Podcast

Trey Zoeller from Jefferson’s Bourbon

Today’s world is all about thinking differently and no company disrupts Bourbon more than Jefferson’s. To discover more, we talk to founder Trey Zoeller.

By: Tiff Christie|April 16,2020

There is nothing as quintessentially American as bourbon, and its manufacture is a practice that goes back to the late 1700s.

It is steeped in tradition. It has rules for production, and it also has, to purists at least, its very own home state, Kentucky.

But back in 1997, a new brand, Jefferson’s Bourbon, started up and became a disruptor in the space.

We talked to Jefferson Bourbon’s founder, Trey Zoeller, about innovation, ageing, and what it means to seek balance in the blend.

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There is nothing as quintessentially American as bourbon, and its manufacture is a practice that goes back to the late 1700s. It is steeped in tradition. It has rules for production, and it also has, to purists at least, its very own home state, Kentucky. But back in 1997, a new brand, Jefferson's Bourbon, started up and became a disruptor in the space. We talked to Jefferson Bourbon's founder, Trey Zoeller, about innovation, ageing, and what it means to seek balance in the blend. Thanks for joining us, Trey.

You bet. Thanks for having me on.

Now you named Jefferson's after the third U.S. president, who was known for his independence and desire for freedom. Was it always your intention to disrupt the industry?

No, it really wasn't in the beginning. It turns out that we've been known for our innovations, and obviously Thomas Jefferson was a great innovator. However, really when I started, bourbon was in a 30 year decline and the thousands of distilleries that were around prior to prohibition had been whittled down to just eight in the state of Kentucky. And all of those eight distilleries heralded their heritage and tradition. I was in my late twenties when I started this up, so I thought I needed a little bit of heritage and tradition. I thought what we were putting in the bottle at the time was very complex and very sophisticated, and I thought that Thomas Jefferson kind of embodied all of that. So it was really just a name that would kind of give an indication of what we were putting into the bottle. It wasn't until later that I started playing around with it that we get more of our innovative nature.

Now could I ask, if bourbon was in a little bit of decline, what made you think to start it?

I was too dumb to know better.
That's really what it was. Growing up in Kentucky, bourbon is everywhere. If you went to my grandmother's house, she didn't ask you what you want to drink, she would ask you, "How do you take your bourbon?" Everything that she cooked with was smothered in bourbon. My eighth generation grandmother was arrested for moonshining and bootlegging. So, it was just all around you. It wasn't until I moved away, and I moved to about a half dozen different places around the U.S., and found that I couldn't find bourbon as readily as I did in Kentucky.
Actually, there was very little bourbon to be found at all. I'd find Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, maybe Makers Mark if I was lucky. Then I would come home for the holidays and drive past all these warehouses that I knew were full of great old bourbons that were either evaporating off into nothing, or being blended into a four-year-old bourbon, so they weren't able to be showcased. So I thought that there was great opportunities specifically because there was great momentum with single malt scotches at the time, and I thought we had a much better product. So I thought it was just a matter of purchasing these barrels, buying the barrels, putting them in bottles, and taking them out and exposing it to people around the country to let them taste for themselves. Which when I started there wasn't much interest in it. That's really how it kind of evolved.

It must've been difficult to get it off the ground then if it was difficult to actually sell it.

It was. I would take it to friends' of mine parties around the country, and at the time it would be the last thing that was opened up. Now things have changed so dramatically that it's the first thing finished when you go to a party. So bourbon really was kind of thought of as the redheaded stepchild, so to speak, of the spirits category back in the early nineties. It wasn't until early to mid 2005 to 2010 that things really started to change. We're looking at it right now, with disruption that's going on right now, and back in 2008 when we had such a housing crisis here and the economy really got wrecked, that people started going back and looking for value and they found that with bourbon. Then they found, once they dug into it, that it was seeped in heritage and tradition and stories, and there was a lot to it.
People could really geek out and share stories about it, and they dug more into it. Really, I think more so than anything, it was the access to information via smart phones that gave people this information that they could share, and they loved to sit down with a small group of friends and share that.

Now, how difficult was it to actually walk into an industry that is so steeped in tradition? How difficult was that to be a startup?

