Old Forester master taster Jackie Zykan became a household name earlier this year — albeit in a literal sense.
When the brand released the first expression of its highly coveted 117 Series “High Angels’ Share” in March 2021, Zykan etched her name in history by having her signature on the label. The unique packaging design also meant Zykan’s name would soon populate whiskey collections up and down the country — or at least, those of enthusiasts who were lucky enough to get their hands on the limited-edition run.
Any exploration of Zykan’s career cannot ignore that she is among the small number of women to hold a high-profile role in bourbon, an industry that has has a long legacy of male founders, owners, and master distillers. In fact, hers is the first name to adorn an Old Forester label that doesn’t belong to a man. But focusing on the historic nature of her signature on the 117 Series bottle risks distracting from the whiskey inside, and from her growing force within bourbon as a whole.
While the 117 Series is the first Old Forester release to be solely directed by Zykan, it is not the first expression she has had a hand in that had an impact on the bourbon world. Last year, she worked alongside master distiller Chris Morris to comprise three separate blends from 150 barrels for the Old Forester 150th Anniversary Bourbon. Released with a suggested retail price of $150, bottles quickly became collectors’ items and now command four or five times as much in retail channels (and even more in illegal online marketplaces). During the pandemic, Zykan also spearheaded Old Forester’s Master Tasters selection, a popular program that saw single-barrel releases sold for curbside pickup, with a portion of proceeds donated to charities in Louisville.
In a recent virtual sit-down with VinePair, Zykan discussed the singular nature of her role as a master taster; how her previous professional endeavours have led to more “resistance” in the whiskey industry than her gender; and what exactly the release of the 117 Series means to her.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
1. Your official title at Old Forester is “Master Taster.” Can you explain what that role entails and how it differs from a master distiller or a master blender?
As it stands right now, my job focuses more on the post-maturation side of things than the pre-maturation side. I take what’s already been laid down and then decide what to do with it from that point forward. There is no clear-cut, industry-standard definition for master taster. My role, in particular, is half production and half global marketing.
New product development also comes through me. I’m transitioning more into the master blender side, but the main difference between my role and a master blender is the authority to make decisions on certain things. Right now, I’m still working very much hand-in-hand with Chris Morris on a lot of our projects, especially things that he started before I was with the brand. I do lead our single-barrel inventory, though, and programs like the 117 Series and President’s Choice. Every day, I’m getting more involved in projects and taking over Old Forester — whether they want me to or not, I’m doing it.
2. You studied biology and chemistry, then later worked in mixology. How do those different fields inform and help your day-to-day work?
The science education background has been crucial not just to my own understanding of our processes, but also to be able to communicate with a variety of audiences. We’re never just talking to whiskey nerds or bartenders, or the random consumer that only drinks vodka and wants to switch over. The audiences are very diverse. When it comes to new product development, the science background also helps to understand what’s going on from a molecular standpoint, and how to curate different whiskey flavor profiles.
The mixology part is interesting because, while I can’t speak for our competitors, I think I’m the only master taster [Old Forester parent company] Brown-Forman has ever had that has actual experience in the bar industry. Knowing what we can and should be doing with cocktails adds another layer of being able to connect with potential consumers.
3. What trends do you see leading bourbon right now, whether from a “purist” standpoint or the broader market in general?
Different perspectives will give you different answers on this. I think we’re still in the midst of the high-proof movement, and we definitely see that translate into what moves in our portfolio. I wouldn’t say that’s a new thing, and I think there’s a lot behind the high-proof whiskey surge. People get acclimated to the category and realize, “Oh, I actually am not afraid of the taste of this brown spirit.” Then, it’s not enough to just be able to drink bourbon, you have to drink the biggest bourbon and the most expensive bourbon. For somebody that has access to barrel-strength liquid and chooses to not drink it on a regular basis, the race to see who can consume the highest percentage of alcohol is fascinating. Back in the day, nobody was searching for Bacardi 151. Now people wait in line for it.
[Another trend is] single barrels. They’re all very unique, and they’re not replicable; I think the snowflake appeal is a huge part of it. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from retailers that I’ve done tastings with in recent weeks that want to come to the distillery for single-barrel selection. They don’t want to grab the core stuff anymore.
