Old Forester Is In The Very Capable Hands Of Brown-Forman’s Jackie Zykan

Old Forester is a very well established American whiskey label with an extremely long history behind it. Started in 1870 by George Garvin Brown, it has the distinction for its bourbon of being in continuous production since its beginnings 150 years ago, even existing during Prohibition as it was able to gain a permit to manufacture and sell whiskey for medicinal purposes.

Leapfrogging to today, Old Forester is a cornerstone of the Brown-Forman company, complete with its own small showcase distillery in downtown Louisville, Kentucky and a wide range of both bourbons and ryes. One who has taken a big hand in the development of this brand is Jackie Zykan, Old Forester master taster.

In her role Zykan is part marketing and part production, helping to spread the story of Old Forester while at the same time having a critical hand in the development of the new expressions that roll out. We recently took some time to chat with her about her story, the Old Forester brand and the process in putting together the yearly Birthday Bourbon. Note this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Brown-Forman's Jackie Zykan

Brown-Forman’s Jackie Zykan (image via Brown-Forman)

The Whiskey Wash (TWW): You have had a good run of a career so far there with Brown-Forman. Can you talk a little bit about it from the early days up through what you’re doing now?

Jackie Zykan: Sure. Initially my role through Brown-Forman was – it’s always been Old Forester – but the original title was master bourbon specialist, and that role was intended to serve as this sort of hybrid between a brand ambassador, a mixologist of sorts, and what was now a vacant master taster role, but without the title, obviously, because I was just starting out with them.

So it went on for about a year I guess. When I first joined the brand, they were in the midst of groundbreaking on the new distillery on Whiskey Row in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, and I expressed to [the company] once I found out about the extent of that project “by the time those doors open, I’m going to be the master taster for Old Forester.”

I spent the first year not only acclimating to this brand new job that I’d never had before, but also training for the next step of it at the exact same time. After production training and all that fun stuff, I was granted a title master taster for Old Forester, and so that’s where I’m at right now for the time being.

TWW: Talk to us a little bit about what your current job specifically entails.

Zykan: The master taster role at Brown-Forman [for Old Forester] is this cross between global marketing and production, so I still check the box for things that are more ambassador related activities. I think that we’re all ambassadors of our brand to a certain extent, and that includes giving educations and leading tastings and doing things like this. Media is definitely a big part of it.

Sort of serving as a spokesperson for the brand, but at the same time I’m also very involved in the new product development, in the quality assurance panels and the consistency panels, and the production side from that angle. So I am focused on post maturation phase, not necessarily pre, although I do sit on distillate quality panels as well.

TWW: How was it you came to be with the Old Forester brand with Brown-Forman?

Zykan: In my past life before this role, I was a beverage director for a multi-concept group based here in Louisville, but I had picked up so many side hustles if you will with the various brands that are based here that I just sort of grew a name for myself, and I said yes to every opportunity I could to get brand side exposure.

I was approached with this opportunity over five years ago and I guess Old Forester was reaching a point where the bourbon boom was carrying it back to life. They found it necessary that both Woodford and Old Forester were kind of clumped together at that point, but both brands were growing significantly enough to where they needed just more soldiers in the field if you will.

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So having a background in the bar industry and understanding things from that perspective and from the cocktail perspective, combined with a scientific education under my belt that I, to be honest, wasn’t really using at the time just helps to create this perfect point of understanding it from the production side and also being able to get into the nitty gritty with the bourbon nerds out there.

TWW: Old Forester bourbon is obviously a pretty well established brand in bourbon circles in the US and beyond. Talk just a little bit about the history of it.

Zykan: Sure – there’s no better time to do so than our 150th anniversary that we’re in right now. We’re not celebrating it the way we thought we would with the given circumstances, but here we are. The brand was started in 1870 by a gentleman by the name of George Garvin Brown. He was not a distiller. He was a medical salesman, and so he was actually peddling whiskey because back in the late 1800s whiskey was your medicine, and he saw an opportunity to improve the entire industry.

