Voyage One

When Jefferson’s Bourbon founder Trey Zoeller realized his dream of aging whiskey at sea, he was determined to prove that maturation in extreme elements would have a profound and positive effect. Twenty-four voyages of Jefferson’s Ocean later, Zoeller never lost his passion for sending his bourbon on an ocean liner for a cruise around the world.

Zoeller’s first batch of Jefferson’s Ocean was a handful of charred oak barrels dripping with new-make bourbon on a cargo ship at sea for three-and-a-half years. The ship’s journey began in Fort Lauderdale and from there sailed across the Caribbean, west through the Panama Canal, and up to the Guadalupe Islands 1,200 nautical miles southwest of San Diego. Rife with storms and blistering heat, the liquid tossed back-and-forth for 42 months creating enormous amounts of wood-to-spirit interaction as it baked in the hot sun and soaked up the humid, briny air.

Jefferson's Ocean 24 hits the dock. All photos courtesy of Jefferson's Bourbon.

When the casks returned to port in Florida in 2015, the bourbon inside was, to Zoeller’s delight, close to black in appearance with a thick viscosity and deep caramel and vanilla flavors held together by a curious salinity no doubt coming from the salty ocean air. The juice shattered Zoeller’s expectations, gaining more color and depth of flavor than anything he’s seen from a warehouse in Kentucky in that amount of time.

“The Ocean series started as an experiment to prove the elements would have a radical effect on the bourbon,” Zoeller explains. “When we broke into the Voyage One barrels, the liquid inside was better than I imagined. While all of the elements of the sea contributed, I believe most of the flavor came from the heat just caramelizing the hell out of the whiskey as it rocked back and forth.”

Jeffererson's Bourbon founder Trey Zoeller taps into the latest batch.

Ocean Voyage 2-23

While Zoeller and Jefferson’s fans were stoked about the results of his experiment, the bean counters were less psyched to learn they lost over a third of the whiskey to angel share. Zoeller revised the Ocean route by loading 6-8-year-old bourbon from his Small Batch Collection on a ship and “finishing” maturation at sea for eight months to keep the program viable.

The revised route brought his aging barrels to 30 ports on five continents while crossing the equator four times. Each trip was special to Zoeller as he tracked the bourbon’s progress and charted the bourbon’s subtle differences due to launching at different times of the year. Voyage 13 was particularly memorable since the bourbon barrels were battered by multiple hurricanes on the Atlantic Ocean, losing almost 70 percent of the whiskey to evaporation, (apparently sea angels are a thirsty lot). It was a lousy year for yields, but it made some damn fine bourbon, which is salty, rich, and textured. Each voyage affected the whiskey differently, but after 22 similar journeys, Zoeller was agitating for change.

Trey Zoeller sampling Jefferson's Ocean Voyage 24.

Ocean Voyage 24

While Zoeller always falls in love with his latest Ocean releases, he never forgot about the dark and delicious liquid spilled from the barrels aboard Voyager One. In launching the newest release, Voyage 24, Zoeller sought out a new route to re-explore what happened in the Guadalupe Islands during the first trip when it was all heat all the time. Zoeller hooked up with a new freight liner whose route took wide figure eights through the Caribbean down to Panama and back, a constantly hot and humid trek. The barrels are stored in shipping containers on the top of the ship to maximize the pitch and maw. These cargo bins have “sunroofs” cut out to expose the barrels to the elements. Temperatures ranged between 93 and 106 degrees every day. The juice that docked in port was almost as exciting to Zoeller as his bourbon’s first and fateful trip.

Photo courtesy of Jefferson's Bourbon

“When I tapped into the Voyage 24 barrels, I was excited to find all this goodness coming from the intense liquid-to-wood interaction with a minimal negative effect. While the salty air permeates the barrel, the liquid constantly slaps up against the wood, acting as a filter and removes the alcohol’s astringency. Easy drinking, super textured, and loaded with vanilla and caramel, this bourbon is quite different from the other Ocean voyages and is reminiscent of Voyage One.”

Jefferson’s Ocean Voyage 24 is available for purchase now, just in time for the holidays. But since it’s probably not too late to score an Ocean 23 as well, try them next to each other to determine for yourself how the different voyages influenced the bourbon.


John McCarthy is a spirit, travel, and lifestyle journalist, managing editor, and author of The Modern Gentleman and Whiskey Rebels: The Dreamers, Visionaries & Badasses Who Are Revolutionizing American Whiskey. McCarthy is also editor of Barleycorn Drinks and Director of Judging of the John Barleycorn Awards.