Food & Drink

Jefferson’s Founder Trey Zoeller Talks Bourbon Heritage and Making Kentucky “Cool”

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Trey Zoeller

Within the age of bourbon sourcing, mixing, and cask finishes, Jefferson’s Bourbon definitely stands out as a pioneer. Launched in 1997, the model predates the 2010s “Bourbon Increase” by greater than a decade, and Jefferson’s founder Trey Zoeller has witnessed a lot of the business’s present developments since their inception. Certainly, Zoeller and his workforce have been early to embrace bourbon mixing — which he initially referred to as “marrying” to keep away from associations with Scotch — in addition to novel getting older methods, made well-known by the Jefferson’s Ocean line of spirits aged at sea.

At this time, Zoeller is open with tales about close to misses and fortunate triumphs from a unique period in American whiskey. He bought a few of the previous couple of hundred barrels from the previous Stitzel-Weller distillery, liquid that’s now the stuff of legend amongst bourbon aficionados. Whereas such bottles fetch upwards of 4 figures at public sale immediately, they used to take a seat untouched by customers hesitant to spring for “premium” bottles with $100 worth tags.

Extra lately, Zoeller has redoubled efforts to assist Jefferson’s stand out in an more and more crowded bourbon market. Meaning navigating the interior workings of multinational drinks big Pernod Ricard, which acquired the corporate as a part of the Citadel Manufacturers acquisition in 2019.

Zoeller, now Chief Strategist for Jefferson’s, lately sat down with Drinkhacker for a wide-ranging interview on the state of bourbon, together with how Kentucky satisfaction formed the corporate’s trajectory from the beginning.

Notice: This interview has been flippantly edited for readability. 

Drinkhacker: When you may return to 1997 and provides your self one piece of recommendation, what may that be?

Trey Zoeller: Purchase the whole lot. I might say by the 12 months 2000, perhaps 2001 when United Distillers was divesting of Bernheim and Stitzel-Weller, I had a type of previous crimson binders with the inexperienced bar paper. It needed to be 4 inches thick, of all their stock, the whole lot. And I may have purchased all of it for a tune. And it ended up that Heaven Hill and Sazerac ended up shopping for most of it, and I cherry picked a bit right here and there.

Drinkhacker: I’ve had a few of what you cherry picked, and it turned out fairly good.

Trey Zoeller: I picked out some great things. One other factor, Brian Hue, who owned Cork ‘N Bottle, he owned Hirsch, the 16 and 20 12 months previous, had all of it in stainless-steel. And he mentioned, “Simply purchase my model, purchase this juice and exit and promote it for nothing.” And I couldn’t promote my very own stuff on the time. So I handed on that, however I may have purchased the whole lot left of Hirsch 16 and Hirsch 20 on the time.

Hindsight is 20/20. So, you understand, by no means look within the rear view mirror as a result of it doesn’t do you any good apart from study from it. And go on instincts. I knew that Hirsch 16 was the perfect bourbon I’d ever had, and I knew it’d be price one thing sometime to any individual, and I ought to have trusted my instincts.

Drinkhacker: What are some choices that felt dangerous perhaps within the late ’90s, however ended up paying off in an enormous means?

Trey Zoeller: So I purchased what can be the final 400 barrels of Stitzel-Weller juice out of there. And I had a tough time promoting it for $100 a bottle, and Julian Van Winkle Julian wasn’t promoting any of it on the time. Making purchases like that, there was no assure it could repay. There have been definitely no goals that it’d be price what it’s immediately. Everytime you’ve received one thing like that, it may’t be replicated once more, it’s going to be price one thing down the road. You don’t know when. It’s type of like shopping for beachfront property in 2008. You maintain on lengthy sufficient, it’s going to be price one thing, as a result of there’s no extra of it. Similar factor with a few of that nice previous bourbon, however no person actually cared or wished previous bourbon on the time.

There wasn’t a marketplace for it. That was dangerous. Placing barrels on a ship is an instance. A number of the experiments that we do, a few of them repay, a few of them don’t. You win a few of these, you lose a few of them, however I feel while you take a look at it and also you’re placing out higher bourbon otherwise you’re investing in higher bourbon in the interim, the whole lot goes in circles.

One factor I want I might’ve executed sooner was investing in services, giving me the chance to manage extra of our future.

Drinkhacker: What are you targeted on so far as serving to Jefferson’s stand out as extra manufacturers, extra blenders, and extra sourced manufacturers enter the market?

Trey Zoeller: It’s attempting to push issues ahead to the subsequent frontier. We have been mixing means earlier than mixing was cool. And as a matter of truth, it was the exact opposite of cool, mixing was a complete soiled phrase. After I began, we have been mixing Jefferson’s and Jefferson’s Very Small Batch and Jefferson’s Reserve. Everyone thought of blended Scotch whisky while you mentioned “mix.” So I mentioned “marrying” on the time. I feel we have been the primary individuals speaking about it. There have been in all probability different individuals mixing, however to not the extent that we have been on the time. In fact we have been simply sourcing on the time, began contract distilling, after which distilling afterwards. However I knew that I needed to do one thing completely different to separate ourselves from everybody else.