What the landscape was back then is that you would fill up your vessel with a jug or your jar, your whatever, go to a retailer, go to a pharmacy with your script, and get it straight from the barrel behind the counter. There was a lot of issue with that in that people were putting questionable things in there, and it was always inconsistent because even if you didn’t mess with what was inside of your barrel, it’s still a single barrel and they’re all kind of like snowflakes.

So George thought, how do we change it? We need quality. We need consistency. Well, let’s seal it in a glass bottle so you know it’s guaranteed to be quality, and let’s make it consistent by blending. So he actually blended from three different distilleries in Kentucky to create this fine product and it has always, ever since then, just sort of been the one brand that no matter the cost, no matter what is always 100% quality and consistency first and foremost.

We really, really strive for that. We keep so many reserve samples and it’s actually amazing. You can taste an Old Forester 86 proof today up against an Old Forester 86 proof from the ’80s and they taste identical. It’s crazy. So with those founding principles, obviously something worth holding on to, this is the founding brand of Brown-Forman proper started by George Garvin Brown.

It has gone through the same ups and downs that bourbon in general has, but they’ve never let go of it. They’ve never sold it off. They never will. It’s sort of the blood that runs in the veins of the Brown family. We’re the only brand that has been there before, during, and after prohibition without changing hands, and the only brand that can literally say, for 150 years running straight, you’ve never had a day without Old Forester that you could actually purchase. You may have had to fake being sick during prohibition to get it as medicinal whiskey, but nonetheless, we have been there since the day we started with the same family behind it ever since.

TWW: Under the Old Forester label, there are a range of bottlings. Can you talk just briefly about some of them and the thought process behind them?

Zykan: Old Forester has been a multi-expression brand ever since the post prohibition era. Old Forester started as a 90 proof product. We switched over to a 100 proof Bottled in Bond product in 1897, and we carried through as Bottled in Bond up until post World War II where we actually introduced the 86 proof. The whole point of that was because the consumer’s palate was changing to something lighter bodied and preferring things that are more comparable to blended whiskeys, and I think we’ve never given up on that sort of keeping an ear to the ground on what the consumer wants. As long as we’re not sacrificing quality and consistency, we are still living our truth so to say.

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Now, in the modern day bourbon boom, yes, we have I think 11 expressions at the moment. They’re all very, very different. It really does showcase the fine art of blending and manipulation of an all natural flavor process. So the core being the 86, 100 proof, and the rye. Those are your everyday offerings.

Whiskey Row is a little bit more elevated craft, a little bit smaller batch, definitely a lot more labor intensive and filtered quite a bit less. Those were introduced to start telling the story of the brand leading up to near the distillery opening on Whiskey Row.

Then we have some premium, premium, premium expressions with the President’s Choice, the Birthday Bourbon, and we do offer single barrel bourbon as well. They all have a completely different flavor profile, even though they’re all the same yeast strain, all the same barrel, all the same warehouses, all the same distillation sets. Everything across the board. All the same mash bill except for that rye.

It does come down to a very human element of segregating out different barrels into different flavor profiles and creating harmony there, and then making sure it’s also consistent. A lot of love goes into this brand, but I think it’s truly reflected. We do have an Old Forester for everybody. We have a spicy, a sweet, a floral. It’s all across the board.

TWW: You referenced Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, and we know that there’s the annual release of that. Talk a little bit about that iteration. Why was it created and what goes into the process of picking each year’s offering?

Zykan: The Birthday Bourbon expression that I think many people, certainly much more than when it first started are aware of, started back in 2002. This was pre boom, right? This was pre people sleeping on sidewalks to get stuff from liquor stores. It was started as a way to just tell the story and share the origins of the brand by celebrating George Garvin Brown’s birthday, which is September 2nd. So it’s one day production, a vintage dated product technically by that term. It has to have a completely perfect quality score across the board at every single stage, so we do those at distillation gathered, we do those at a six-month maturation period, and at a “maturity,” quote unquote.

