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Interview: Jackie Zykan And What’s Next For Her In Whiskey

The recent news that Jackie Zykan, the keeper of the legacy that is Brown Forman’s Old Forester brand, was leaving behind the company and a label that essentially had become her baby sent considerable shockwaves through the Kentucky bourbon world. It was back in 2015 that she was tapped to become the Master Bourbon Specialist for Old Forester, and in the time since then she’s played the key role in making it a beloved bourbon with multiple bottlings and awards a plenty.

“In the summer of 2015, I joined Brown-Forman to be a part of the reinvigoration of what continues to be one of the best-kept secrets in the bourbon world,” Zykan said at the time. “I have been honored to be part of a team that has revived the legacy of Old Forester, and I look forward to witnessing the next chapters of Old Forester from afar. I am excited for my personal and professional journey ahead.”

Now, as Zykan strikes out into the greater whiskey world to forge her own path as an independent consultant and master of her own fate, she’s taking her vision of what makes a great whiskey brand and putting it to the test. To learn more about her plans and what the future holds for her, we recently sat down for a little chat. Note that this interview has been edited for clarity.

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

The Whiskey Wash (TWW): Jackie Zykan was, until very recently, the face of the Old Forester bourbon brand. She is now getting ready to transition onto some new and interesting things. Jackie, thanks for taking some time today to chat with us at The Whiskey Wash about this.

Jackie Zykan: Thank you so so much. I cannot wait to share these details because I have had to keep a secret for a while now. I’m just ready to get out there.

TWW: We’re sure you are. Let’s start first with a real quick sort of background on your time in the industry. Sum up how you started, how you moved through Brown-Forman and then we’ll jump to where things are now.

Zykan: Seven years ago I joined the Old Forester team, but prior to that, I was actually working as a beverage director. So my major background was in the on-premise side of things. I was working as a buyer for this group. It was a multi concept group, which was great because there were so many different cuisines and types of things. And every time we opened a new restaurant, I got to learn about a whole new category of spirits and cordials and wines. I joined Old Forester after I had sort of built a name for myself in Louisville, because I wasn’t just working in the restaurant and the bar side of things. I was picking up what I like to call shaker for higher side gigs as much as I possibly could.

I did work for Woodford and Jack. I did work for Copper and Kings Brandy. I was a St Germain brand ambassador. I did work for Heaven Hill and for Four Roses. I mean, I said yes to everything I could possibly find. When Old Forester started growing, they noticed that, “Hey, this is becoming sort of the bartender’s darling. And we need somebody that has that understanding of that side of the business and can speak the language.”

[For this role,] you’re also going to have to be able to speak to the production side and the science side. And so I was sitting on a chemistry and a biology degree that I wasn’t really applying in any real direct sense.

It was kind of the merger of all these good things together to make me a good fit for Old Forester at the time. Throughout my past seven years, I’ve learned hell of a lot, if I could say that. Through Brown-Forman, obviously the science, the foundation was already there. The cocktail side was already there. The understanding of on-premise was there. The understanding of off-prem was already there too. But the marketing piece…I basically got a free education in marketing through Brown-Forman, which I am so grateful to have. They are brand builders. They are. And they do it so damn well. And I also got to spend so much time in new products, innovations and development.

[It was with working with] the barrels that I came to the point of realizing, I want to be able to paint with more than just one color. I love blending. I do. And I don’t think that the path I wanted for myself was going to be available under the umbrella of strictly Brown-Forman, so I decided to make a change. And here I am.

TWW: That announcement came out a few days ago that you were leaving. What was the feedback you got from the industry around your choice to do that?

Zykan: Shocked. A lot of people were shocked. I still am getting people coming out of the woodwork, saying just like, “What is happening, but you’re Old Forester. You’re the Old Forester girl. You can’t like what? What is going on here?” I think it’s an interesting place to be in because it’s safe. Everyone knows this. This is nothing new. It’s safe. When you work in a nice job for a nice company that has great benefits and great culture, it’s safe. But you can’t ignore your inner voice. You can’t ignore yourself. You can’t. I felt like I had more growth to do and needed more space to do it. If you grow an orchard in a greenhouse, it’s only going to cram up against the glass until it just can’t handle it anymore. I need an open pasture. I do. I just need space.