It was difficult. As I said, there were eight distilleries making all the bourbon back then, and two of them sued me or threatened to sue me right out of the gate. They didn't want the competition and there wasn't much of a consumer at the time. The consumer that was there were typically older men, and they were dying off. They weren't replenishing themselves, and those older men were typically drawn to one specific brand. My great-uncle was a perfect example. I'd give him all the Jefferson's Reserve he wanted to drink, but he was quite happy to sit and drink his Jack Daniels. As he would say, "I like my Jack Daniels. This is my drink." And things have changed dramatically.
Now people aren't married to one brand, so to speak. They're much more promiscuous in the category. People don't have just one bourbon on their back bar. They typically have many. Which has really been a great advantage to us because people are willing to try. And the more that they were willing to try, the more we were willing to experiment and kind of try to push the boundaries of what bourbon is without bastardising it. And the more that we came out with successful products, they liked the taste of it, the more they wanted to see us try.

You use the expression 'alchemy is everything' on your website. Do you want to explain what you mean by that?

Yeah. First, I'm not a distiller. We have some great distillers that make a very great product. We continue to contract from big distillers as well. We've had contracts with some of the big distilleries for 20 years, and we use a great base. Then really that's the science of it and you've got to have that great science for the distillate. Once you have that base, then you can play around with it, kind of more of an art form with the maturation and the blending. So it's really a combination of break these things down in different segments and really look at it as kind of a science and an art to really come up with something unique.
When I started, and I started buying from a number of distillers across the state, they would all tell me the same thing. 60 to 75% of what bourbon is, or the heart and soul of bourbon, comes from the maturation process, yet everybody was maturing it the same way. As I looked in that, and I benefit from my dad being a bourbon historian, and he identified over 2,500 distilleries in Kentucky alone prior to prohibition, but the recipes were almost all the same. So if you look at that and say, "All right, there's really room to expand what bourbon can be with the maturation." And that's where I wanted to really put my emphasis and look at it more from a smaller alchemy lens.

Right, and I suppose that ties in with the fact that you're known for your small batches.

Correct. We actually call them ridiculously small batches, about 12 barrels for some of our bottling. It's enough. It's really a great combination of the benefits of the single barrel and an extremely small batch. There are some great honey barrels that have some wonderful flavours. And if you like barrel eight from a single barrel bottling, you might try the barrel number nine, and it might be very, very different than eight. They could be both great, but you don't have that consistency. With doing a ridiculously small batch, we're able to get these better barrels, and then also bring in enough of them to where you do have a consistent flavour profile.

I suppose that's all coming down to the skill of the blender.

It is. We've got so many different products, but it's still the most fun for me to put together our Jefferson's Very Small Batch, and our Jefferson's Reserve because each batch, it's a blending practice. It's not like once you get the process down that you're just doing it over and over. Each time you've got to sit down and taste next to the control, and try to bring these four different bourbons together and have a very consistent flavour. You try to optimise each batch so they're the best they can be.

Blending or discussion of blending isn't really typical within bourbon.

Bourbons weren't really discussed, or blending technique, and how I came to kind of be a blender is from default. I started buying from these larger producers, and again they had an ocean of old bourbon because they were in a 30-year decline, which just built up inventory. So I would get a call at the end of every fiscal quarter or year saying, "Trey, I've got 400 barrels of a 17 year old, or 300 barrels of 14 year old. Are you interested?" I started accumulating these small, esoteric lots of bourbon and I found by bringing them together that the whole was better than the parts.
So what we're working with is all Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. It's all very pure. But by blending it, I feel like I can get more flavour throughout the tasting experience. I try to get it to be more complex and bring it up front mid palate and in the finish equally amounts of flavour. So it's not just dominated with one flavour or one part of the tasting experience is where most of the flavour comes. So really it's about balance and complexity.

So in an interesting way, it's very similar to what a bartender is trying to do.

It absolutely is. It's about that balance. That was really demonstrated to me when I was working with a number of mixologists when we put together our barrel age Manhattan, and I did that in conjunction with Esquire Magazine. Everything that I would send up to them was very bourbon forward, which I liked. However, they really showed me the art of letting all the other components do their work and balance it out. In essence, it's very similar to what bartenders are trying to do.

Now your products are divided into three types: foundation, innovation, and cask finishes. Do you want to explain a little bit about each one?

