Jefferson’s Ocean Bourbon Adds Sharks to the Whiskey Mix

You can buy what the crew doesn’t drink.

It shouldn’t come as a particular surprise that the idea for Jefferson’s Ocean Bourbon came to Trey Zoeller when he was on a boat. Zoeller, the founder of the Kentucky distillery, spent his 40th birthday on his friend Chris Fischer’s shark research ship, MV Ocearch, off the coast of Costa Rica. After a long day of fishing, the group retired to the bow of the ship to reflect on the day. As boys from the “Bluegrass State” are known to do, they hit the brown stuff.  

“As the night wore on I noticed the bourbon rocking back and forth in the bottle,” says Zoeller. Rather than vomiting, he got to thinking: Could the motion speed barrel-aging, imparting more flavor to younger liquors? Later that night, after a few more drinks, Fischer agreed to let Zoeller put five barrels on his boat. 

The bourbon traveled with Fischer over 10,000 miles, went in and out of the Panama Canal six times, aging for three and a half years and countless sloshes before returning to Florida. Only three barrels completed the trip. Zoeller was informed that corrosion had taken its toll, but he has theories about the crew. “I call it ‘Juan’s Share’ instead of the ‘Angels’ Share,’” says Zoeller. “Juan really seemed to enjoy the resulting aged bourbon.”

When they tapped into the remaining barrels they were completely overwhelmed. “It totally exceeded my expectations,” Zoeller says. The bourbon was almost black in color, as thick as a much older batch, and the salt air had given it a slightly briny taste. Being exposed to extreme heat, the sugars had caramelized within the barrels and the constant battering of the bourbon stripped the astringency out of the alcohol. The resulting flavor was a sort of hybrid between an Islay Scotch and a dark rum. Still, Ocean Bourbon is bourbon at its core. Zoeller put it on the market and put some more barrels on the Ocearch.

The latest batch, Ocean III, is the product of six years in a warehouse and six months on open seas. The bourbon has hit five continents and crossed the equator four times. It tastes of caramel popcorn and the sea, an unusually combination – to put it lightly. The result, according to the Charleston Brown Water Society, is a bourbon that tastes like Salted Caramel Popcorn.

In keeping with the maritime theme, profits from the new stuff will help subsidize Fischer’s Great White Shark research. The plan is to continue financing research expeditions with booze. Makes sense. We’d have to drink loads of the stuff before considering getting in the water with a 20-foot death machine. Hopefully the crew doesn’t feel the same way.

Photos by Clay McLachlan / Getty Images