So I made the decision to leave being distillery exclusive and supplier exclusive, and have now worked my way into some really great projects that are more of, along the lines I guess you could call it, independent and consulting. But [they are] things that I really do believe in…the liquid is amazing. The folks with it are amazing.

And this first one that’s coming out, I think it’s going to be great. I’m excited to share the liquid with everybody.

TWW: Well, let’s jump into it then. Tell us about what’s next.

Jackie Zykan
Jackie Zykan inside the Neely warehouse (image via Hidden Barn Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey)

Zykan: I’ve been working with these two great guys out of Colorado who run the 5280 Whiskey Society. They’re one of the most successful bourbon aficionado groups in the country. And they’re just solid, honest and well-intentioned people. I met them six years ago. They brought a bottle of Birthday Bourbon to this event in Breckenridge that I was doing and they didn’t want it signed. They didn’t want to trade it. They didn’t want anything. They just wanted to drink it with me. And that was the first time anyone offered me a pour of their own private collection of Birthday Bourbon. That speaks value. In a land of trading and selling on the Internet and everyone’s sleeping on the sidewalk to get bottles, it means a lot when you put work into something and somebody goes, “I just want to drink this with you.” And to hear all about it and just be in it and present with it – that changed everything for me.

So Nate and Matt are coming from 5280 and we are sourcing liquid from the Neeley Distillery in Sparta, Kentucky for this label. The product brand name is called Hidden Barn. It is an interesting collection of different varieties – we’ve got a small batch that will be available regularly and all the time and then we’re also doing single barrels. Because of course, if anybody knows, I have just a huge, huge love for the individuality of single barrels.

But when I say small batch, let me be very clear. We’re talking eight barrels at a time, super small batch. But it that’s what made sense to me to do. I think the bigger your batch size, the more you lose that individual nuance of every barrel.

And if you’re able to produce batches in a small enough size and just embrace their differences, why not? So yeah. Hidden Barn. That’s what it is.

TWW: Talk a little a bit about the name, Hidden Barn. How did you come up with it and what is the meaning behind it?

Zykan: All across Kentucky we’ve got a lot of barns here. But if you pay close attention, you notice there’s quite a few black barns. Barns that have been painted solid black. And these actually stem historically from times when people didn’t want to be so honest about what they were doing in that barn. So if you distill anywhere or store whiskey, anywhere for that matter, you’re going to end up with Baudoinia, the fungus, the black mold that grows on the outside of buildings. So what they would do was paint these barns black so that you didn’t notice that, but then the neighbors painted their barns black too. So you find them in these sort of clusters because everybody was working together to help kind of conceal the distillation going on.

This is all about camaraderie. This is all about just supporting your community and having these close knit groups. We’re not hiding anything now, obviously we’re distilling legally at this point. But it’s interesting to play that into the Neeley family history. They’ve got 11 generations of whiskey makers and Royce [one of the current makers] is kind of at the forefront of, “I’m a legitimate distiller and I’m doing this.” And I think he’s coming out into the industry as a really legitimate and well respected distiller, even though they have a, if you will, a moonshine background. So he’s bringing with him a very interesting take on production and a very, very interesting take on sort of freedom of distilling, whatever you want, however you want to and exploring things, not just because of profitability and not just because of reproducibility and a lot of those key components that I think some large companies kind of hold as the most important element.

He’s like, “I’m going to go hang a bucket and catch some wild yeast. And then I guess we’ll see what happens.” And I loved that, that there needs to be that creative freedom in it. The beauty of whiskey is being able to discover all those little nuances. It was really exciting to have the keys to that warehouse, and then just get to kind of play with whatever I wanted. It’s amazing.

Jackie Zykan
From Left – Matt Danker, Jackie Zykan, Nate Winegar, Royce Neeley (image via Hidden Barn Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey)

TWW: Please summarize for us what details you can share on the first release.