Sure. The foundation is kind of what we just talked about. It's about the blending, our Jefferson and Jefferson's Reserve. Now we have 19 different expressions of Jefferson's and 17 of those 19 we're doing something different than what most distillers are doing, which is distilling the agent, cutting to proof, and bottling it. So we're not trying to cheat the process or accelerate the process because we're always using fully mature bourbon whiskey. But once we've got that foundation, we want to see what else we can do to push the boundaries, to put more time, money and effort into it to massage the juice one way or the other. And so, as you said, with the foundation, we're doing that through blending exercises.
Through innovation, we've done things like our Jefferson's Ocean where we change the environment, agitation, the ageing, or we work with different... Like our chefs collaboration, where we brought bourbon and rye together to create a pairing spirit. Then we also have our finishes that you've mentioned, that we've done Napa Cabernets and Cabernets from Bordeaux where we take fully mature Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey and finish it in freshly dumped wine barrels, or rum barrels, or soon to be cognac barrels. We'll age that, depending on what the barrels are, anywhere from four to 15 months to get those flavours from what those barrels carried previously to come out and really work with the bourbon.
When we do that, we put them in what I call hotboxes, which are nothing more than shipping containers. So when it's an extremely hot humid here in Kentucky that's just amplified being in those hotboxes, and that sweats out whatever's in those barrels previously into the bourbon. Then the longer that barrel is in the hotbox, the more those molecules come together and really balance out the bourbon.

With that sort of heat though, you must be losing quite a bit to angel share though?

Oh we do. We do. Yeah, we do top off the barrels when we fill those up, but usually we lose seven to eight percent the first year in Kentucky when we're...
Wow. That's quite high.
That is quite high, and trust me, we're losing a lot more than that when we put it into the hotboxes.

I can imagine. Now you mentioned that you had 19 different expressions. With that number, how should somebody approach the range?

Well, we've kind of got a core range, which is our Jefferson's, which is kind of our entry level product, but again, that's all about the balance, which is U.S. about $34 a bottle. Then our most quintessential bourbon flavoured product would be our Jefferson's Reserve. I think that just brings out so many great bourbon flavours. So, those are great places, either one of those, to start. Then I use those as a control almost to taste next to some of the other things we've done. It really depends what you like. I ask people typically when they ask me which bourbon I should pour them, if they're wine drinkers. I'd say you got to try our Pritchard Hill Cabernet Cask Finished. It's got a great black cherry flavour that comes out. If you like big Cabernets, you'll love this bourbon.
For somebody that likes a scotch, I usually point them in the direction of our Jefferson's Ocean because of the saltiness that comes out. A lot of people think it tastes like salted caramel popcorn. So, it is a range and once people get in they can experiment out and get a good idea of what they like, and then what they think they would like based on what way we're finishing it or how we're changing the ageing process.

A lot of your innovation bourbons have been produced through collaborations. The main one of course is Jefferson's Ocean, which you've mentioned. Do you want to talk a little bit about how that came about?

You bet. You bet. It was actually a lot of fun. I got to collaborate and this is how a lot of the innovations come about. I don't really realise that I'm collaborating with someone until we've backed into an idea of creating a product. I happened to be on a friend of mine's ship, which was named The Ocean at the time. It is now called Ocearch, combining ocean and research, because he catches tags and releases great white sharks to collect their data to follow the top predator down, like you would the lion in the Serengeti, in order to work on abundance and sustainability of our oceans.
So I spent some time with him down in Costa Rica. We have birthdays at the same time. We caught sharks, served and drank a lot of bourbon. And as we were drinking bourbon on the bow of the ship, I saw it rocking back and forth within the bottle. I thought that bourbon rocked back and forth within the bottle, it certainly would in a barrel and that would change the maturation. So I suggested to him, "Let's put some barrels on the ship." He suggested that's probably not such a good ideas. His crew catches great white sharks. So the more he drank, the more he came up with a great idea, "Let's put some barrels on the ship." We did that and it was kind of a dual good idea. We were also doing it and we were going to sell that and support his cause with it, with the proceeds. That's what we're doing today.
So we put the barrels on the ship and there's constant contact with the wood as it's rocking back and forth. Today, each voyage crosses the equator four times. So that extreme heat caramelises the sugars and then the barrels, as we lose a lot to evaporation, they also breathe in the salt air. So they absorb this briny taste. So as I said, people say it tastes like salted caramel popcorn.

One thing that I'm curious about. I mean, as any sailor will tell you, no two voyages are the same. Whiskey, when it comes back must always be relatively inconsistent. So how do you bring it to a point of consistency or do you not?

