When it comes to American whiskey, few names are as revered as Old Forester. The Brown-Forman-owned, Kentucky-based brand has been on the market continuously for longer than any other bourbon (over 150 years), and was the first bourbon sold exclusively in sealed bottles. As Master Taster, few people have more intimate knowledge or profound impact on the golden liquids crafted by the Louisville distillery than Jackie Zykan.
We sat down with Zykan to get a better understanding of what is involved in her role as Master Taster, how her background shaped her career, and to get a more insightful view of the inner workings of one of America’s most iconic distilleries, Old Forester.
Spirited Zine: Just to start, can you tell us about your first experience with whiskey and how that moment shaped how you approach Old Forester?
Jackie Zykan: The smell of whisky became near and dear to my heart from a very young age. Every Christmas, my grandmother would make “whiskey cookies”, which were basically a fruitcake cookie with those candied green cherries and a modest splash of Jack Daniels. I remember feeling so rebellious creeping into the kitchen to sneak one, unbeknownst to me at the time all the alcohol had been baked out. It’s moments like those, where the connection between aroma and taste triggers emotional recollection of a time and place and person. I approach Old Forester, and whiskey tasting in general, with a focus on exploring what, who, when, etc that a profile reminds you of, not so much chemical compound names. Sharing whiskey and tasting in a communal setting is such an impactful experience, as the notes we discover ask us to be vulnerable with each other, and you’re reminded of things perhaps you hadn’t reminisced on in some time.
SZ: How did you get into whiskey and make your way into the Master Taster position?
JZ: I bartended my way through college, where I was studying Biology and Chemistry. Relocating to Louisville, KY only fueled my inherent passion for the industry, and I said yes to every opportunity to grow within it. I had worked my way up to a beverage director position for a multi-concept restaurant group based here, and began grabbing up any shaker-for-hire side hustle I could. When the opportunity arose to join the Old Forester brand team, I quickly jumped on it. It was one of the few brands on the market that was unapologetically authentic, and I felt proud to share its transparent history and process. Originally hired to be more of a brand ambassador/mixologist, I stated to my boss that by the time the new distillery on Main Street was open, I would be the Master Taster for the brand. Shocked, but supportive, he and I put together a development plan and within the next year I had completed all of my training for the role.
SZ: What does a Master Taster do and how do you impact the final whiskey that ends up in bottles?
JZ: The role is a hybrid between global marketing and production, so tasting is certainly part of the picture but along with it comes a variety of public facing engagements and product development. The single barrel inventory falls solely on me to assess, so some days are spent in the warehouse drilling barrels, some days are spent tasting samples in a neutral environment, some days there are full portfolio quality assessment panels on new make, somedays warehouse samples. While I am involved in these practices, I have to recognize that I am just part of an amazing team at Brown Forman that collaborates for sensory analysis, as it takes multitudes of trained palates to ensure the best quality and consistency of our products..
SZ: How does your background in biology and chemistry affect the way you make whiskey?
JZ: My educational background has provided me with a solid foundation for understanding the development of flavors through the production process. The human element, that is to say the experience of tasting and witnessing textures and balance, is of course crucial.
SZ: You were also previously a bartender and a beverage director. When you’re tasting a whiskey, do you think about how it will work in cocktails?
JZ: Sometimes, it depends on the reason I’m tasting a whiskey. When it’s for defect analysis, cocktails are the last thing on my mind. That being said, if something strikes me as unique, sometimes my mind will go down the rabbit hole of complimentary flavors, whether in a blend or cocktail application.
SZ: Old Forester has been on the market continuously for longer than any other bourbon (over 150 years). What are some things we may not know about the brand and how it’s different from other whiskeys out there?
JZ: Old Forester was founded on the principles of quality and consistency, and in order to achieve that over 150 years ago George Garvin Brown created the brand as the first ever to be sold exclusively in sealed glass bottles. We retain our standards to this day, producing one of the most thoroughly quality assessed products on the market today.
SZ: Can you tell us a bit about Old Forester’s single barrel private selection program?
JZ: The program began back in 2013 as a 90 proof expression, which aligned with the original proof point of Old Forester in 1870. We have evolved the program to now offer a choice of either 100 proof or unfiltered barrel strength in order to maintain relevance with the modern day consumer. The program is currently allocated based on market, and waitlists for these barrels continue to grow. It is a true single barrel expression, with the consumer choosing among a variety of barrels which I have cleared for the program, and receiving a custom labeled product, generally about 160 bottles per barrel.
SZ: What’s your favorite bottle of Old Forester? Why?
JZ: I get asked this question quite frequently, and it’s such a challenge because I love all my children equally. I’ve finally acknowledged that I have to base it off of which one I find in my glass at the end of the day most often, and in that case it is the 100 proof “signature” bottle.
SZ: Do you feel that whiskey continues to be somewhat of a boys club, and how do you look to open this world up to women moving forward?
JZ: Honestly, while I am fully aware of the additional work required by females to fight the current of what whiskey has been, on a daily basis I tend to just keep my head down and focused on doing what I love. As brands continue to highlight their female talent, the “face” of whiskey changes, which begins to reflect a more normalized portrayal of the population in general. That being said, a balance of representation across all categories is ideal.
SZ: What is one piece of advice you’d give to anyone looking to get into the whiskey world?
JZ: The most difficult stain to overlook on your application into the world of whiskey or alcohol in general will be a DUI. If you are interested in a long term place in this world, the utmost important thing you can do for yourself and the industry at large is to be responsible with your consumption and always, always, always have a safe ride.
Last month, Old Forester announced the release of the third installment of The 117 Series – 1910 Extra Old. Debuting in Spring 2021, The 117 Series began with High Angels’ Share whiskey, before launching Warehouse K bourbon last August.