We do a zero- to four-point scale. It’s got to have perfect scores across the board for everything in order to even be considered to grow up to be Birthday Bourbon, so it really is sort of the best of the best of the best of what we have to bottle, and after that it is just selected based on flavor cohesion within that blend.

Not every lot of barrels once blended together makes perfect sense and gives complete dimension. Sometimes it can be somewhat shallow and flatlined, and so that’s definitely not where these lots come from. It’s usually a 9 to 14 year old product or historically has been. We don’t necessarily have a parameter on it of what it has to be. It’s just sort of whatever lot is expressing itself best that vintage, but what’s left in those barrels is what you get in that age range.

After going through heat cycling, you’re looking at maybe at the most a 15% yield, so there’s very, very little of it out there, which I know probably makes more people upset than happy, but we do our best and we put our best foot forward with it. But you can definitely expect to see it from Old Forester every year in September to help celebrate George’s birthday.

TWW: Talk about the 2020 release [of Birthday Bourbon]. What are the specifics on it and how did you guys come up with choosing what you chose?

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Zykan: Well, after picking through potential lots, it’s do these barrels get along well? Because you are trying to capture an entire production run into one blend, and you’re really, really relying on that barrel and especially some of these get sort of separated out. Relying on that maturation location as well to give you some diversity, which is really interesting.

This is another blend. Every now and then we have one that’s come from all the same place, but this one has come from two different warehouses. The fifth floor of the H warehouse. We have seven warehouses down in Shively, Kentucky. B, G, H, I, J, K, and L. It’s not supposed to make sense. Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t make sense to any of us, but the H warehouse is my absolute hands-down favorite. I’ve never once had a whiskey out of the H warehouse that I was not completely in love with. Everyone’s got their own specific one and I’ve been hearing a lot of rumblings about K house from a lot of the bourbon hounds lately, especially with single barrels, but H house is my darling. A tiny little section of this lot didn’t fit in the other warehouse, which was J, and it had to get crammed into this weird little corner in the H warehouse, and so you have this lot that’s split. Three ricks over in the J warehouse on the seventh floor, and just one tiny little rick in the fifth floor of the H warehouse.

With the J house, I can’t say fact that J house always gives spicy barrels, but I can say that in my experience I’ve gotten more spicy barrels out of J house than any of the others. It’s just a thing. So it’s really, really interesting that those sweeter, more subdued and fruit-forward flavors of H came through with J and just produced this. It’s like a Hawaiian getaway. It really is. The notes that come through on this one are crazy. Very unique for Old Forester.

TWW: Do you feel like there will ever be any change in how Birthday Bourbon is done, or do you think it’s so well established after 20 years that there’s no reason to do anything different with how you guys pick it each year?

Zykan: Well, there were some trial and error things that happened in the beginning of Birthday Bourbon being released, so that first year it’s a very small issue in that 2002 vintage and then in 2003, they did a spring and a fall release, and no one back then seemed to really latch onto it so they just decided to let it go and focus on just doing it once a year.

Now, I think that the climate for bourbon has changed so much that I’m not saying we’ve even talked about this. I’m not trying to drop any hints, but I could see us kind of returning to things like that that perhaps were in the idea bank before their time and bringing them back to life.

We get a lot of asks. Ever since we released the rye, everyone’s all about, “Are you going to do a rye Birthday Bourbon?” I’m like, “Well, you mean a Birthday Rye?” I don’t know. We’ve talked about it, but I don’t think we’ve made any commitments on it. It’s just such a great collectible series, and you know, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

There’s nothing we really need to challenge with it I don’t think. It’s just, it’s good. It’s good every year, and I say collectible series but by no means do I mean put it on the shelf and let it [be] a decoration. It literally is some of the best Old Forester that you could ever put to your lips, so I do encourage everyone to please crack the bottle open and just share it with good company. Yeah, I don’t know if we’re going to be doing too much esoteric stuff on it, but you never know. You never know with Old Forester.