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Diversity, Data, and Change in Bourbon: An Interview with Old Forester’s Jackie Zykan

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Jackie Zykan

Old Forester’s Jackie Zykan is one of Kentucky bourbon’s most recognizable names. During her six-year tenure with the brand, Zykan has been equal parts whiskey maker and whiskey educator, giving numerous interviews and social media looks into her day-to-day as Old Forester’s Master Taster. And she’s notched more than a couple important milestones along the way. With the release of Old Forester’s The 117 Series in March 2021, she became the first woman in the label’s 150 year history — and indeed, the first in any Brown-Forman brand — to have her signature on a bottle. The 117 Series kicked things off with High Angels’ Share, a Kentucky-only release bottled at 110 proof and meant to showcase the complex flavors from low-yield barrels.

The Louisville-based Zykan isn’t resting after the first 117 Series release, and as she told Drinkhacker, fans can expect even more special Old Forester expressions later in 2021. Zykan sat down with Drinkhacker to discuss the future of The 117 Series, along with how her bartending and mixology roots impact her work as a Master Taster. We also discussed the next decade in bourbon’s growth, important sustainability practices for whiskey, and how consumers and distillers alike can promote more diversity throughout the industry.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for readability.

Drinkhacker: The 117 Series High Angels’ Share is now available, and you recommend folks enjoy this one on the rocks. Why is that?

Jackie Zykan: With these barrels being low yield barrels, where you end up, the liquid inside is actually very, very, very concentrated and has dense flavor profiles. So I do recommend adding some water to it, just to open it up and release a couple of the layers. I have tasted it obviously over the past week with a whole bunch of different people. And some people are like, no, it’s great. They like it exactly the way it is. I’m like, okay, that’s cool!

If I was drinking, it would be to add a little bit back. The reason we didn’t go ahead and just cut to the chase and lower the proof on it is because I do understand that there are a lot of people out there that do connect with whiskey in a higher alcohol format. On the rocks sort of allows it to open up and blossom a little bit because there’s a lot going on.

Drinkhacker: You have a pretty significant and lengthy background in mixology. If folks wanted to explore this expression in a cocktail, what directions might you point them in?

Jackie Zykan: Interesting. You’re the first one to ask me about putting this one in a cocktail! That’s great. It totally catches me off guard to be honest. It would be great in any cocktail, honestly, because it is so, so, so compact. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I would lengthen it out and make it a little bit more sessionable, so maybe skip the whole Manhattan thing. Old Fashioneds are always fair game. If you want to do anything stirred, maybe skip that for this go-around. Maybe we’re feeling a little bit more juice driven, maybe a little bit more Highball driven on this one.

The 117 Series

Drinkhacker: Are there any previews you can give us for some upcoming 117 Series expressions that we might see down the road?

Jackie Zykan: I can say that we have not yet seen the end of the exciting 2021 year of Old Forester. Let’s put it that way. And instead of doing things like esoteric finishes and stuff like that, this is more about taking apart Old Forester to find out what makes it tick.

Drinkhacker: For those who might be new to the brand, what are some expressions you would suggest people start with to really get a sense of the flavor profiles?

Jackie Zykan: First, they are going to be the same mashbill. So for you all out there that are just getting into whiskey, we are sitting in a generous amount of rye in our mashbill, but definitely not high rye. Don’t put it in that category.

So think less spice driven, but we are not a wheated bourbon, obviously. So you’re still taking that kind of traditional bill. The Heaven Hill family has a similar flavor profile: sweet on the front, spice on the back. If you prefer something that is a little bit more sweet, aromatic driven, definitely go for the 86 proof. The 1910 is like dessert in a glass. If you’re more of a spice hound and you like things like ye whiskey, the 1897 is going to sing a great song for you. The 1920 has got some really great spice to it, too. And we do have a rye available if that kind of tickles your fancy. So there is an Old Forester for everybody.

Or if you just want to drink what I drink on like a daily basis, the 100 Proof Signature every day with the orange circle on the cap. That’s my go-to.

Drinkhacker: Tell us a little bit about your data collection process and how that impacts your day to day?

Jackie Zykan: I am a spreadsheet addict, and I am an Excel-er, I have not made the switch to Google Sheets!

