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The Making of a Whiskey Legend

FWL's Contributing Editor, Caroline Dewar Sits Down With Trey Zoeller

Recently our own Caroline Dewar sat down with Jefferson Bourbon’s Master Blender Trey Zoeller to ask him distilling related questions, as well as questions about Jefferson Bourbon.


Jefferson Bourbon was founded in 1997 right out of Kentucky. Trey’s father, Chet, was a famed bourbon historian from Louisville, Kentucky. The father and son dedicated themselves with expanding the definition of bourbon. With much success, they discovered new possibilities. Jefferson Bourbon has a little different approach when they create their blends.


They do not own a distillery, but instead they purchase various amounts of aged bourbon from other producers and then blend various barrels to produce a consistent and satisfying product. Jefferson Bourbon is a innovative brand in which they continue to expand their company on a daily basis. From aged wheated bourbon to 16 year old bourbon that has an American oak finish, they have it all!


While sitting down with Trey, Caroline asked him questions about the sacred art of blending to his other personal own drinking preferences.



Caroline Dewar: You seem to be practising the sacred art of blending. What is your blending goal?

Trey Zoeller: Depends on the expression.  Blending allows you to bring in a number of different flavors when typically you get one dominant flavor from each individual recipe.  By blending different recipes of different ages you have the opportunity to gain balance. With Jefferson’s, I am trying to get approachable balance.  I want Jefferson’s to be a bourbon that allows even the most novice whiskey drinker to enjoy our bourbon neat or on the rocks. I want the secondary fruit and floral flavors to come through yet still have enough bravado or spice to satisfy seasoned consumers.

CD: Do you have any particular distilling and blending influences you look up to?

TZ: I respect all of the large distillers and how they have evolved. All of those guys are making great bourbon. I do look to other blenders and distillers throughout the whiskey world to see what they are doing and which products seem to benefit from blending and why. Because of the laws that define and protect bourbon, it’s been produced and matured in relatively the same manner for generations. Now distillers and blenders worldwide are starting to look at how to expand those boundaries and question if the long-used processes are the only way to skin a cat.  By partnering with Chef Edward Lee, we’ve been able to produce a whiskey that was developed primarily as a spirit that will pair particularly well with certain dishes.  By aging bourbon on the ocean we have been able to add flavors and textures that you do not get with traditional aging.

CD: On your website you mention "agitation and environmental processes" you use on the bourbon. Can you explain?

TZ: After I purchase bourbon, I either bottle it up quickly, continue to age it for a number of years or put it in stainless steel to stop the process. When the Ocean barrels came back to port on the first voyage we discovered how much the bourbon differed from bourbons that age traditionally.  The changing environment and the constant agitation gave flavors that are typically not associated with bourbon as well as picking up weight and color well beyond its years.  We’re taking the knowledge we gain from that experiment and continue to experiment with the way we mature our bourbon.  You’ll see future offerings from us that exemplify those experiments. The casks for the Ocean expression were put on to a boat and sailed round the world for a time – a bit like the original method of maturing Madeira where it was sailed over the Equator and the heat “cooked” the wine. Also there will be absorption of sea air rather like some of our Scotch single malts that are matured by the sea.

CD: What are your ambitions for the brand and company?

TZ: We are still a discovery brand.  I would love to see Jefferson’s as a respected portfolio that helps the bourbon industry evolve.  For years I was happily surprised to see Jefferson’s behind the bar; now I’m disappointed when I don’t see it.  

CD: If not sipping bourbon what is / are your own drinking preference(s)?

TZ: Typically beer or red wine. However, recently I’ve been interested in mezcals. Last Summer, while in Scotland, I had the pleasure of staying at a whisky maker’s house so we could share ideas.  Actually he shared a substantial number of his “experiments” and better barrels. We had a lot of fun and I really got an appreciation of Scotch. 

CD: Lastly, do you get out and about a lot to promote the brand e.g. at tastings or whiskey shows like WhiskyFest New York and Chicago etc.?  Do you like that side of things?

TZ: Being a discovery brand we do what we can to initiate trial.  So I do a lot of tastings, bottle signing, dinners, whiskey festivals.  As the popularity of bourbon has grown so has the demand on my time with these events. Luckily I enjoy it. I specifically like not only how the demographic has grown outside the stodgy old man to virtually everyone, but also how much knowledge and how large the thirst is for more knowledge. The questions I get are so intelligent these days. I feel that this education will keep the bourbon momentum from slipping.  There is so much to know and learn, how do you dumb down and return to white spirits? The knowledge is widespread too. I was in Edinburgh and London last year to do master classes for bartenders. I was blown away with their knowledge of American whiskeys.