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Seafaring Tales: Besh, bourbon, boats, and barrels


Trey Zoeller and Chef John Besh tell sea tales while tasting Jefferson’s Bourbon (Photo by: Kelley Crawford)

Standing on the riverwalk one might look out at the Mississippi with its currents going up, down, and all around and think, “This river looks drunk.” Well, Jefferson’s Bourbon founder Trey Zoeller and Chef John Besh are aiding in that possible narrative. Zoeller added two newly filled barrels of Jefferson’s Bourbon on a flatboat and is sailing it down the Mississippi.

The barrels started in Louisville, Kentucky and their first stop was New Orleans.

Like any good visitor to New Orleans, the bourbon didn’t just arrive lazily and swash around in the city. It was opened and tasted with pairings prepared by Chef John Besh and the Pigeon and Prince team. Caviar, pâtés, cured meats, and fried oysters all accompanied the bourbon, which could be drunk neat, in a Manhattan, on the rocks, or really anyway you desired. New Orleans, however, is just the first stop for these barrels.

Once they leave New Orleans they will travel to Key West, Florida until docking for their final tasting in New York.

“There’s a history behind this,” Zoeller explains. It’s meant to replicate the aging and transportation process of centuries ago. Specifically, the experiment focuses around the historic practices surrounding bourbon in the 1800s. While only months will pass as the barrels move from city to city, Zoeller and Besh are counting on the sea, the sun, and all the elements to age the bourbon in a different way. An eight-month old bourbon could have the characteristics of a ten-year-old bourbon by the end.

These barrels are like small time travelers, and they are not alone out there on the water. The boat is steered and directed by Captain Ted. He’s a young man with a figure-eight knot tattooed on his upper arm and stories that nod back to the yesteryear when men had salt in their hair and ambition in their eyes.


Captain Ted and his beard

“I almost died three times on this journey,” he says, sipping the bourbon he so adamantly deserved. He spent 58 days on the Mississippi with no air-conditioning, but that was the least of his worries. “When a storm comes through,” he says, grabbing a nearby wine glass for a visual, “the boat and the barrels move to one side like this [sloshing the red wine to the rim of the glass] and then come smashing back,” he explains, tipping the glass and making a small splash.

You would think that drowning, capsizing, or being eaten by some sea creature that has evolved from the treasures found at the bottom of the Mississippi would be his greatest fear, but that’s not the case. “I did have a nightmare when I was traveling,” he says. “I was dreaming, and in my dream I shaved my beard. I woke up in a total panic.”  You see, he’s been growing the beard out since the start of this journey, and it will keep on growing until those barrels land in New York.

Zoeller, Besh, Captain Ted, and the bourbon all have tales to tell, and their journey is far from over. They may meet ferocious obstacles on sea or on the land, but as Captain Ted explains in a nonchalant pun, “You just barrel through.”


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