I like to keep track of things in order to notice trends. Things like warehouse location, and with that comes the direction of the building and how things face and how far away from the external walls, these are all important. It’s not just about the floor of the warehouse. I keep location very, very close knit with tasting notes so that I can kind of start to piece together. Keep in mind, I’ve been with Old Forester, we’re going on six years now. And so I haven’t had a next generation of barrel turnover yet in some of those same locations. So I can’t really say, this floor of this warehouse is always going to be this. But at least I can be a nerd enough to keep all these notes in one sheet that I hope I never lose!

I keep everything, especially with the single barrel program, every barrel that’s ever been in that program. Where it’s gone, the state it’s gone to, who bought it, who was part of the tasting, all of that is all tracked.

Jackie Zykan

Drinkhacker: We worry about giant social media companies, but really we need to be worried about Old Forester using our data!

Jackie Zykan: (laughs) It’s a spreadsheet. It’s fine. I swear. But if you drink Old Forester, Jackie knows exactly what you do.

Drinkhacker: What are some misconceptions you think people might have about your role at Old Forester?

Jackie Zykan: As with anyone in the alcohol industry, I think it gets automatically assumed that you drink for a living. In my case, I spit for a living. But it’s not a party. It’s not recreational. It is a job. You’re the one person in the room not allowed to get drunk.

I do think that I get stuck in this corner of, “Oh, the bartender girl, the bartender.” That being said, people assume that you don’t necessarily know anything else besides just cocktails and how to cover up flavors. But understanding flavor in the first place was really key to me being able to blend whiskey. So I do not regret my bartending roots for a second. I love everybody in the industry.

Drinkhacker: Let’s talk a little bit about the landscape of bourbon. How do you think the landscape of bourbon, especially Kentucky bourbon, might change over the next five to ten years?

Jackie Zykan: If you really look at the whole scope, it hasn’t changed much in 150 years anyway. So was it really going to change that much? Probably not.

Whiskey is such a long view industry. I hope that the bourbon industry starts to become a little bit more sustainability focused, because it is an industry that does impact a lot of natural resources. It’s an agriculturally dependent industry, obviously. Oak for barrels is definitely a thing that is quite an investment, and not just from a cost standpoint, but from a time standpoint. And so I know at Old Forester, we’re doing our due diligence to get more involved in that. I hope that the bourbon industry, if it does continue to grow at the rate that it’s growing, takes a step to the side and says, “Okay, wait, but we have to balance it with something, or we’re going to run out of goods.”

Drinkhacker: What advice might you give folks who are interested in getting involved in the bourbon whiskey industry?

Jackie Zykan: It depends on what side of the industry they want to get involved in. Do they want to go into brand ambassador work? Do they want to go into production? Do they want to go into accounting?

That’s the thing: The face of bourbon that you see is not the entirety of the industry. We have interior designers that work for Brown-Forman. We have people all across the board of every different walk in every different profession that actually touch whiskey in some way, shape, or form. If you want to go the product routes, chemical engineering is going to land you in the production zone faster than most other subjects you could be studying.

There’s also the sales side of it. I will be the first to admit that perhaps the opportunities that I sought after, I wouldn’t have even known existed if I didn’t live in Louisville. If you’re living in South Dakota and you really want to get into whiskey, there are still liquor stores and there are still bars. So you can always go into that route where the consumer first touches it and then keep digging deeper.

Just keep an open mind that what you see on podcasts or on Instagram or on our websites or in commercials is honestly just the very, very, very tip of an iceberg. And it takes a lot of really, really knowledgeable and really diverse people to make this industry function. And so you have a place in it, no matter what you’re doing.

Drinkhacker: What steps do you think the industry could take in general to promote greater diversity in whiskey?

Jackie Zykan: It’s interesting to come at it from that angle as a consumer. As a consumer, you need to empower yourself to try things that you are curious about, not just go by what the marketing team has decided and experience of a product is going to be. So let me inspire you to be cynical for a day!

The massive shift that you’ve seen in bourbon hasn’t been that all of the sudden women are drinking it. They always have been involved, and they’ve always been involved with making it. The main difference has been who is involved in those marketing departments. And so the best thing a company can do to cast the widest net is to make sure that the people making decisions on how it’s marketed are representing a very diverse sample of people. Otherwise, we tend to market towards ourselves, and we tend to work harder on things that are personal passion projects. Throughout the decades that the Old Forester brand has been around, they have gone on all sorts of different advertising campaigns, depending on who the brand management is at the time.

So for companies out there, challenge yourselves to get as many different viewpoints as possible. It’s going to make sense to someone now, and it’s going to make sense to people that you hadn’t really considered as a consumer base first and foremost.

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