Well, we have some consistent factors, but you're absolutely right. No two voyages are the same and even though our voyage is going the same route, which is to 30 ports on five continents, as I said, crossing the equator four times, depending on the time of the year, but what it encounters makes a big difference on what the end result is of the bourbon. For instance, I think it was voyage 14 and we get daily sea conditions, whether it's calm, moderate, rough, or very rough and sea and air temperatures, so we're able to kind of figure out what's been going on. But voyage 14 got hit by three different hurricanes and just got rocked to death and that extreme rocking made for an abnormally large amount of angel share. We lost over 50% of the yield due to the evaporation. Which wasn't good for us, however, it was good for the bourbon.
Some people love voyage 14 because it was so condensed and so abnormally high and there was a high abundance of the brininess that came through. It made it very unique. So, you're absolutely right. Even though we've done 20 plus voyages of the ocean, no two are the same. And we now have three different types of voyage. We do our regular voyage, which has a small gearing of rye, our cast strength voyage, which is also rye, and we're just about to bottle up right now. That'll come out, I believe at 112 proof this voyage. Then we also do a wheated voyage, which small grain being wheat, does not try to compete with some of those flavours the ocean's known for. So it's even more briny and more of a caramel flavour than you would see in just typical Ocean.

Now you mentioned earlier that you'd done some collaborations with a ship, for example. Could you talk us through some of the other innovative products that you've produced?

You bet. So as I mentioned that chef that I collaborated with, Chef Edward Lee, we created the first pairing spirit with our Jefferson Chef's Collaboration. He asked me to do a bourbon pairing for a dinner that he was cooking for his cookbook launch. And when I did, I sat next to the editor in chief of Esquire Magazine and we developed the Jefferson's Esquire barrel aged Manhattan. I've had the great fortune of collaborating with Cyril Chappellet, who owns Chappellet Winery, with our Jefferson's Pritchard Hill Cabernet Cask Finished.
Which he's been [inaudible 00:23:45] to work with and loves the collaboration. I’ve collaborated with some of the great chateaus of Bordeaux that Thomas Jefferson visited, wrote about, served at the White House and then served at his house Monticello. That was Chateau Pichon Baron and Chateau [inaudible 00:24:13] in Bordeaux. So it's been a great opportunity to work with great properties and great people. It helped me understand bourbon; it helps me see the forest through the trees sometime. Because they're experts in other areas and they don't have the same blinders on that I do, or think that there's the same parameters that you have to stay within.

Sounds like you've had a fair amount of fun with what you've been creating.

That's key. That's one thing that I'm lucky enough now with some great people that tied end up on it and able to be on great ships with folks, rides, visit some of the great wineries around the world, to work with them. So it's been a whole lot of fun.

Now you've recently been acquired by Pernod Ricard. How has that changed the way that you operate?

It's too soon to tell. What they have reiterated to me that they want to keep it very entrepreneurial and innovative and they just want to give me the resources and the power of the Pernod Ricard machine behind it to help bring some of the innovations that we develop to market and make it more of a global brand. My goal, which I've had for sometime now, is to make Jefferson's a very top notch, respected global brand, but still do it in the fashion that I would like to and not have it become more generic by being with a larger company. So thus far it's been great having that support. Having the ability to look at things at more of a global scale is exciting and I think it's going to present a lot of opportunities.

How do you match up being available on a global scale with being small batch?

It's a lot more work. So as we grow, we've got to produce a lot more batches. So that just takes more time to put them together. I'm very hands on with each and every batch. I do have a couple other people that we taste together, but we're going to maintain that. It's something that is very important. Our quality controls are more efficient now and we're able to have some better checks and balances. So I think that's going to help as well.

I'm sure you're a bit of a purist who believes that bourbon should only ever be drunk straight, but if you were to put it in a cocktail, and you mentioned the barrel edge Manhattan, but what other drinks would you recommend?

I am a purist and actually I probably drink more bourbon on the rocks than I do neat. Which I've had bartenders tell me they won't serve me a Jefferson's Ocean on the rocks. It's too good to drink that way. But that's kind of how I grew up drink it and still do. I love a good Old Fashioned and I like Sazeracs. I like Manhattans, but mainly if I'm going to have a bourbon cocktail, I like to put in a little Luxardo cherry juice and a Luxardo cherry. That's a pretty simple cocktail, but I really enjoy that.
And also with so many different expressions of Jefferson's, it's almost like I'm having a different cocktail with each expression because there are such vastly different flavours.
And it was kind of a shining light on me, one time when I had somebody tell me that he tried our Jefferson's Pritchard Hill Cask Finish for the first time and absolutely hated it and now it's his favourite bourbon. And the reason he told me he hated it, he said, "Trey, I hated it because I did not expect those flavours and it wasn't what my preconceived notion was, that bourbon should be. But then I went back to it and I found that I actually love those flavours, it just wasn't what I was expecting." And then he said "further, it's kind of like when you have a drink of lemonade, but it's not lemonade, it's a Sprite. When you drink it, you don't see it and you're expecting one thing and you get a different flavour completely, it throws you off.
That made me really think about that and say Trey, I'm working with these all the time and I'm expecting different flavours to come out because of what we're doing with ageing. We are pushing kind of boundaries of what bourbon could taste like, not everybody's going to expect that.

