When two barrels of Jefferson’s Bourbon—caged to the back of a 24-foot runabout—set off down the Ohio River at Louisville, Kentucky, last June, Walter Tharpe kicked himself. Symbolically, at least.
“I said, ‘Dadgumit! I knew somebody was going to do it,’” said Tharpe, owner of Cane Land Distilling Co. in Baton Rouge, La. “I’d thought about doing it for a long time—sending some (barreled) whiskey down river to see if it would change it much—but I guess I thought too long.”
Given that Jefferson’s Bourbon cofounder Trey Zoeller had already conducted a similar blue water aging experiment with his Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea bourbon several years ago, the idea wasn’t new. And to be fair, neither was Zoeller’s Oceans work either. Moving barreled booze across blue waters has happened for centuries, and pushing it across the brown waterways of the southern U.S. became common in the 19th Century. It’s how Kentucky whiskey got to big ports like New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.
With the same aim of recreating that journey and testing its effects on whiskey, Tharpe, like Zoeller, wanted to peek back into history for a closer look.
“What we did is certainly nothing new, but it’s reenergizing what was done,” said Tharpe, who shipped 150 barrels of his whiskey to Louisiana aboard a barge last month. “I think a lot more people are going to do it as a result.”
Perhaps they’ll do it his way—aboard a modern barge pushed by a diesel-burning tug boat and stored away from the elements below weatherproof cover—rather than Zoeller’s more rustic approach. His Jefferson’s Reserve barrels were left out in the open to endure the intense summer sun, hail storms and salt water spray of the Gulf of Mexico as it moved toward its currently unmet goal of landing in New York City. By the time the barrels got to Sarasota on Florida’s west coast, their heads warped and their metal hoops rusted. To save the whiskey, he had to transfer their contents to new barrels and continue the journey, which stopped in Ft. Lauderdale.
“We wanted to be in New York by September of last year, but the weather caught us,” Zoeller said. Inhospitable encounters with Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew and an unnamed tropical storm slowed progress dramatically. “On any given year, you could encounter a tropical storm and two hurricanes—or encounter none at all. But that’s part of why we’re doing this: to experience what these guys did a long time ago.”
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