Zykan: This product will be in Kentucky and Colorado to start. As far as distribution facts go, we will be expanding into more states very quickly, but that is kind of the launch focus. This is all pot still distillate. This is non-filtered barrel strength liquid. So this is just whiskey and its pure raw form barrel to bottle. It is all hand bottled, it is all hand labeled. It is all hand done. It is literally whiskey made the hard way because we just love the process of it and just want to be a part of all of it.

What you’re going to have coming out at first is the small batch. It is a batch that I blended with them based on mature stocks that Neeley had available. And details on specifics, as far as the barrels, as far as bill dates and dump dates and things of that nature, will be available in the coming weeks when we actually are issuing liquid samples. So stay tuned for some of those nitty gritty details.

TWW: So when you say raw whiskey, you are talking about in terms of…

Zykan: I’m talking about the non-treated element of it as far as it being straight barrel to bottle. There’s no chill filtration. There’s no carbon treatment. There’s none of that. There’s no proofing. There’s nothing added to it. It’s just going straight into the glass.

TWW: Are we looking at stuff that’s probably maybe a little younger than what you’re used to working with at Old Forester?

Zykan: I wouldn’t say that, to be honest with you. It’s pretty commonplace for things to be plucked on their maturity birthday, for straights anyways, in that four year old range. You taste some of it and you’re like, “What the hell?” I have a lot of what the hell moments tasting it like, “It shouldn’t be this way. It shouldn’t be this good. There’s no way, it shouldn’t be this viscous. It shouldn’t be this. It shouldn’t be that. It shouldn’t be whatever… What is going on here?” But I didn’t have any exposure to the Neeley liquid up until this project kind of came along. It was the liquid itself that made me make this decision. It’s that good.

TWW: So you’re really going from something that was huge, right? With Old Forester and all these barrels and warehouses and all that to what is a really small distillery. What is that for you talk to in terms of where you see your career going and what is the passion and draw for that?  We know you talked a little bit about that earlier, but we just want to dig a little deeper into that and see what’s the next evolution for you as you’re looking at doing these kind of things.

Zykan: It took me a long time to gain confidence in my palate and in my skill set. It took me a long time of having inclinations and intuition. And that’s something that I think there’s not a lot of space for the larger you get and the more you have to lose as a company, a lot of things start coming down to relying strictly on numbers and logic and things of that sort. And that’s necessary too, but there’s a balance. And so when you’re working with a small group of people that all share the same values and that are balanced in the sense of “yeah, we approach things from a logical perspective, because this is still a business, but we also respect people’s just natural inclinations because we trust our judgment and trust our experiences,” there’s just so much more freedom to it.

I love Old Forester and I will always love Old Forester. And I’m very proud of some of the work that I did on Old Forester – that goes without even mention. And some of my most favorite moments with Brown-Forman were when I could have small scale projects because it gave me a little bit more freedom to do something that didn’t have to appeal to markets across the globe. It just had to appeal to a tiny little group and that was enough. It’s enough to just share a bottle or a pour with one person and have that positive moment. That’s enough for me. So switching gears and not being just one brand dedicated gives me a whole set of colors.

Like I said, you get tired of painting with the same color – blue, great. I was making beautiful pictures, made of all different tones of blue, but they’re still blue. Sometimes I want to play with green and sometimes I want to play with red and now I have the ability to do that.

It costs something, there is a trade off to it, right? When you go independent and you lose your 401k and your benefits and your whatever. Would you go this independent consulting route? It’s terrifying as a single parent, it’s absolutely terrifying.

I finally got to a point where I felt that I can do this and I wanted to focus on blending. Blending wasn’t necessarily as involved as a path. And it wasn’t necessarily an option for me given what Brown-Forman opportunities look like. And so here I am and doing the thing.

TWW: So looking at Hidden Barn, this is your first brand label that you are independently consulting with. We can assume we’ll expect to see more announcements down the road as to other brands or distilleries you’re working with for other projects?

