Bourbon is to Kentucky as rum is to the Caribbean, so what the heck is this distiller doing letting barrels of the stuff age on a ship bound for the Panama canal? If you ask Jefferson's Bourbon, they're just harnessing the motion of the ocean in pursuit of better booze. It's chemistry!
Gimmicky premise aside, there is actually some science behind the sea-aged bourbon. Both the higher temperatures of the tropics and the movement of the ocean waves could age the bourbon faster. Chemist and whiskey expert Tom Collins laid it out to NPR:
"The daily swing in temperature matters," Collins explains. "As the liquid warms up, it expands into the wood. And then as it cools down, it contracts, which can improve extraction" of compounds from the wood—compounds that give aged whiskey its characteristic flavor. "These reactions are generally favored with higher temperatures."
It all began because Jefferson's Trey Zoeller had a high school buddy who studied sharks aboard a ship in the tropics. He sent his first five ocean-bound barrels with his shark-researcher friend, who returned with the aged bourbon a few years later. "The bourbon went in clear as water and came out black," Zoeller told NPR, "Bourbon always picks up color in the barrel, but this 4-year-old bourbon was darker than 30-year-old bourbon."
Since that first batch sold out—fetching up to $1,000 at auctions—Zoeller now has 200 barrels aging on ships all across the globe. Each ship traverses its own path, creating a bourbon as distinctive as the climate of its sea route. We all like our expensive booze to have some mythology (cf. fine wines), and Jefferson's has a pretty good one in sharks and intercontinental travel.
It's also interesting to consider the ocean as a food technology—or transportation systems, in general, as technology that can be repurposed for cooking. Historians think, for example, that cheese was discovered by nomads on horseback as the milk they carried in pouches made from animal stomachs was unintentionally churned by the long journey.
There's also a subculture of cooking with the heat of car engines, including everything from hot dogs to elaborate Cajun crayfish. (Instead of cooking times, the recipes give cooking distances.) We spend a lot of time and energy getting places—might as well be prepare a treat for the journey's end. [NPR]