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Whiskey Ambassador Corner: Old Forester’s Jackie Zykan

Jackie Zykan is a rock star in the bartending world, so it came as no surprise to those in the industry when she was recently tapped to become the Master Bourbon Specialist for Old Forester.  The Whiskey Wash recently reached out to her for her thoughts on her new role:

Jackie Zykan
Old Forester’s Jackie Zykan (image via Old Forester)

1) What do you do as a Master Bourbon Specialist?

I serve as a bourbon expert and cocktail innovator for the Old Forester brand. We have yet to figure out how to clone our Master Distiller, and since he can only be in one place at one time, I get to travel the country sharing the love of this time tested hometown bourbon with the masses around the globe. Old Forester, although a long-lived historical brand, has had a huge resurgence among bartenders and I bring actual ‘in-the-trenches’ perspective from the other side of the bar. I lead trainings, tastings, provide cocktail strategy as well as insight in trade related involvement. I act as a liaison between bar and brand, and give a genuine perspective and understanding of all things bourbon, bar, and cocktail.

One of the best parts of this job is that I have the opportunity to share the true history of a legendary bourbon brand without any smoke and mirrors– for Old Forester, it’s the real deal and that was very important to me.

2) How has your professional career path led you to this job?

Nearly a decade of experience behind the bar has played a key role in the journey to this career. As a bartender, you have so many opportunities to learn about the products you pour, and also get a chance to network with industry professionals on a regular basis. A strong science background in biology and chemistry has inspired my curiosity in the spirits world. I had a college professor that said “the world is run by those who show up”- and I’ve had a goal to say ‘yes’ when opportunities knock and blossom from answering the door.  You figure out how you’ll make it happen after that but for this role, I’ve lived it for so long as bourbon enthusiast, the fit has been natural.

3) What is your favorite part of this new role?

As a past buyer and program director for a restaurant group, I had to witness many shallow brand presentations, memorized elevator speeches, and all around lack of fundamental understanding. I am excited to be working on the forefront of changing the way we connect with our industry. The consumer is becoming more and more educated, and we need to keep up with that expansion of knowledge.

I bring a solid and confident understanding, and hope I can use my range of experiences to custom suit bourbon experiences for all different palates from all different backgrounds. Bourbon really is for everyone, we just have to be open to the way it will appeal to each individual. Getting out among the ‘bourbon passionate’ from bartenders to whiskey connoisseurs has been a blast so far.

4) Are there any pervasive bourbon myths you’d like to lay to rest?

Tons, but I will try to be brief. Age statements are nothing more than age statements. They are in no way a quality statement. Bourbon, like all things in life, requires balance. It is possible to over-age whiskey in a barrel, much like it’s possible to overcook meat or over-shake a drink. You can over-do anything, but to be able to recognize a balance between the MANY nuances in craft that go into creating bourbon is a true art.

5) Anything else you’d like readers to know?

Taste around, and take preconceived tasting notes with a grain of salt. Everyone’s palate is different, and will be different on different days. The best way to find the bourbon that’s right for you is to ignore the marketing campaigns and just taste it! If you don’t like the way it tastes, don’t drink it! There is no right or wrong, should or shouldn’t. If you aren’t enjoying the spectrum of flavors in the bourbon you’re drinking, then why drink it? They’re all very different though, so try different products and find one that fits you.

I think authenticity in the brand you are drinking also gives you a great story to share at the bar. We hope to impart some of those great stories from America’s first bottled bourbon and one that stands on 145 years of experience. Old Forester has been doing it right for a very long time: before, during and after prohibition without changing hands in ownership ever. That’s a statement to our quality and a guarantee for the future of our products.

Campbell Brown, Old Forester brand President and descendent of George Garvin Brown, had this to say about the decision to bring Zykan on board:

1) Why did you feel the need to create the position of Master Bourbon Specialist?

When I took on the leadership role for this brand, we evaluated the resources and gaps we had in getting our history and quality bourbon to the people. The brand has re-gained a bunch of momentum in the last couple of years and that has created a demand for more education about bourbon and engagement with those who want to buy it. We’ve been flooded with requests for Jackie to host events all over the country and we’re now seeing those requests come in from overseas as well.

As Jackie mentioned, Chris Morris is a very busy guy as the Master Distiller for Brown-Forman, it was important for us to find an expert who could share our long history with the bartenders who are eager to learn it.

We open a new $45 million dollar distillery in 2017 which means expansion of the brand and (we hope) additional demand. We’ll do sample tastings with visitors and barrel tastings with customers right there in the distillery which will create additional demand for her expertise. Jackie will play a key role in that distillery and the way that we explain and engage consumers with the bourbon we make there.

2) Why did you feel Jackie was the right person for the job?

She has such a unique skillset. Working with bartenders in the restaurant industry for so long gives her fluency in those relationships. She’s been trained on so many levels of the spirits industry and knows our competitors thoroughly– she could’ve chosen to work with any brand (and has been asked to work for many of them) but the fact that she chose to represent Old Forester for the authenticity of our story and quality of our bourbon is a great credibility factor for us.

Maggie Kimberl

One night during Derby week, I was working in the liquor store while Four Roses Master Distiller Jim Rutledge was doing a tasting. I kept trying to make my way over to talk to him, but we were super busy (did I mention it was Derby week?) and I didn't make it in time. Dejected, I went back to the break room and started eating my lunch. The next thing I knew, Rutledge came through the door, saying, "You didn't get to do my tasting!" He sat down and explained how to taste bourbon, the ten recipes of Four Roses, and how it was different than other distilleries. I had liked bourbon before that point, but Jim Rutledge made me care about it. That's the beautiful thing about the bourbon industry- the people love what they do, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Now here we are. :)

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