Why Age Whiskey at Sea?

Anchored miles off the shoreline of Montauk, NY, is the shark tracking vessel Ocearch. The 126-foot ship rises and dips with the waves, motion that sloshes around bourbon aging in barrels in the belly of the boat.

On this day the Ocearch hopes to catch and tag a great white shark. In several years the whiskey from those four barrels, packed tightly below a table the crew uses as a workbench, will be auctioned off to fund further research.

The ocean and whiskey: it’s a marriage that makes sense when you consider the two entrepreneurs behind it.

TV Producer Chris Fischer launched Ocearch as social entrepreneurism financed in part through brands willing to help him collect and share data about the lifecycle of sharks. The whiskey comes from his Kentucky childhood pal, Trey Zoeller, founder of Jefferson’s Bourbon.

“Bourbon has been done the same way for so long that the process of distilling has been perfected,” explains Trey Zoeller, founder of Jefferson’s Bourbon, besides barrels of his bourbon aboard the Ocearch.

“Bourbon has been done the same way for so long that the process of distilling has been perfected,” Zoeller explains. “So I wanted to experiment with bourbon and age it in different ways.”

The brand Zoeller founded in 1997 now counts 16 whiskeys, 14 of which are aged or finished in peculiar manners. That’s not counting the failures, of course: only one out of five of his whiskey experiments works, he says. Most entrepreneurs will call that a fine batting average.

Perhaps his best hit came on the Ocearch, formerly known as the Ocean. Zoeller and Fischer were aboard the vessel in Costa Rica, celebrating Zoeller’s 40th birthday. The whiskeymaker noticed his bourbon swaying inside its bottle in rhythm with the waves. Zoeller wondered: how would that work for whiskey in barrels? “I believed I could force and accelerate the maturation process,” he recalls.

The idea makes sense. The rocking of the ocean increases contact between the juice and the wood. And the open sea is not exactly a static climate. The great swings in weather, plus the salty atmosphere, would surely affect the whiskey.

It did. An initial experiment of three and a half years aboard the Ocearch produced a “thick and delicious” whiskey. Zoeller refined the process. The latest batch is 180 barrels of 8-and-a-half-year-old bourbon, aged normally in Kentucky and then finished on an eight-month journey aboard container ships that circle the globe while visiting 30 ports.

The result is Jefferson’s Ocean.

Launched in 2012, Ocean has become Jefferson’s best-selling brand after only Very Small Batch and Reserve, two price-point purchases. This September the brand will release its “Voyage 12” bottle, which like past iterations is expected to sell its 30,000 or so bottles quickly through allocation. Each trip experiences different weather. Some more inclement than others, including hurricanes. Collectors scoop up new releases and compare flavors with the previous voyages.

An initial experiment of three and a half years aboard the Ocearch produced a “thick and delicious” whiskey.

One constant remains: that trademark brininess.

The day we visited the Ocearch and sampled Ocean  from its cask, I learned how quickly sea air seeps into the whiskey. After only a matter of months on the ship, the spirit already displayed that smooth bright salty flavor that helps separate Ocean from other bourbons.

As does its environmental focus. Many brands in the social-media age have connected with social entrepreneurs like Fischer. Portions from the proceeds of Ocean go towards Ocearch. The research organization has tagged 300 sharks, published 50 scientific papers and generated one billion digital impressions. The goal is to spread awareness while protecting the ocean’s ecosystem. Fischer also aims to discover whether antibiotics derived from the sea can help battle diseases on land.

“The earth is the only vehicle we have and we’re trying to collect the data necessary to leave that vehicle in the best shape possible for our children moving forward,” Fischer explains. “We’re attacking this with the same sense of urgency and efficiency as a for-profit business.”

A Jefferson’s barrel loading into the Ocearch for aging.

Zoeller is similarly open-minded in his work. He’s finished Jefferson’s in French oak former-Bordeaux barrels (including cab sauvs). He collaborated with celebrity chef Edward Lee on a blended whiskey designed specifically for food pairings.

Working with Esquire, Zoeller released bottles of barrel-aged Manhattan cocktails. He floated whiskey barrels down the middle river system of America, from Kentucky to New Orleans, in replicating the original boat trip many bourbons took in reaching markets beyond the Bluegrass State. Up next he’s aging bourbon at high altitudes, and also in barrels inserted with tobacco sticks.

“I like to push the boundaries of what bourbon can be,” Zoeller says. “As an entrepreneur I’ve got to find ways to do things differently for the benefit of the customer.”

Which explains the idea behind his ocean-finished, eco-conscious bourbon.

Kyle Swartz is managing editor of StateWays magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece 10 Alcohol Trends to Watch in 2017-18Feature photo courtesy of Ocearch / R. Snow

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