Zykan: Maybe. I trust myself. I trust the decisions I’m making. I know that I can do this, but I also am one who knows that it takes a certain investment in nurturing to grow a brand. It’s not just about sneaker drops. It’s not just about LTOs or limited time offers and things of that sort. It’s not about that. There’s a lot of pride to be taken if you can grow a brand that then gets its own awareness [and] can be self-sufficient.

My skill set really does resonate in that beginning. Nitty gritty, all hands on deck. Everybody’s just in the dirt, just free for all. I love it. It’s chaotic and it’s messy and there’s a lot of mistakes made, but that’s how you learn so fast. And that is where I love it.

I think Old Forester, even though it’s been a massive brand, it’s also been a tiny brand. It’s been a brand that no one even remembers. And now it’s the brand that everybody loves again, which is so great. I’m so happy that I was able to get it to that point with the help of a massive family of folks that all love it, just the same as I do, but it’s ready to fly out of the nest.

Now I can focus my talents and skill sets on the upbringings and the birth and nurturing of smaller brands. And I get a lot of satisfaction from that.

TWW: With the Hidden Barn brand, do you see maybe sourcing from other distilleries over time or is it too early to tell or is this just going to be focused on Neeley?

Zykan: I think it’s too early to tell. I really believe in the liquid that we’re using from Neeley. He’s given us a really great product to work with here. And he’s been such a great partner and he’s a partial owner of this brand too. So we all have our stake in this. I don’t want to say, I don’t want to put any parameters on this. I don’t want to put any limitations – if we discover opportunities to do something from someone else, cool. If we don’t, cool. I mean, we are literally just going with it and focusing on what the most important piece is, which is actually enjoying what we do for a living. So there’s good liquid out there.

We’re in this beautiful time for whiskey. It’s amazing because the bourbon boom started all of these little distilleries everywhere, right? And now everyone is starting to bloom and their liquid is starting to get mature enough to actually use without fear that it’s too young or drink is too hot or doing this or doing that.

As much as there is this very limited supply of older liquid on the market – which is just going to be there, because the demand has been so high for a while now – there is [also] so much really exquisite, high quality and well-balanced liquid coming out of some of these small craft distilleries. And it’s an exciting time to not limit yourself and be able to play around with different sources.

Jackie Zykan
Jackie Zykan in her Old Forester days (image via Brown-Forman)

TWW: Describe your legacy at Brown-Forman. What is it to you as you walk away from there? What do you feel you left behind for those that follow after you?

Zykan: I was incredibly well known by every single person I ever had contact with – and even those that I never even met, but just saw the work that I did – for being honest, no matter what, and for standing for what is right. No matter what. And that is from a quality standpoint, that is from an ethics standpoint, 100%. If I thought something was wrong, it didn’t matter if the audience was the CEO. I had no fear in ever bringing it up.

I don’t know, but it’s worked so far, but I think that my legacy there is just that I found a way to modernize and connect people today with a brand that was kind of dusty at the time. And I did it by really highlighting and embracing the core values of what it came to mean in the first place. Old Forester was always quality and consistency, quality and consistency, no matter what. Integrity – doing the right thing, no matter what. As long as they hold true to those pillars and those values. I mean, there’s nothing better than that. And I think that every brand out there can have a little space for that too.

I definitely take those core building blocks that Old Forester is based off of because they parallel with my core beliefs so much and I apply those onto these next projects. I’m not out there just to make money. I’m not out there just to make a lot or volumes of whiskey. I’m not out there to do whatever’s trending. I have an internal compass of what I firmly believe to be the right and the wrong for whiskey. And I follow that and it seems to work.

TWW: Thank you for your time.We appreciate you sharing with us details of what’s coming up. Best of luck with the new venture.

Zykan: Thank you very much.

Nino Kilgore-Marchetti

Nino Kilgore-Marchetti is the founder of The Whiskey Wash, an award winning whiskey lifestyle website dedicated to informing and entertaining consumers about whisk(e)y on a global level. As a whisk(e)y journalist, expert and judge he has written about the subject extensively, been interviewed in various media outlets and provided tasting input on many whiskeys at competitions. He also maintains a large private collection of whiskey from which he continually educates his palate on this brown spirit type.

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