Bourbon ON the Water: Aging at Sea



Once in a while something odd passes by… and this is one of those items.

Ocean’s Bourbon is aged at sea, rocking and rolling around the world.

As bourbon lovers know, flatboats have an historic place in the bourbon biz. It’s why Kentucky has the world bourbon market over a barrel. (Flatboats were used to transport the golden liquid onto the Ohio River where they could reach the Mighty Mississippi and make way to New Orleans.)

Kentucky bourbon distiller Trey Zoeller is using the motion of the ocean to produce bottles worth $200 each.

“We’re going back to how bourbon was initially aged. The color and flavor came from the rocking on the water. Bourbon was loaded on to ships in Kentucky, and by the time it travelled to the people buying it, the flavor improved.”

From a long line of distillers, Zoeller said his great-great-great grandmother was among the first female distillers and his father, Chet, is a bourbon scholar. Zoeller has been in the artisanal whiskey business since the 1990s with his Jefferson’s Bourbon. A while back Zoeller was celebrating his birthday on a friend’s boat off the coast of Costa Rica  raising glasses full of bourbon.

“I was watching the bourbon in the bottle shift from side to side and I thought, if it’ll do that in the bottle, it’ll do that in a barrel on a ship.”

Chemist Tom Collins, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, who has analyzed the flavor profiles of American whiskeys, says higher temperatures like those found in the tropics, and the swell of the ocean, can both accelerate the whiskey aging process.

“The daily swing in temperature matters. As the liquid warms up, it expands into the wood. And then as it cools down, it contracts, which can improve extraction of compounds from the wood – compounds that give aged whiskey its characteristic flavor. These reactions are generally favored with higher temperatures.”

Five barrels of bourbon roamed the seas on a boat linked to OCEARCH, an organization that tracks sharks and other endangered marine life. He kept the barrels on board his ship for three and a half years. 

So what happened when Zoeller tapped those first barrels?

“The experiment totally exceeded our expectations. The bourbon went in clear as water and came out black. Bourbon always picks up color in the barrel, but this 4-year-old bourbon was darker than 30-year-old bourbon.”

And the salt air gave the bourbon a briny taste — more similar to an Irish single malt — and coloring like dark rum, Zoeller says.

Jefferson’s Ocean bourbon is still on the high seas, with over 200 barrels reaching more than 40 ports. Each batch returns with a different flavor and color.

Putting Jefferson’s Ocean on my “need-to-try-quick” list. Sometimes odd is great.


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