Though you may not consider the ocean as you sip your whiskey, the two actually have a storied history together. Nearly two centuries ago whiskey was commonly transported between continents by ship. These maritime whiskeys would be stored in wooden barrels for the duration of the long journey. From one port to another, the barrels were in constant motion, sloshing back and forth as the boat rocked. When spirit importers realized what was happening it was a revelation. The barrels and the motion of the ocean made these whiskeys taste a whole lot better. And that’s not to mention anything about the influence that the briny sea air also had on the whiskey.
Of course this means of transportation has fallen by the wayside and barrel aging is standard practice. But a number of distillers have decided to take inspiration from this sea-faring past. They’re harnessing the elements of the ocean to create innovative—and often delicious—spirits.
Maritime Whiskey in the US
Jefferson’s Bourbon made a splash a few years ago when the brand released its first batch of ocean-aged whiskey, Jefferson’s Ocean. Inspired partially by curiosity and by the sea voyages from centuries prior, owner Trey Zoeller sent a few barrels of his bourbon out to sea on the deck of his friend’s OCEARCH Great White Shark research vessel. This maritime whiskey crossed the equator four times. Consequently, it was subjected to temperature fluctuations, the salty sea air, and the constant motion of the boat. The resulting aged whiskey was intensely rich and had a noticeably briny quality—and drinkers couldn’t get enough.
Since that first expedition, Zoeller has expanded and streamlined the process. Now, each maritime whiskey release is marked by a voyage number. Following its seventh voyage, the brand also released a 112-proof Ocean Cask Strength whiskey. The bourbon brand has also experimented with aging bourbon on boats traveling the Mississippi River. Although it was successful, none of these experiments have been released for public consumption…yet.
These attention-grabbing aging methods have inspired more brands to seek out the ocean’s influence during the aging process. Embracing the proximity to the Pacific Ocean and Yaquina Bay, famed Portland brewery Rogue released Dead Guy Whiskey a decade ago. Made from the same malts used to brew the brand’s Dead Guy Ale, this whiskey is distilled twice in a copper pot still before spending at least two years in American oak barrels. The distillery adds that the whiskey is then “ocean-aged” by the nearby bodies of saltwater, which contributes unique flavors to the finished product.
Looking Across the Pond
However, this method of aging certainly isn’t unique to Rogue. As a matter of fact, whiskey distilleries around the world have been “ocean-aging” their whiskeys for years, intentionally or not. Maritime whiskeys include brands such as Ardmore, Lagavulin, Bruichladdich and Caol Ila. Scotland’s Islay distilleries in particular are known for intensely rich and peaty spirits that often feature an umami flavor quality. This unique, prized flavor is highly influenced by the surrounding Atlantic Ocean.
In Northern Scotland, the same can be said for long-standing coastal distilleries like Pulteney. The distillery has capitalized on its close relationship with maritime life, particularly in recent years. Located just off the North Sea, Old Pulteney maritime whiskeys often exhibit flavors that call to mind briny beach air. The release of Navigator is a nod to the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, which seeks to connect drinkers with a modern kind of sea-faring tradition. As the brand adds in its tasting notes, you can look for a “suggestion of the sea at the end”.
Whether aged during months spent at sea or simply by the proximity of the ocean, each of these maritime whiskeys has one thing in common: they’re channeling history and tradition to create really darn good whiskey. It’s just a bonus if we can be transported to the beautiful shores while enjoying a glass of ocean-aged spirit.
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