Half-Hearted and High-Dollar – Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea Voyage 11 First Impressions Review
Jefferson’s Ocean – Innovation or Gimmick?
I had never heard of Jefferson’s Ocean when I saw the LIMIT 1 tag on the shelf beneath it at Riverside Wine, Beer, and Spirits Friday afternoon. I was looking for a new bourbon –nothing particularly expensive. But everything on the shelves seemed pedestrian. I spotted this bottle and did a quick Google search.
From Jefferson’s Bourbon’s own description, this whiskey was “a curious effort to discover what would happen if bourbon was left to weather the extreme elements: temperature fluctuations, salt air and the gentle rocking of [a] ship…Each voyage of Jefferson’s Ocean typically crosses the equator four times, visits five continents and over 30 ports on an average sailing” (Jefferson’s Bourbon – Jefferson’s Ocean).
Bourbon from each voyage is said to have different characteristics. While I couldn’t find any information specifically about Voyage 11, there was a smattering of both thoughtful reviews and forum chatter about prior voyages. Nick at Breaking Bourbon said, “With Ocean II, I was expecting to be disappointed but instead I was wowed. With this release, I was expecting to be wowed but instead I was disappointed.” In his Voyage 4 review, he concluded, “A better end result than Ocean 3, but still a premium price to sample the results of this ocean-aging experiment.” Commentary from various whiskey forums and merchants was Yelp-like: either 1 star or 5 star –no grey area.
It sounded interesting enough. Each Voyage was different. And apparently I have a knack for picking polarizing whiskies. It was clear that I was going to have to pay the $85 to find out what was what.
Pours a dark gold, almost copper. Jostling spirits around in a barrel puts lots of proteins and fatty acids in suspension. So, this whiskey must be chill filtered. Otherwise, I’d expect it to be quite hazy. Instead, it’s brilliantly clear with pleasing highlights. The dram is just thick enough to leave thin, glass-coating legs.
Right away, I smell sweet cherries and oak with a hint of lemony citrus. This is quickly enveloped by salty brine opening up into a distinct orange bitters impression. As the pour sits and warms, biscuit and bread notes become the feature, overlaid with a light honey sweetness.
The salty brine starts the first sip. It really tastes like the ocean as soon as it passes the lips. Then oakiness begins to sneak in. There are toffee overtones here but the sweetness is minimal. As it sits in the mouth, some restrained bitterness comes out. Immediately after the first swallow, the biscuit notes I picked up in the aroma pop out. And just as quickly, the entire experience is gone, leaving nothing of mention in the finish. Once my palate is accustomed to the brininess, additional tastes reveal a distinct rye spiciness. This likely contributes to the initial salty impression and also explains the bitterness in the middle. As the whiskey opens up, the rye impression is much more prominent.
As I sip to enjoy, and stop thinking about the review, a memory pops into my head: horehound candy. This whiskey tastes quite like the Cracker Barrel candy I used to grab on occasion when I was little.
Light and a bit velvety. There is some slight tingle here but it’s restrained. Minimal astringency leaves the palate quickly –too quickly. It’s a pleasant, some might say smooth mouthfeel. But a bit uninteresting.
Jefferson’s CEO Trey Zoeller says in this video that the Ocean series is “like three spirits in one. It’s like an Islay malt, it’s like a dark rum, and it’s a bourbon at heart.” I’m an Islay malt fan above all else and while this whiskey has the salty brine of Islays in spades, that’s all it has. Fans of unpeated Bunnahabhain might well find interest here. But those expecting complex earthiness or any smoke at all would best look elsewhere. I’m also not getting anything that is distinctly “dark rum” here. Sure, there are some peppery notes and a bit of toffee but those characteristics are also expected from a good rye. Further, the bourbon figurehead of this proclaimed trinity is lacking the complexity and lasting enjoyment of some of the staple examples.
But here’s the thing: this isn’t just a gimmick. There’s definitely something to the ocean aging of this whiskey. The salt and brine are undeniable. And ultimately, it makes for a unique experience for a bourbon –or even an Islay fan. There are interesting characteristics of each in this bottle.
I think what this whiskey really needs is some re-branding and price adjustment. Rather than saying Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea is three things (only two of which it does –middling), talk about the one thing it is: a briney easy-drinking bourbon. Further, the price point really does have to come down. For this price, I can buy a bottle of Bunnahabhain and a bottle of Jefferson’s Reserve and get more complexity and enjoyment out of each than from the sum of Ocean’s parts. I could see this being a buy at $50, maybe $60. But $80 is a stretch.