Trey Zoeller needs a ride from Fort Lauderdale to New York City by boat. He’s ready to go anytime the boat owner is. His only criteria? The boat must have room for him plus his two barrels of bourbon.
As we first told you last month in Bourbon by Boat, Zoeller is the founder of Jefferson’s Bourbon. He has a theory that the way bourbon was transported 150 years ago—by boat from Kentucky—enhanced the taste and led to demand going sky-high from New York City to Boston. The sloshing in the barrels, the salt air and the sun, all of it, he theorizes, affected the taste in a way that has been lost to the age of modern transportation.
To test his theory, he headed out from Kentucky with two barrels of bourbon, which he has managed to move by boat from the Heartland’s inland waterways across the Gulf of Mexico to Key West, where he landed this week. He started on a 38’ rumrunner and has a 28’ center console picking him up to take him from Key West to Fort Lauderdale.
But then, he’s going to be stuck. The owner of the boat who was going to give him and his bourbon a lift from Fort Lauderdale to New York City, for the trip’s last leg and the big finale tasting, has gone radio silent.
Anyone who gives him and his barrels a ride by boat to the Big Apple for arrival by about Halloween, Zoeller says, will be treated to some amazing bourbon—because so far, his theory has turned out to be more correct than even he imagined.
The trip from Kentucky included some seriously rough weather, including the Louisiana Flood of 2016 (which dumped as much as two feet of rain on parts of New Orleans) and then Hurricane Hermine off Florida’s west coast. There were major swells and small-craft advisories, with all of those winds and waves banging Zoeller’s bourbon barrels around to the point that the barrel heads warped. The good news is that Zoeller had two new barrels shipped to meet him in Key West, where he spent the better part of a day siphoning the bourbon into the new barrels. That gave him a chance to taste the bourbon anew, to test his theory.
The bourbon was distilled in January, in Kentucky. Zoeller first tasted it in New Orleans after it had been moved by boat for 58 days, on rivers. “I had taken some samples in Kentucky of bourbon that was distilled in the same week that these two barrels were distilled, and aged in Kentucky,” he says. “Just eyeballing the boat bourbon [by comparison], it was much, much darker, more like the color of an eight- to 10-year-old bourbon. I wasn’t expecting it, not that quickly. Looking at the barrels that I just had to replace, I have 30-year-old barrels that are in better shape than these barrels, and they were brand-new. The way the elements affect these barrels, they’re nine months old, and they’re being replaced.”
Not only did the barrels and the weather add color, Zoeller says, but the bourbon, still less than a year aged, already has almost zero bite.
“As the bourbon hits that wood, the wood is acting as a filter,” he says. “I could still tell that it was young, but it was so easy drinking, so smooth. That stringency has been removed. The sugars caramelize when it’s exposed to the heat out here. It picks up the brine from the salty air. Tasting it here in Key West, it picked up more flavor. It did not taste nearly as young as it did in New Orleans. In Kentucky, it would be nine-month-old whiskey, which is just not good, but you can absolutely drink this now. It’s really different.”
Zoeller is an avid boater who admits that part of his idea for the journey by river and ocean was a bit of a ploy—“this is really just an excuse to spend more time on the water,” he says with a laugh—but along the way, he’s gaining a serious appreciation not only for how his bourbon is aging, but also for the skippers who used to move the liquor by boat 150 years ago.
“We’re really gaining a lot of respect for the people who did it originally,” he says. “Trying to put a flat boat together and pilot it down the rivers was really dangerous work. There were pirates, [the skippers] would trade the barrels for gold and then people knew they had the gold—just changing out these barrels, I had UPS deliver these barrels out for me. Those guys had to bring their own coopers on the water.”
For the ride from Fort Lauderdale to New York City, of course, no barrel-making craftsmen will be required. If you’d like to help Zoeller out with the last leg—and be there for the final tasting in Manhattan—reach out through the Jefferson’s Bourbon website.