[We’re also seeing] people play around with mash bills — and you’re always going to see that until people realize that novelty is not sustainable. It’s nice to have fun every now and then, but making sure that you are transparent about your process and doing things from a quality standpoint is timeless.
4. We are around two decades into a “bourbon boom,” the likes of which we have probably never seen before. What can producers such as Old Forester do to ensure that bourbon never goes the way of vodka, which still enjoys incredible sales but doesn’t quite have the cachet that it once did?
There’s a lot of interesting things to unpack here but I [should first say] we are very grateful for the boom. People such as myself have amazing jobs with great brands because of it.
I was once told that alcohol trends go through 30-year cycles, so if we really are in the second decade of this, that would mean that we would start to see the decline soon. The thing is, in the U.S. especially, we’re so much closer to the trend, so the boom seems much bigger to us than it is on a global level. It is creeping into global markets now, and we are seeing a lot more movement out there, but I think that there’s still a lot of opportunity for growth until we get to a point of saturation and exhaustion.
[When] other markets further from home (and maybe less regulated) start catching wind, that’s when we risk compromises to the category. I think we are in for a fight that most people probably haven’t anticipated, trying to [enforce] more rigid regulations, especially in more global markets.
We definitely don’t see [the boom] fizzling out any time soon and, fingers crossed, we hope it doesn’t. It’s not like the vodka industry where you can just pluck a flavor off a tree and you have a new product. We’re sitting on inventory and hoping for the best.
5. What is the most exciting time of the year for you in your role, and what do you look forward to most on the bourbon calendar throughout the year?
It used to be that you had the “busy” seasons: September is always busy because of [the annual release of] Birthday Bourbon, and it’s Bourbon Heritage Month. And when the weather starts cooling down in general, you start to see more interest in aged spirits. That is just not the case anymore. It’s a year-round season that does not slow down. From my perspective, Derby season is always equally as chaotic as it is enjoyable; very media-heavy and very taxing. It‘s full-throttle but these are great problems to have.
6. Can you describe how having your signature on the 117 Series felt for yourself, and what it might mean for other women wishing to follow in your footsteps in the bourbon industry?
It’s still surreal, to be honest, and I forget that my name is on the thing. It wasn’t my idea; it was brought up when we were doing label design for the series and [Old Forester president and managing director] Campbell Brown said, “It’s time to give credit where credit is due.”
I think it’s a big deal as far as normalizing [women in] an industry that was, and still is, very male-dominated. I never set out to do that; I didn’t grow up to one day to show them that girls like whiskey, too. More often than not, though, I feel resistance in the whiskey category not from being a woman, but from having a background behind the bar. You get categorized as “once a bartender, always a bartender.” Not a lot of people in roles like mine have that background, as I mentioned earlier. A lot of them either have family members that got them into the business or they have marketing degrees, which I do not. I feel more “black sheep-ish” — if I can use that term — from that sense, rather than from being a woman.
While it is surreal, I will say that when that product came out, it was very nerve-racking. It set the stage for what I’m going to do from this point forward in my career. If I didn’t get it right, it would be a constant fight against the current, trying to prove myself. If I came out of the gate with something solid that people embraced, it would be more smooth-sailing. I’m very happy that the series was well received because that gives me a lot less stress for the next expressions. I know they won’t be all home runs — and that’s OK. It started with a really good one that’s near and dear to my heart.
7. I’ve read that your preferred pour for the 117 Series is over ice to enjoy it over time. That seems to speak to your background in mixology versus pure distillation, especially as some “purists” might raise their eyebrows at that?
I’ve definitely gotten mixed feedback on that since we released the series. I could have bottled it at a higher or lower proof and I would still say, add water to it. The idea remains that when you have barrels that have such concentrated flavor to them, it’s an experience. It’s not taking a sip and then going on with your day. It’s a sit-down, share-it, and talk-about-it whiskey. The moment of whiskey is just as important as the actual liquid itself. It’s a ritual. I didn’t want to shortchange that by going ahead and skipping to the good parts. Letting people explore with it was really part of the intention.