by Nicole Crews
Mother: You never know a man until you see him on a boat, on a mountain or in the cut.
Me: How about in his cups?
Mother: Well, that’s a given.
It’s a Walker Percy moment on the high end of High Rock Lake. The Whiskey Boys have reignited a brown-liquor revolution and my friends are the beneficiaries of this coup. Bourbon Master Blender Trey Zoeller, one of their leaders, has crept across the backwoods of Kentucky to serve as our spirit guide for the weekend. Ostensibly, he’s here to reunite with my childhood friend and lake neighbor and a group of college buddies from Tulane, but I get the feeling he’s really here to enlighten the noses of a handful of North Carolina novices. You see Trey, along with his famed bourbon historian father Chet, started bottling his own small-batch whiskey in 1997 under the apt title Jefferson’s Reserve. And word of its superior quality is spreading like an oil-slick fire thanks to Trey’s keen marketing skills and charisma-driven love of what he does. You see bourbon is a McLain, Kype and Zoeller family tradition that dates back eight generations — his grandmother was arrested in 1799 for the “production and sales of spirituous Meliquors.” To personify the brand, they chose Thomas Jefferson.
Me: I’ll bet she was a hoot in 1799. I don’t think she nor Jefferson had any reservations.
Trey: I think he was very comfortable going off the reservation.
Me: You should blend a Sally Hemming’s batch.
Trey: Not a bad idea.
We’re well into our third pour and we’ve officially gone off the reservation. It’s Memorial Day Weekend, and despite all the flavor profiles and bourbophile lingo, I taste America. Actually, Trey tells me what I taste is Jefferson’s Ocean — a rare line of Trey’s whiskey that was literally aged and agitated on the ocean. Trey got the idea when visiting his old Louisville friend Chris Fischer on his research ship.
Trey: I wondered what would happen if you put some barrels in the bow and let the caramelizing of sugars and constant motion take over.
Me: I guess it took.
Trey: It’s dark and briny and savory and aged beyond its years.
Me: That could be said about a few of us. And did you say there are only four bottles left of this in the world?
Trey: Now there are three.
Me: So why don’t we tie up a few barrels to Clay’s dock and let ’em agitate for a few years and then you can have Jefferson’s Lakeside Reserve?
Trey: We’d have to come up with a trap to keep your date out of it.
The sun is napping over the Uwharrie Mountains in the distance and our pro barbecue circuit cook and friend Carr is prying carcasses off the trailered grill. It’s time for a Southern spread to complement our sipping and also time to spin a few yarns. Trey’s dad, who literally wrote the book on bourbon in Bourbon in Kentucky: A History of Distilleries in Kentucky, and was featured in this month’s issue of Garden & Gun is a hot topic. Prior to Prohibition, Trey tells us that there were more than 250 legitimate distilleries in Kentucky, and his dad has collected bottles from half of them. It was a bourbon heyday and that old-school, small-batch label philosophy is coming back around.
Trey (who drinks his bourbon either neat or with a silicone molded ice spear): I think it’s part ‘Mad Men,’ part Southern food renaissance, part wanting quality over quantity but what was once considered a cheap drink is like gold now.
It’s the morning after and the eggs and andouille are on the griddle (they did go to school in New Orleans after all) and I’m sober enough to ask a few legitimate questions.
Me: So why didn’t you open a distillery?
Trey: I learned early on that there was a lot of ageless whiskey evaporating and being blended off into cheaper brands and nobody had taken advantage of this. That’s when I realized that I didn’t want to be a distiller. The Big 10 have perfected that process and made it cost effective so I started buying barrels and aging and blending myself. They make dinner for 80. I make dinner for 8.
Me: Well, I don’t know how you blended that Ocean, but I had to carry a 6-foot-4 man down a rock staircase last night.
Trey: Whatever you do, don’t turn your back on the Ocean.