And about distilling: What am I gonna do? Out-distill Jimmy Russell or Parker Beam, or any of the greats again then? It’s not gonna occur. So I wished to take what they’ve executed after which add processes onto it to hopefully improve it. So not attempting to shortcut, however put extra time, cash, and energy into hopefully bettering it, however definitely make it completely different. After we first got here out with Ocean Bourbon, individuals mentioned, “That’s not Kentucky bourbon, it wasn’t aged in Kentucky.” Effectively, individuals have been initially getting older whiskey on boats, which made it flip into bourbon for the primary time. So all people’s going to push again, together with on completed bourbon.

And when one thing works, you simply begin peeling that aspect additional and additional and additional and pushing it an increasing number of and extra. Simply doing one other end proper now, that’s not that thrilling. After we have been doing finishes 10 years in the past, that was one thing new and completely different. Our wooden experiments that we began doing in 2012, that was actually novel on the time. Now, not a lot. We’re engaged on some thrilling new issues to maintain pushing issues ahead that I can’t fairly go into proper now, nevertheless it’s primarily based on 25 years of expertise, and we’re very enthusiastic about it.

Drinkhacker: How has coming into the Pernod Ricard portfolio modified the trajectory of what you wish to do and what you are able to do as a model?

Trey Zoeller: It’s been a hindrance and a assist to a point. After two years, I’ve type of found out the right way to work inside Pernod Ricard to get the machine working for me as a substitute of towards me. Particularly on the tempo of innovation. Now I had improvements able to go, however the firm wasn’t essentially prepared for me, and we needed to get a belief degree the place they have been trusting what we have been doing with out having to undergo the filters of an enormous firm. However the sources that they supply — distribution, PR — when you get that barge shifting in the correct course, it’s arduous to cease it. From my viewpoint, it hasn’t all the time been straightforward, however once more, it’s been a studying curve the place I’ve needed to discover ways to work inside that system to get issues going at tempo.

Drinkhacker: How did your upbringing in Kentucky affect your notion of the bourbon business up till the founding of Jefferson’s?

Trey Zoeller: I’ll let you know, David: It wasn’t till only recently that I found out actually why I did it. And it was nothing greater than Kentucky satisfaction. After I was youthful, I moved to half a dozen completely different locations across the nation that weren’t consuming bourbon. When you went to a cocktail social gathering in Kentucky, all the fellows have been consuming bourbon and water.

Then I went to Tulane College. I met all these those that didn’t drink bourbon in any respect. And I wished to introduce them to bourbon. I definitely wasn’t consuming any premium bourbons on the time, however I nonetheless thought what was out there was significantly better than Scotch whisky. So it was actually taking Kentucky satisfaction and being obnoxious about it greater than something.

You return and at my grandmother’s home, she didn’t ask you what you wished to drink, however, “How do you are taking your bourbon?” Every thing she cooked was smothered in bourbon, which I hated as a child. I hated bourbon balls. However as you become older, you begin to understand, “Hmmm, these are fairly good!”

I used to inform individuals I used to be from Kentucky. In the event that they have been from Brooklyn, they might go, “Oh,” and switch and stroll away. Now they’re like “Kentucky? I wish to go on the Bourbon Trail.” And Kentucky’s cool unexpectedly. It wasn’t cool 20 years in the past.

Drinkhacker: I’m a local Kentuckian as nicely. And within the 11 years I’ve been in New York, it’s transitioned from, “Oh, you’re from Kentucky” in a really dismissive means. And now it’s “Oh, you’re from Kentucky? Have you learnt anybody who can get me an appointment at XYZ distillery or restaurant?”

Trey Zoeller: I simply received goosebumps. That’s so my expertise. It’s unbelievable! And bourbon heritage 1000% is answerable for that.

Drinkhacker: Talking of bourbon heritage, are there any teams you assume are under-appreciated within the business?

Trey Zoeller: I all the time say the coopers are bourbon. Brad Boswell from Impartial Stave, I feel he in all probability is aware of extra about bourbon than anybody as a result of he’s received the within scoop on virtually all distillers. Cooperage is the life blood, that’s the distinction between bourbon and the whole lot else. In order that they don’t practically get the popularity that they deserve.

Drinkhacker: Is there anything you’d wish to say about what bourbon heritage means to you or the way it’s mirrored in Jefferson’s immediately?

Trey Zoeller: I take into consideration the cyclical nature of spirits. When you construct up a style for what you want and also you develop into educated about bourbon, I feel it’s type of just like the Renaissance. And the way do you return to the Darkish Ages? You’re going to return to consuming vodka after increase this data? Bourbon has constructed a group for me. It’s allowed me to journey the world and meet essentially the most unbelievable individuals. And it’s type of a ticket into a whole lot of issues that I might by no means get to do in any other case, and other people I wouldn’t in any other case meet.

With a bottle of bourbon, there’s a narrative that you simply’re giving to any individual and also you’re sharing it with them. And that’s making a buddy.

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