Now on that point, what has the general reaction from the bourbon community been to this sort of experimentation based products you're producing?

I think initially it wasn't so well a received. I listen to the people that I saw say, "oh that's not traditional bourbon, that's now how it's made". When we first came out with Jefferson's Ocean, that's what happened. That's not how bourbon's matured, that's not right. But, and we've since done a Jefferson's Journey. The reason that bourbon proliferated Kentucky, bourbon can be made and is made in every state, then why proliferate in Kentucky, most people would say it's our limestone water or it's our ever changing climate. But really what it was, it was after there was the first tax in the U.S., the Whiskey Tax, and then there was a Whiskey Rebellion that distillers went over the Appalachian Mountains to surpass the long arm of the taxman. When they distilled in Kentucky, the way to get it to market was to put it on boats, and float it down the rivers of America, down to New Orleans, then put it on ships, and sail around on the tip of Florida, and back to where there were people, which was New York and Boston and Philadelphia. And prior to that people were drinking whiskey right off the still, so it was clear like vodka or gin.It wasn't until that whiskey made the journey that it transformed into bourbon for the first time.

So it's basically doing what you're doing Ocean, then.

Exactly. Exactly. So, in essence we're going back to how it was originally done in the first place. I thought it was kind of ironic that a lot of traditionalist thought we weren't doing the right thing but it was really the one thing that was done exactly as bourbon gained fame and really started to become America's spirit was because of that journey.
And today the consumer is much more educated. There's still the traditionalist and there's plenty of bourbons for them. The only difference is age and proof, but there are a lot of people out there right now that want to see what else you can do. How else could we make this stand out, make it a little bit different.
And then as long as you're doing it with a great base of bourbon, when you're not trying to sneak out young whiskey, then I think there's some that people are going to like better than others. There's some that people might not like. They're going to respect it as long as you're using that great base to start with.

I imagine that experimentation actually brings a lot of new people to the category as well.

I think so, it does. The Pritchard Hill Cabernet finish is perfect example. Oh no, no I don't like bourbon. I'm a wine drinker. Oh, really? Try this. Oh wow. I didn't think a bourbon could taste like this. This is beautiful. So we got a rum cask finish where we age bourbon in 20 year old rum barrels that you get a great banana coconut flavour that comes out. It tastes like a dessert bourbon. Some people just never thought that that's what a bourbon can taste like.

Now what's next in terms of experimentation for Jefferson's?

We've got a lot of experiments coming up. I've been working with Independent Stave Company, which is the largest cooperage, for years and then over the last eight years, after I became a barrel chef back in 2012 for a couple of days for them, I saw how rudimentary we were with bourbon barrels by only putting a char on them. And what other techniques there were out there being implemented in wine cask or other spirits casts from around the world. So I've done a lot of experiments with that. We create our own proprietary barrel, which was extra seasoned. It was grooved out inside so it would have twice as much surface area. We put a flash char on there and then toasted it to bring out mocha flavours and we've finished some older bourbon and then we'll put some young bourbon in there as well now. So we'll age that three, four, five, six, seven, eight years.
So I think there's a lot on the forefront. We've got lots of experiments that we're ready to put out. We're bringing back rye whiskey into our portfolio that we haven't had in the last five years and we're doing some pretty innovative things with that that I'm real excited about.

It sounds like the future for Jefferson's is going to be really quite exciting and that people should stay tuned.

You got it.

Speaking of that, now obviously you would be available in every state in the U.S., where else are you available globally?

We're down in Australia, in Japan, Hong Kong, a little bit in the UK, France, so not too many markets. We're building up stocks. A year from July is when we're trying to really bring more of a export global presence.

And if people want more information, they can obviously go to your website, which is jeffersonsbourbon.com

You got it. You got it.

Thank you so much, Trey, for taking the time to speak to us today.

You got it. Thanks. I love the questions. This is a lot of fun. It's great to get the word out. Hopefully more and more people can discover what different bourbons are all about.

Excellent. Thank you so much.

For more information about Jefferson’s Bourbon, go to jeffersonsbourbon.com

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