Food & Drink

This Bourbon Maker Is the Mad Scientist of Whiskey

Trey Zoeller discusses his experiments, which include aging bourbon at sea and blending with top chefs.
IMAGE JEFFERSON'S BOURBON
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Trey Zoeller is the mad scientist of the bourbon world. When he launched Jefferson's Bourbon in 1997, he did so without a distillery of his own and began blending and experimenting with varieties and aging methods.

Now Zoeller, whose roots in the bourbon industry run so deep that his eighth great-grandmother was arrested for moonshining in 1799, has 14 different types of Jefferson's, and with 12 of those 14 he "does something different than most people do, which is to distill, age, cut to proof, and bottle." His blends include a barrel-aged Manhattan made in collaboration with Esquire, wine cask-finished whiskey, collaborations with noted chefs like John Besh and Edward Lee, and experiments like the one I tasted over Derby weekend whose ingredients I can't reveal (although I can say it has a serious kick).

What he's best known for is Jefferson's Ocean, a whiskey he debuted in 2012 after his friend Chris Fischer, an expedition leader of the non-profit ocean research group OCEARCH, offered up his boat to allow Zoeller to age a barrel at sea. The most recent boat-aged batch, Jefferson's Journey, just finished a 12-month trip that included nine months of traveling from New Orleans to New York City on rum runners and small boats to reenact the bourbon transportation methods of the 19th century.

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Here, the Louisville native talks about his city's signature sporting event, the Kentucky Derby, his passion for polo, and why he spends Christmas on the beach.

DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD OR YOUR PERFECT NIGHT ON THE TOWN.

I like to spend as much time as I can outside in the Bluegrass State. A perfect day for me would be to start the morning off with a tennis match with one of my four regular foes, followed by taking my 12-year-old twins water-skiing and relaxing on the Ohio River, with a late lunch at the Captain’s Quarters. Polo practice in the afternoon would be capped by a cookout on the side of the field with all the other players, families, grooms, and friends watching the sun set over some great food and plenty of bourbon.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE RESTAURANT TO EAT ALONE?

I love to sit at the bar at Bistro 1860 in Louisville. Chef Michael [Crouch] serves maybe 10 specials each night and he’ll have me try one or two—his food is always outstanding. I love this place because I’m likely to run into friends here and the bartenders have four-finger pours.

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WHAT MEAL WOULD YOU GET ON A PLANE FOR?

Do I get multiple stops? If so I would go to Chef John Besh’s August in New Orleans, Chef Sean Brock’s Husk in Charleston, and then I would head over to San Sebastián in Spain to snack on pinchos as I hop from bar to bar.


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FAVORITE PLACE TO GO ON VACATION (WINTER AND SUMMER EDITION)?

In the winter I like to go to my family’s home in Sarasota, Florida. There is nothing better than spending a December day on a boat fishing or jumping from restaurant to restaurant on the water. A big bonus is the Sarasota Polo Club, which has become like a second family. Last Summer, I traveled to the Amalfi Coast including Le Sirenuse in Positano—I would go back every year. I also went to Bordeaux, where I was securing barrels from Chateau Suduiraut and Chateau Pichon Baron for Jefferson’s next iterations of our wine-finished series.

WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE THING ABOUT YOUR HOMETOWN OF LOUISVILLE?

I travel quite a bit, so the best thing about Louisville is that is my home. It’s where my family is and it’s just a simple way of life. It has enough going on to make it interesting but doesn’t have the headaches of a big city.

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WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE THING ABOUT THE KENTUCKY DERBY?

You mean besides the bourbon, beautiful women, and fast horses? There is an old bar a couple of blocks from the track where many of my friends meet up after the Derby. It’s the one time that all of us are in the same place at the same time, between the actual event and the dinners and parties afterward. We meet up at the Shamma Lama Ding Dong (it’s a nickname) to have a last mint julep or two and wait for the other 150,000 people to leave the track.

WHAT IS YOUR BEST TRAVEL HACK?

1. I do not drink while traveling overseas.

2. I get on local time right away.

3. I follow local customs as closely as I can.

4. I never check bags.

5. I always bring a squash racquet with me as I always try to find a match, break a sweat, and meet new people in the process.

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6. And, even when traveling for business, I get a good book and try to relax on the flight.

IS THERE ANYONE WHO MAKES YOU FEEL STAR-STRUCK?

I typically do not get star-struck, but I was in London sitting next to Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and realized I had a poster of him on my wall as a child. I thought that was pretty amazing. He was a real childhood idol of mine.

IF YOU COULD ONLY SHOP AT ONE STORE EVER AGAIN, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

If I could only shop at one store ever again, it would be M. Dumas & Sons on King Street in Charleston. I used to go there often when I lived on Sullivan Island and always find something awesome when I am there.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PLACE TO BUY A LAST-MINUTE GIFT?

Our distillery gift shop at the Kentucky Artisan Distillery. It will usually be one of our Jefferson’s Ocean Voyages.

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WHAT’S THE LAST THING YOU BOUGHT ONLINE?

I bought flowers online and they shipped to me rather than the person they were intended for. So I gave them to my mom (Sorry, Mom!). Besides that I just got some new gear for my horses—fly spray and a girth for a saddle.

WHAT IS YOUR NECESSARY INDULGENCE—SOMETHING YOU’LL ALWAYS SPLASH OUT ON AND CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT?

Travel. I don’t need a lot, but I love to see new things. I have a hard time staying in one place for too long.


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WHAT IS YOUR GO-TO DRINK?

Jefferson’s on one big rock.

DO YOU USE TWITTER OR INSTAGRAM?

I love Instagram because it’s such a visual medium. Half of my feed is either bourbon or polo.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE HOLIDAY TRADITION?

Christmas on the beach. There’s nothing like getting up early, opening presents with the kids and then going fishing! Christmas Eve domino games with the entire family is a close second.

DO YOU HAVE A HIDDEN TALENT?

I like to juggle—anything and everything.

FILL IN THE BLANK: PEOPLE ARE MOST LIKELY TO COME TO ME FOR ADVICE ABOUT ________.

The things I have had difficulties with in the past or failed at. You can’t grow in life and in business without making a few mistakes. I’m glad I can offer up some words of wisdom wherever possible.

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WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU EVER GOT?

Live life for yourself, not for anyone else.

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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