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Distillery Leaders Changing Jobs Is De Rigueur In Other Industries

Writer Susannah Skiver Barton penned a recent piece for bearing this headline: “America’s Largest Distillers Are Losing Their Top Talent, as ‘The Great Resignation’ Hits Bourbon.’” Intrigued, I dove in and read the well-reported 2,200-word story about the rising pace of departures from the upper ranks of some of America’s most noteworthy distilleries.

Barton’s story is well done, but based on what she wrote, I disagree with the headline’s assessment that The Great Resignation (GR) is hitting distilleries similarly to how it’s dinged other large businesses. I don’t think the GR or all its attendant ennui is why most of the distillers and blenders in the story are changing jobs. Many are moving on for that all-purpose coverall phrase, “better opportunities.”

Can’t you just imagine some of those goodbye meetings? “Seriously, boss, it’s me, not you or the job or the company for which we both work. There’s just something better out there—well, for me, anyway. Don’t take it personally, ol’ friend, but good gosh, they’re offering, well, a TON MORE than you’re paying. You get it, right?”

Jackie Zykan
Jackie Zykan (image via Hidden Barn Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey)

Barton’s story points out that “better opportunities” represents a range of options extending from “I can’t stand this place any longer,” to, “Finally, it’s my turn to run the show!”

Jackie Zykan left the master taster’s post at Old Forester to fully stoke her creative fires as a consultant to smaller distilleries, while Denny Potter and Jane Bowie left Maker’s Mark—and Jeff Arnett left Jack Daniel’s—to build and run their own distilleries. Dixon Dedman, who created, owned and sold Kentucky Owl to Stolichnaya learned the hard way that, “When you sell a brand, it’s not your brand anymore,” especially when you sell it to Stolichnaya, eh, brother?

Solution? Leave Stoli and create a new brand that’s all yours again, which he’s already done.

What Barton’s article implies is such departures are a novelty to the American whiskey industry—at least at the top. One need only look back one generation to see this clearly. Whiskey legends of old would clock in at one distillery and never punch out for decades. Among them: Jimmy Russell and Eddie Russell at Wild Turkey, Fred Noe at James B. Beam, Harlen Wheatley at Buffalo Trace (and Elmer T. Lee before him), Chris Morris at Brown-Forman (and Lincoln Henderson before him), Jim Rutledge and Al Young at Four Roses and Parker Beam at Heaven Hill … just for starters.

Why would these people and others pride themselves on careers that yielded half-page résumés? Surely job security was always on their minds since all were painfully aware of American whiskey’s 30-year slump; people who, if they quit back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the boss would have wished them, “Good damn luck plying that trade outside-a here!”

Barton’s sources pointed to job stress and the subsequent strains on personal lives as reasons for departing, and doubtless those are monumental concerns. But that’s not the whole story. The Boomers who paved the way also worked their tails off—and in some years surely just to save jobs. Yes, modern distillery leadership positions come with new challenges like traveling to promote brands and time with media dorks like me. But by and large, whiskey making is much like it was 50 years ago: hard and unglamorous work.

If anything is in the minds of these industry stars now on the move, it’s the notion that they don’t have to stay at one place all their lives for job security or loyalty to one brand or submission to family insistence or any other gauzy nostalgic view of American whiskey heritage.

But clear-eyed heritage plays a role even today. Small town distillery people I’ve talked to say that before and after Prohibition, if you “got on at a whiskey company,” you always worked for a whiskey company. Those were steady jobs with good benefits and opportunities for promotion. People’s loyalty to them illustrated a positive and comforting cultural mindset that remains in Kentucky towns like Bardstown, Frankfort and Lawrenceburg.

But here’s where times have changed. This generation of whiskey stars is feelin’ it—the demand for their skills, their deep knowledge and press-ready personalities. They know they’re wanted by others who have the money to entice them elsewhere and that they can move about like the free agents they really are.

Doubtless these experts have varied employee agreements, but do any of them have a binding contract that says, essentially, “A Maker’s (wo)man is a made (wo)man”? Thirty years ago, no one was shopping the master distillers ranks with tempting offers. But today, in an industry besotted in excitement and awash in money and opportunity, any one of the sources Barton interviewed has surely fielded offers besides those they accepted.

I don’t know if Fred Noe has ever been offered a job outside of James B. Beam Distilling Co., but I doubt he’d have taken it anyway. Distilling heritage hangs Spanish-moss heavy on that family tree. Same for Parker Beam, who logged nearly 60 years as Heaven Hill’s master distiller. He saw the company through the worst of times, so he sure wasn’t leaving in the best of times, which he enjoyed until his death in 2017.

Here’s a simple truth: Such lineup changes are de rigueur in every other business. 2022 is just the whiskey industry’s turn in that barrel. These are smart, talented, passionate and able-bodied people who are in demand in an industry that’s on a rocket ride without foreseeable limits. I’m sure every one of them is happy to say goodbye to the shortcomings of their past jobs, but there isn’t one that I’ve talked to who doesn’t acknowledge the next post will have its own set of grueling challenges. These job changes are market moves. Nothing more, nothing less.

And I’m betting these are just the first of a wave to come.

Steve Coomes

Steve Coomes is an award-winning journalist and book author specializing in whiskey and food. In his 30-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including USA Today, Southern Living, Delta Sky Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, Restaurant Business, Bourbon + and American Whiskey magazine. In 2013, he authored “Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke,” and in 2020, he authored "The Rebirth of Bourbon: Building a Tourism Economy in Small-Town USA." When not writing about food and drink, he leads large-scale, intimate and virtual food and spirits pairings.

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