decided to hit the town.  Trey explained to David that he wasn’t much of a cocktail guy, unless it was a barrel-aged cocktail and since he had brought a barrel with such a cocktail in it, he decided to take it along for the ride.

Trey and David continued the night bar hopping with the barrel in tow which eventually lead to a conversation, Could Granger’s Esquire partner up with Jefferson’s on a bottled barrel-aged cocktail?

Trey, who never runs from an innovative opportunity, agreed as long as the final product would be very Bourbon-forward on the palate.  And this was how The Manhattan Barrel Aged Cocktail by Jefferson’s was born.  The elixir is made by taking the flagship Jefferson’s Reserve Bourbon and re-barreling it in a normal 53 gallon Bourbon barrel along with sweet and dry vermouth and black cherry bitters.

Another partnership that is new to Jefferson’s will include the Kentucky Artisan Distillery.  Located about 15 minutes from downtown Louisville in Crestwood Ky, The Kentucky Artisan Distillery will be the new home to Jefferson’s Bourbon.  The facility is the brainchild of Steve Thompson, a distillery veteran who cut his teeth at food and beverage behemoth Heublein in the 70’s and 80’s until he took a position at Brown-Foreman to oversee all distilling operations.

While Thompson’s distillery is contracted to distill 100 barrels for Jefferson’s, the vast majority of their product will still come from other distilleries or the 10,000 barrels of whiskey Trey currently oversees.  KAD will do the chill filtration for all Jefferson’s products though.  A gift shop and exhibits that explain the history of Jefferson’s Bourbon are scheduled to open in early November at the Crestwood facility.

There will also be a third “voyage” for the Ocean’s Bourbon line this year and another Chef’s Collaboration with Ed Lee This time it will use two Bourbons and one Rye whiskey for the intended blend.

At the end of the day, Trey hopes to enhance the image of Bourbon and provide products that appeal to those with adventurous palates, and yet be respected by the traditionalist Bourbon drinker.  He leaves us with, “I would love to do something with Bourbon that has never been done before and pushes the definition of Bourbon without violating or bastardising it.”