The Bourbon Industry Was Opposed to Change. Then Jefferson's Bourbon Started Changing Everything -- and Winning.

Jefferson's Bourbon has upended the staid Kentucky liquor's heritage.
Source: Cristiano Rinaldi
Cristiano Rinaldi

Trey Zoeller walks into Jack Fry’s, a Louisville bistro founded in the 1930s by a beat cop with the winnings from a fixed horse race (or so the story goes), takes a seat at the bar and orders us a couple bourbons. And then a couple more. And then some more. And as time drifts past and Jack Fry’s fills with diners and drinkers, and more bourbon flows, Zoeller -- a tall, slim, engaging man with blue eyes and a dimple in his chin -- tells the story of how he became a heretic.

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In April 2008, Zoeller flew to Costa Rica to celebrate his 40th birthday with a group of childhood friends from Louisville -- including a guy named Chris Fischer, who was also turning 40. Fischer and Zoeller were well along their own unique life paths: Zoeller had been in the bourbon business for 10 years by then, and Fischer was on his way to distinguishing himself in the field of great white shark research. 

To celebrate, Fischer took Zoeller and his buddies out on his research vessel, the Ocean, where he showed them how he had been developing a new model for scientific research by funding his shark tracking not with government grants but with corporate sponsorships from the likes of Yeti and SeaWorld. While Fischer talked, however, Zoeller was focused on something else: how the bourbon he had brought onboard sloshed around the bottle as the boat moved through the waves.  

Instead of making him seasick, it gave him an idea. “Hey, we should put some barrels on here,” he told Fischer. 

Zoeller believed that the heaving of the ocean would maximize the aging process by constantly sloshing the bourbon against the insides of the charred oak barrel, leading to a deeper, darker bourbon than people were used to. The notion was about as close to blasphemy as one could come in the bourbon world at that time. In those days, before Zoeller cut a swath through the industry by spinning off a string of bold and wildly popular innovations, bourbon was one thing and one thing only: whiskey made mostly with corn, and aged for at least two years in barrels warehoused in Kentucky rickhouses.Anything else was just…whiskey.

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