Bourbon 101 With Trey Zoeller, Founder of Jefferson’s Bourbon


Today, we chatted with Trey Zoeller, the founder and master blender of Jefferson’s Bourbon who gave us a brief history lesson and elaborated on the difference between whisky and bourbon.

Zoeller carries on the tradition of his ancestors, the McLains and the Kynes, who have roots deep in the bourbon industry dating back to the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Bourbon, a type of whisky, is in your family. Give us a brief history of the spirit.

In a nutshell, as the country first developed, the original whisky and indigenous spirit was rye whisky, not bourbon. It was produced in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. The distillers had a little war with the British because they didn’t want to pay the taxes. After this war, General Washington, who was the largest distiller in the country at that time, had to pay for this war. So he instilled the first whisky tax. There was a quick rebellion called the Whisky Rebellion that was put out by the Continental Army. But distillers either paid the tax or crossed the Appalachians into Kentucky, Tennessee, or Ohio and started distilling there. They started distilling what was indigenous to the area at that time which was mainly corn. And then bourbon kind of proliferated in Kentucky mainly due to the East Mississippi river. Previously, people were drinking whisky right off the still, which is as clear as water–very hot, very harsh. When the French were unloading it, there was more color due to the aging process down the river. They put it on ships and shipped it to the New World like in Pennsylvania and Boston where there was quite a bit of aging that had transpired.

What are other key differences between bourbon and whisky?

Bourbon is the subcategory of whisky. All bourbons are whisky, but not all whiskys are bourbon. There are six laws that are currently active to protect the integrity of bourbon. The most important in my mind is that we have to use new charred white oak to age our bourbons.

What makes good bourbon?

The clear short answer is the more time it ages in the wood. When bourbon comes off distilled, it’s as clear as water. The color, taste, the texture all comes for it working within the wood. It’s put in extreme temperatures–very cold, very hot. The molecules as it heats up expands it and it digs into the wood. When it’s cold, it contracts and comes out of the wood. The more time it goes in and out of the wood the more flavor it picks up, and the more color it has. The longer it sits in the wood, the more it is able to touch the wood. It is more refined.

What food goes well with bourbon?

Everything barbecued. Any types of meat from ribs to lamb steaks. That’s pretty traditional. Or even something that is as easy as asparagus. I’m actually going on a collaborative with a chef. We’re putting a balance and doing sweet, sour, and tart.

How do you like your bourbon?

I am pretty much on the rocks or neat. However, we recently launched a 14-year-old rye. And I love rye. It’s very different from bourbon. And you get a lot of great classic cocktails that are really enhanced by rye.