Whiskey drinkers as a broad segment do love themselves a romantic gimmick, even as some of the more intense or science-minded bourbon fans find those gimmicks to be a little on the trite or exhausting side. Case in point: The Jefferson’s Ocean series from Jefferson’s Bourbon, in which a major selling point is the “aged at sea” label, involving bourbon barrels being transported around the world on a container ship as a final step before blending and bottling. In the decade or so since the first Jefferson’s Ocean release, the brand has been both popular and contentious/divisive among whiskey geeks, some of whom seem to resent the marketing and central thesis, while others champion the liquid inside the bottle. Regardless of where you fall, it does seem safe to say that the oceanbound gimmick helped the brand get much more attention than it would have had otherwise, to the tune of 25 subsequent batches, which they understandably refer to as “voyages,” given that each batch completes its own trip by sea.
Now, all these years later, Jefferson’s has unveiled the first rye whiskey to join the group, having completed Voyage 26 in the series. As ever, this whiskey sailed around the world, which you can read all about in the neck tag, including a frankly comical level of detail—passages include such gems as “En route to New Zealand, surface temperatures dropped significantly in the South Pacific Basin,” and “Sub-surface temperatures had been below average, supporting the cooling of the water at the surface.”
Suffice to say, the gimmick is alive and well, and I can see why it rubs some folks the wrong way—especially when the tag also contains information that misrepresents the whiskey making process, such as “the constant motion and the dramatic fluctuations in the air temperature caramelizes the sugars in the wood.” I’m sorry, but that runs counter to any bit of understanding of barrel science I’ve ever encountered, in which those sugars are caramelized by the initial toasting/roasting of the wood, not by being rocked on a boat. It would be better if the company focused its sea-related marketing on the actual aspects of the voyage that should indeed have an affect on the whiskey, such as how the changes in pressure draw the liquid into and out of the barrel.
The bottom line is that this is a gimmick that has always revolved more on aesthetics than actual flavor. At the same time, though, that isn’t to say there aren’t worthy aspects to the experimentation happening within this brand, but the aspects that reviewers are less likely to focus on end up being the ones that are genuinely important to the eventual flavor profile. The ship/voyage/”at sea” part of the marketing sucks up all the attention.
What’s genuinely important in this whiskey’s specs are its origin and its secondary aging, so let’s talk about them. Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea Rye is Canadian in origin, a 100% rye mash aged for roughly 5 years before it receives a secondary aging (“double barrel finish,” as they put it) in a combination of 75% newly charred #3 barrels, and 25% toasted oak barrels. It undergoes that secondary maturation before setting out on the ocean voyage, and it’s this aspect that ultimately is going to have the greatest transformational effect on this whiskey’s flavor profile. It’s then non-chill filtered and bottled at 48% ABV (96 proof). It carries a higher MSRP of roughly $80, which is at least somewhat propped up by the expense of the voyage.
So with all that said, let’s set the marketing aside and give this a good taste.
On the nose, the Jefferson’s Ocean Rye is spice and rye forward, but also has the strong impressions of sweet roastiness you often expect to get out of American whiskeys that see a second round of aging in freshly charred barrels, combined with the spicy oak that toasted barrels typically provide. I’m getting anise and rye spice, along with traces of smoke and rubber, combined with richer impressions of dark caramel/molasses, and dark fruit that evokes plum or blackberry. It certainly gives off a much “darker” impression than it likely possessed as a relatively young Canadian rye, prior to the secondary maturation, but it’s retained the spicy rye punch at the same time.
On the palate, this again leans heavily on the spice, but it’s a spice of multiple dimensions. There’s the classic rye spice, with pepper and earthier tones, combined with baking spice (a dusting of cinnamon sugar) and the spice of toasted oak, on which this flavor profile leans pretty heavily. Sweeter impressions evoke a bit of honey and molasses, but I’m also getting almond butter and jammy dark fruit. The finish turns notably oak forward, slowly bringing in some bitterness and oak tannin, helping to round out a dram that is pretty sweet and almost slightly syrupy on the front end. All in all, it’s a pretty deft interplay of sweet and spicy, with a slightly bitter finish that works well when all is said and done. Notably, my opinion of this one improved considerably upon the second time I tasted it—the first time around, I thought it might be a bit too oak dominant, but on second inspection it read as sweeter and more fruit forward, which brought the oak into harmony. Now, I find myself thinking that this would probably make for a swell Manhattan rye.
So, at the end of the day, the liquid inside this bottle has certainly won me over. I do feel there are aspects to the Jefferson’s Ocean marketing that are somewhat superfluous and draw attention away from the parts of their process that are more important—here, the secondary barrel finishes—but I can’t argue with the results they got on this one, nor can I specifically say that the whiskey’s best aspects weren’t added during its voyage. At the end of the day, this is just an excellent rye, and I’m happy to find that to be the case.
City: Crestwood, KY
Style: Double barrel Canadian rye whiskey
ABV: 48% (96 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $80 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.