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Alternative Aging: Jefferson’s Ocean and Copper & Kings Bourbon in Grape

In general, I am not very fond of marketing. While I recognize consumer retail sales require marketing, branding, and promotion to succeed, I find myself generally resenting the feeling of manipulation even if the product is good and priced reasonably. When alcohol marketing gets to me, it’s with companies like King’s County whose products’ branding and design I consider to be the pinnacle of stately quality.

With that disclosure, you might not be surprised to read that I am not fond of alternative aging methods and the associated branding around them. I only have a few drinks a week – a byproduct of being generally tired and getting older – and I assiduously avoid products produced with expedited wood infusion techniques.

Alternative aging – such as Jefferson’s placing barrels on boats and puttering around the world, or Cleveland Whiskey’s “pressure aging” – has a longer history than casual bourbon drinkers may be aware. Reid Mitenbuler wrote about wood infusion techniques in his excellently written and researched Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey. The book notes how one distillery in the aftermath of Prohibition sought to cut the maturation process short and advertised around its shortcut:

“The Publicker Commercial Alcohol distillery in Philadelphia… claimed in advertisements that it could ‘make seventeen-year-old whiskey in twenty-four hours.’ Publicker’s president… and its chief chemist… claimed their process of ‘artificial aging’ could be done through a process of shaking the barrels and applying them with direct heat in order to speed up the aging process. The company hinted at other methods it used to quickly extract wood flavors – probably measures like wood chips and pressure cooking – but refused to provide the public with any more details… ”

So, as I stared at a bottle of Jefferson’s Ocean and decided to write a review of it alongside Copper & Kings finished whiskey using sonic aging, I knew I needed to reach out to Mitenbuler for his thoughts on this history in the context of today.

My interview with Mitenbuler was originally intended to accompany this review to provide historical context on when and why alternative aging became popular, but Mitenbuler’s generosity with his research, incisive analysis, and broad scope of thinking merited its own standalone interview. So, for Mitenbuler’s thoughts on alternative aging, social class, secondary market shenanigans, egalitarianism, and more(!), please read the full interview tomorrow.

Alcohol is a solvent and a bourbon barrel is full of solutes with varying levels of solubility over time under different conditions… which is to say that, in my view, bourbon is mature when it’s good and goddamn ready and not a moment sooner. Assuming good new make, traditional American whiskey maturation in the United States has a strong general track record of extracting these solutes and making at least acceptable whiskey with notable outliers in either direction. My general sense has been that efforts to dramatically expedite this process usually yield disappointing results at painful prices, but it has been a while since I actually tried alternatively aged whiskey side by side, and this review is an effort to amend that shortfall on my part.

To evaluate alternative aging techniques, I decided to take two opposite ends of a spectrum: Jefferson’s Ocean and Copper & Kings Bourbon in Grape as representatives of more and less drastic aging techniques, respectively.

First up is Jefferson’s Ocean Voyage 23. Jefferson’s Ocean is created by taking bourbon barrels, placing them on a boat, and transiting the ocean with its varied climates and constant motion to expedite the infusion of barrel flavors. Jefferson’s PR blurb notes the following:

“In 2008, while aboard the ship of fellow Kentucky native and OCEARCH founder Chris Fischer, Jefferson’s Master Blender Trey Zoeller got a wild idea. As he and Chris watched the whiskey swirl in their glasses, compelled by the constant rock of the waves, they pondered: what might happen to a barrel of bourbon if it were aged at sea?… The constant movement of the ocean and extreme temperature fluctuations as the OCEARCH traversed the globe completely transformed the whiskey. The result is a hyper-aged, darker, richer and caramelized bourbon with incredible depth and complexity. Since this discovery, Trey has sent hundreds of barrels around the world, with each voyage seeing (on average) [sic] over 25 ports, 5 continents, and 2 equator crossings.”

Jefferson’s Ocean releases are designated by “voyages,” referring to the trip the barrels took around the world. The bottle for today’s review, Jefferson’s Ocean Voyage 23, transited a broad swath of the Earth and departed from Savannah, Georgia in May 2020 to Australia, Japan, and other locations and returned in September 2020. You can see the map of its travels here. There is no information on the input whiskey prior to the trip, but Jefferson’s has been owned by Pernod Ricard since 2019, after Pernod bought out Castle Brands, Jefferson’s previous brand owner.

