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Whiskey Ambassador Corner: Maker’s Mark’s Jane Conner

Jane Conner
Photo courtesy of Jane Conner, Maker’s Mark

The bourbon industry is full of ambassadors, but perhaps none so cool as the globe-trotting Maker’s Mark Ambassador Jane Conner, who is also known as a Distillery Maturation SpecialistThe Whiskey Wash recently caught up with Conner to learn about how she’s spent the last several years teaching the world about Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey:

1.What was your first job out of college?  How did that lead you to Maker’s Mark?

My main goal out of school was to travel and see the world. My first job out of college was pulling pints in a pub in London. (My dad was so proud with what I was doing with my education!) I ended up being an assistant manager at The Cambridge pub in London’s West End. After my visa ran out in London I got a job teaching English in Japan and moved there to work and live for two years. Between jobs I traveled and saw a lot of the world.

Funnily enough, a lot of my bourbon education and passion began in Japan. I had drunk bourbon in college and it was always my go to but it wasn’t until I was making actual money and more of an “adult” that I really got interested in the spirit. I saved enough money to travel for six months after Japan and worked my way home backpacking across Asia to arrive back to Kentucky in time for my best friend’s wedding. Out of money and itching to get to New Zealand to be a rafting guide (as you do when you are 25 and avoiding the real world), I spent a few months in Louisville working various boring jobs until an ad was posted for an event coordinator at Maker’s Mark.

Now, you don’t know me very well, but I would be a TERRIBLE event coordinator. Maker’s Mark is one of those pinnacle companies that just seemed perfect to work for. I took the opportunity to get my resume in front of them but wrote a letter explaining that I did not in fact want to be an event coordinator. I wanted to take Kentucky and more specifically, bourbon, to the world. What better company or brand to do it for but my absolute favorite- Maker’s Mark.

As fate would have it, they called. Rob Samuels had just taken over as the Global Marketing Director for Maker’s and was looking to ramp up the brand’s involvement overseas. He lived by the same philosophy as Bill, believing it’s the people that bring brands to life.  A couple of interviews later and I was hired as the first international employee of Maker’s Mark reporting directly to Rob Samuels. The first few months were very literal brand immersion. I worked every single job at the distillery, from cutting labels to shadowing our Master Distiller.  My first year under Rob’s guidance I worked in nine different countries doing brand ambassador work in over a dozen different cities around the world. After a year I was relocated to be based in London full time, and spent four years there until I returned to Kentucky in 2012.

2. You’ve repped Maker’s Mark Bourbon all around the world.  How many countries have you visited?  Which was your favorite?

I’ve always felt being a brand ambassador is more a lifestyle choice rather than a job.  Because of that I feel I’ve taken Maker’s everywhere I’ve been (very cheesy I know!).  In an official work capacity I have visited over a dozen countries to lead tastings/training and seminars for consumers, trade and media. Some highlights include:

  • Launching Maker’s in Brazil with the United States department of agriculture.
  • Leading a private bourbon tasting inside the Plymouth Distillery for their master distiller and some guests.
  • Drinking Maker’s cocktails at the first post-communism bar in Sophia, Bulgaria.
  • Toasting my 30th birthday (with Maker’s Mark of course) at the Vienna Whisky show with scotch enthusiasts that were getting a peek at bourbon for the first time.
  • Meeting my future husband for the first time at LAB cocktail bar in London’s Soho for Manhattans, as he was the number one Maker’s Mark sales rep in London!
Photo courtesy of Jane Conner, Maker’s Mark

3.What’s the most common misconception you hear about bourbon?

I don’t know if it’s the most common but it’s one of my biggest pet peeves:  There is a right way to enjoy bourbon.  As a kid that loved Doritos and mustard sandwiches, I say drink it how you like! I used to hear a lot of common misconceptions. Must be made in Kentucky is the biggie, obviously, but I’m proud to say the market is VERY EDUCATED. Bourbon drinkers have become so discerning and we have all seen and reaped the rewards of consumers wanting to know as much as they can about what they are drinking.  Bourbon enthusiasts know their stuff. I love that now when I do tours or tastings I am learning from the audience because they will usually have some sort of wonderful fun fact or history trivia that I am not familiar with. Well done to all those brand ambassadors out there that have done such a great job of educating and debunking a lot of bourbon myths!

4. Maker’s Mark keeps growing and expanding. What’s next for the distillery or the brand?

We are currently in the middle of launching our first ever Private Select Program that allows customers to create their own version of Maker’s Mark.

What isn’t new at Maker’s? We just completed a year-long project in which we cloned (best way to describe this) our entire distilling operation to expand capacity without changing how we make the whisky. It’s a great time for the bourbon industry in that we are all (the distilleries) growing to meet demand. We are lucky at Maker’s that we have the land and capabilities to expand in a very organic way that doesn’t compromise the founders’ vision for the brand. I can’t wait to see where we all are in 10 years.  It’s a fun time to be in bourbon!

5. What’s your favorite cocktail?

That’s a tough one. A decade ago it would have been Maker’s on the rocks. What I have learned from my job is that the effort and care we put into making that bourbon how it is in the bottle is equal to the amount of effort and care a great bartender puts into showcasing that same bourbon through a beautifully made drink. Cocktails are glorious!

It really depends on the mood, occasion and company. It’s hard to beat a deliciously made bourbon Bloody Mary (Bloody Mark) over brunch with my girlfriends or a warming hot toddy when you have a day like today. My favorite bartender in London used to make me Maker’s Coladas that were out of this world. If I can only have one though, the Manhattan is still the king of cocktails for me. I like a 3-to-1 or  4-to-1 bourbon/vermouth ratio. (What can I say; I grew up in the school of Bill Samuels Jr.)

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