by Scott Hill
I’ve always enjoyed the Jefferson’s lineup. The Straight Rye is historically one of my favorite ryes, and the Reserve bourbon is delicious. I’ve sampled the Very Small Batch on several different occasions. And I’ve tasted several different voyages from the Ocean Aged at Sea and I will say I’ve appreciated each of them (although there is certainly some winners and runner-ups in the group). I’m very excited to try (soon, I hope) the Cask Strength Voyage bottling.
But despite my overall enjoyment of the line, I’ve often wondered whether the “aged at sea” gimmick has any real merit, at least as it concerns my palate.
The only way to know might be to compare for myself the land version of what I believe to be the most closely related: the Very Small Batch (without knowing much more about mash bills, sourcing, and age, there may not be a way to knowing exactly what compares, but I’m willing to make the comparison anyway). And what better to compare than a couple of store pick single barrels?
Jefferson’s Very Small Batch – Single Barrel Store Pick – NAS (82.3 proof)
Nose: Raisins, corn, grain/grass, honey, vanilla and spice.
Palate: Soft and sweet; honey, dark fruit, caramel and some smoke/charcoal.
Finish: Sweet caramel and spice, lingering wood and charcoal.
Overall: Overall, this is a fine lower-to-mid shelf bourbon, but it probably has a particular audience. The nose is soft but distinguishable – although I imagine the grassy notes could be off-putting to some. It is a bit watery for me with a lack of body, which I suspect could be improved at a fuller proof. The finish is long, but not particularly complex, which I find works well given the other nuances here. By no means is this a bad pour, but I’d be curious to try this directly next to a blended-batch (non-store-pick single barrel) to see if that tames the grassiness any. I’d hope to find this at the mid $20’s versus the $30 range that I paid for a store pick.
Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea Voyage No. 3 – Single Barrel Store Pick – NAS (90 proof)
Nose: Raisins and dried fig, citrus and vanilla.
Palate: A glass of dried fruit; sweet; a bit of salt; this drinks hotter than I’d expect at 90 proof.
Finish: Spice and raisins; a hint of citrus at the early stages; leaving soft fruit (raisins and fig)
Overall: This selection has more body and is better balanced than the Very Small Batch. It offers both sweet and savory notes. I feel that I do get a hint of saltiness/brine, but I suspect some of that may be more wish than reality. The dried fruit is certainly interesting and distinguishing – I love fig bourbons, so those elements go over well. But at this price ($80ish per bottle), I expect more complexity to go along with the dried fruit. Overall, I think it is a worthy bourbon to keep on the shelf due to some of its unique characteristics, but I think all of us would be more content when finding it in the $60 range.
There is no hiding the conclusion: the Ocean Aged at Sea is a superior bourbon in all regards. But at roughly 3 times the price, I’m left scratching my head. Are they even worthy of comparing at those price ranges? Maybe the answer is simply to stock both, as both are distinguished. Overall, neither are bourbons that I’d say “pick up at any price” (that is an A+ type endorsement), but the value and enjoyment will both be improved when finding these at sale prices.
As to whether the “aged at sea” has any merit? Maybe that is for you to decide. For me, I think the time at sea has had a positive impact, albeit it may have done the same sloshing around in the bed of a truck. There is more depth, a better body and more complexity, for what I can only assume is roughly the same mash bill/source/age. With my love of Islay and coastal Scotch, I will say that I was disappointed not to find more sea salt to the Voyage.