Jefferson’s has an overt partnership with Kentucky Artisan Distillery (KAD), which produces some of Jefferson’s bourbon, likely stemming from Castle Brands’ prior 25% ownership stake in KAD’s owner, Copperhead Distillery Company. Pernod also owns a number of other bourbon producers, including Louisville-based Rabbit Hole. All this to say: there is next to no readily available information on the bourbon other than its travels, including its mashbill, age, the actual distiller, or the barrel producer. A mysterious traveler, if you will.

Jefferson’s Ocean Voyage 23 – Review

90 proof (45% ABV). Available for $82 through the distillery.

Color: Amber.

On the nose: The nose is somewhat elusive, but brings date molasses, macadamia nut, leather, chardonnay, and a gentle minerality.

In the mouth: Astringency right out the gate cuts through everything blowing out any distinctive flavor, though I caught a bit of lemon and tanned leather. The texture is notably thin and disappointing. On the finish, black pepper lingers on the front of the tongue and lips, which was interesting for a whiskey finish evocative of ma la Sichuan peppercorn numbing sensation.

Conclusions:

With regret, I probably drank six ounces of this trying to get something out of it. Everything about it was weak but its astringency. This evoked nothing so much as a California Chardonnay that took shortcuts using wood chips in the barrel. The pour is 4/10 on the merits of the liquid, which is generous, but the exorbitant price drives it down to an easy 3/10.

Score: 3/10

I wanted a counterpoint to Jefferson’s Ocean, with its dramatic swings in temperature, pressure, humidity, and motion from the boat. I was therefore lucky to have picked up a bottle of Copper & Kings Bourbon in Grape when visiting the mostly brandy distillery in Louisville at the end of February this year after spending a week drinking bourbon and needing a break. Copper & Kings boasts its “sonic aging,” which roughly translates to persistently playing absolutely tooth-rattling intense bass in the maturation environment 24 hours a day, seven days a week very gently shaking the barrels. Copper & Kings insists that its maturation technique is not “vibration” but “pulsation”, arguing that it affects the wood and spirit interaction at a molecular level. I don’t know enough about fluid dynamics to vet this claim one way or another, but the bass-driven method is obviously a lot more subtle than the aggressive motion, pressure, temperature, and humidity changes on a wide-ranging moving ship.

According to a Copper & Kings press release, Bourbon in Grape’s first release was created by a mix of five to six-year-old sourced bourbon from an undisclosed producer aged for 13 months in a Copper & Kings American grape brandy barrel. Bourbon in Grape was released with another product named “Bourbon in Apple” that was aged in Copper & Kings American apple brandy barrels. The company used 14 single barrels for both releases combined, though the company did not specify the relative volumes devoted to each product. It is unclear whether this release is part of the first release or a new, separate one since. The bottle was filled on February 17, 2023.

Copper & Kings Bourbon in Grape – Review

121.8 proof (60.9% ABV). Available for $65 exclusively at the distillery.

Color: Tawny.

On the nose: Immediately out of the gate, rich fresh concord grape, assertive dark caramel, and baking spice (leaning hard on allspice) accompanied by a back end note of roasted sweet potatoes and pecans. A bit more effort reveals fresh cut pine, gentle copper notes, and a robust cocoa nib undertone that rounds it out to create a rounded full-bodied nose.

In the mouth: Viscous, oily, and rich texture brings hard punching tannins at the outset that stick around, adding a leather note from start to finish. Beyond the astringency, this whiskey brings a right jab of mineral and caramel at the outset, backing off a bit towards the back of the tongue and middle of the palate to allow the drinker to appreciate the depth of the initial taste. The extra space is filled with a left hook of well-rounded candied marasca cherry and well-aged Port flavor that adds an earthy and roasted fruit depth with a touch of Demerara Distillers-like ester flavors (think El Dorado 15 single barrels, which are terrific). The cherry, Port, caramel, and mineral flavors harmonize at the forepalate and attenuate in equal measures at the back of the palate into the finish.

Conclusions:

Bourbon in Grape is one of the best finished whiskies I have ever had the pleasure of drinking. One of the most frequent points of frustration I have had with finished American whiskies is that, more often than not, the flavors are poorly integrated and either competing with one another or clashing.

In contrast, everything about Bourbon in Grape is integrated and balanced. The nose is robust, complex, and nuanced with the darker caramels grounding everything. The whiskey harmonizes with some of the best flavor elements of pot-still brandy to create a unique profile. In another whiskey, the abrupt tannins on the palate would be a significant flaw, but the leather grounds the sweeter elements imparted by the used brandy barrel, and anything more than a gentle dialing back of that component would weaken the pour. It is priced reasonably for its quality at $65 settling it at an 8, despite a lack of transparency on aspects of the sourced bourbon.

Score: 8/10

CategoriesAmerican

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