The beauty of a great cocktail is in the balance: you can't just throw bourbon and mixer together and expect it to pass muster for party guests.
But for big occasions, like the Kentucky Derby, who wants to spend the whole time behind the bar?
Enter the barreled cocktail, in which premium spirits are blended into cocktaillike concoctions and aged in bourbon barrels, to give them deeper flavors.
Trey Zoeller, founder and whiskey maker of Jefferson's Bourbon, has brought out his premium take on this trend with Jefferson's Manhattan.
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The new offering has its origin with the New York launch of Smoke & Pickles, a cookbook by Zoeller's friend and collaborator, Louisville chef Edward Lee. For the event, Zoeller made a "barrel-aged Manhattan," a concoction of his Jefferson's Bourbon, sweet vermouth and bitters, and cherries.
"I was sitting with the editors of Esquire, and they loved it," Zoeller said. He and Esquire editor-in-chief David Granger "started talking about what the barrel was doing for the Manhattan, and somehow we decided we needed to get together and make one."
It took them two years to find a blend they liked for Jefferson's Manhattan. Eventually they settled on using a 125-proof 6-year-old bourbon, cut and blended with sweet and dry vermouths, barrel-aged spiced cherry bitters, and then aged in an oak barrel for 90 days.
The end result is an oaky Manhattan in a bottle, a whiskey with cherry notes, reminiscent of the classic cocktail without artificial flavoring added. Mixologists love it, Zoeller said.
"It has great flavors," he said. "What I love about it is that nobody can duplicate it unless you've got a freshly dumped 55-gallon bourbon barrel."
Zoeller's Jefferson line is popular and growing more so, a testament to his abilities as a blender. He doesn't have his own distillery and really doesn't want one. Instead, Zoeller has arrangements to buy bourbon from a number of distillers and then makes it his own.
"In the wine or cognac world, I'd be more of a negociant," he said.
With 15,000 barrels aging in Louisville, and arrangements to buy new fill every year, Zoeller has plenty to work with and lots of ideas.
His Jefferson's Ocean, aged at sea, was a big hit, so he's doing more of that. He recently collaborated again with Lee on two bourbons and a rye whiskey. And he'll have an experimental collection for Father's Day and again in October.
In time for Derby, Zoeller launched The Manhattan on April 1, for $39.99 a bottle, and on Friday he will come out with another innovative combination: Jefferson's Groth.
It's a 6-year-old Kentucky bourbon aged in Groth cabernet barrels last June, then sweated in a "hot box" outside for nine months.
Zoeller said he has many more experiments in mind, possibly even another barreled cocktail. Would he ever try a barrel-aged mint julep? Sounds unlikely. Because even bourbon and racing fans admit that mint juleps are fine for Derby but not for every day.
"I have a couple during Derby, and that's the only time," Zoeller said. "It's just too sweet for me."
So, if there are better bourbon cocktails, why is the mint julep the one everyone fixates on?
"It's associated with the Kentucky Derby," Zoeller said, "And everybody wants to have a slice of the Kentucky Derby."