Jackie Zykan has what sounds like one of the world’s best jobs, master taster for Kentucky bourbon firm Old Forester. But what exactly is a master taster? Does she just spend all her time tasting whiskey and mixing up Old Fashioneds? We spent some time with her to find out more.
Jackie Zykan, by her own admission, fell into her role at Old Forester. She previously worked as a beverage director for a company in Louisville, Kentucky. Before that, she bartended her way through a chemistry and biology degree, picking up every side gig going and becoming familiar with local bourbon brands. When Old Forester expressed an interest to bring her on board, Zykan said it was a no-brainer. We were delighted to have some times with her to learn about her experiences behind the bar, he thoughts on the industry in general and just what it takes to be a master taster. Here’s what she had to say:
MoM: Can you explain your role as master taster and what your day to day looks like?
JZ: It’s a hybridisation between global marketing and production. Some days I am in a warehouse, some days I’m at the distillery, some days I’m in our corporate office, some days I’m in a plane heading to see people and do presentations. There’s an education side of it, a new product development side, quality control, drink strategy, it all falls onto my lap. It touches every single angle of Old Forester. There is not a single day that is the same, that is for sure.
MoM: I understand you also handle cocktail strategy and the single barrel programme, can you talk about those aspects of the role as well?
JZ: We have a line of cocktail provisions from Old Forester and that was my project, those are my children! It’s very, very important, not every single person looking to get into whiskey is going to be a purist. Cocktails are a fantastic way to introduce people to the spirit in a way that’s familiar to them. Then for the single barrel programme, I oversee the inventory. I keep a nice diverse pool because not everybody’s after the same kind of barrel and that’s kind of the beauty of a single barrel, that they’re all different.
MoM: Talking about your role in product development, can you give us an idea of what it’s like to create a new product?
JZ: You look at your portfolio and you say “What is it that we don’t have that we could have?” “What would be fun to do?” “‘What’s going to help to tell the story of this brand?” We innovate in a historically relevant way. The Whiskey Row series is a great example of that, where every expression is geared towards telling a pertinent year of the Old Forester history. It’s not about what kind of shock value we get out of a new product or how weird can we make it, it’s always about making a quality balanced product. The process is long, by the time you see a bottle on the shelf we have been talking about it for probably seven years in the office! That’s probably a much longer process then people realise. We’re always thinking of what is coming next for sure.
MoM: Can you give us a brief background on the distillery?
JZ: Old Forester as a brand was started in 1870 by George Garvin Brown, who saw an opportunity to make things a little bit different and a little bit safer for the general consumer. Back then buying whiskey meant filling up whatever vessel you had from a barrel at a retailer. You weren’t going in and buying a bottle off of a shelf. In the late 1800s here, in America, the whiskey was known as a pharmaceutical. There was a lot of doctors that heard their patients complain that what they’re being prescribed made them sicker or was too inconsistent. This was the Wild West of whiskey production which predated modern-day bourbon regulations. George sees this opportunity to ensure consistency by blending. Old Forester was actually the first bourbon that was blended from multiple distilleries together. Then, to ensure the quality you seal it in a glass bottle so no one can mess with it. With a barrel you can refill it with anything and spread and stretch profits and no one is going to know. That made Old Forester the first bottled bourbon, and it was the first to be sold exclusively in a sealed glass vessel. That changed everything. We’ve been running ever since, all through prohibition, consistently under Kentucky permit number three. It was around before, during and after prohibition and it’s the longest-running family-owned brand of bourbon. It’s definitely a product of Louisville, Kentucky. Our whiskey is made start to finish completely in Louisville, from mashing, fermentation, distillation, maturation, bottling, mostly consumption. We think of it as ‘the hometown bourbon of bourbon’s hometown’.
MoM: You returned home to 119 Main Street recently, that must have such a huge moment for you guys
JZ: Oh absolutely, it’s a very exciting moment to be able to literally come home as a brand into the same space you started in. We’ve modernised and we’ve kept up with all the trends of the alcohol industry, but the one thing we’ve never forgotten is where we started and it was always quality and consistency foremost. To be able to come back into that same space, you really are sticking true to the roots of a brand that was started by a man who just had a vision of doing things the right way. It’s so meaningful.
MoM: Do you find that it can be a little difficult to innovate when you’ve got this name and history to live up to?
JZ: Think of it this way, Old Forester came out as a brand in a different way. We really revolutionised how quality was ensured for the industry, so we think of our innovation in all sorts of different ways. It’s not about just doing a different finishing on this product, you want to innovate in a manner that’s going to impact the entire industry. Through sustainability measures. Through packaging. Our history isn’t weighing us down and limiting us because we’ve always been a brand of firsts, and they haven’t always been to do with the actual liquid. It’s a very, very respected company in the industry and there is a good reason for that. We’ve led the way in the pursuit of making sure that everything is very credible and always done with quality and transparency.
MoM: How would you describe the character of the new make and the distillery character in the spirit from Old Forester?
JZ: What you’re getting from the new make is a really good display of the grain attributes. The mash bill for all Old Forester bourbon is the same: it’s 72% corn, 18% rye, 10% malted barley. That new-make distillate that’s being pulled off the still has a rye backbone coming through for it, so it’s got a nice rye spice to it, but there’s a lot of really good fruit notes that come through and a lot of that is driven by the proprietary yeast strain that we use for Old Forester. You’re gonna get a lot of apple, you’re gonna get a lot of citrus, everybody finds banana in there. We do a quality check on our distillate as soon as it comes off of the still to make sure that it’s always coming out the same and that it’s right on point. If what goes into the barrel isn’t good, what comes out isn’t good.
MoM: Tell us about the creation of your rye whiskey and why it was so exciting.
JZ: It was the first time we’ve ever offered a different mash bill for Old Forester when we released that rye whiskey in February of 2019. The recipe for it is based on a historic recipe from a product that used to be made at the Brown Forman Distillery back in 1940, so it’s a 65% rye, 20% malted barley and 15% corn. That malted barley is giving us a lot of floral and fruit notes to a rye whiskey which usually you just sort of think of as being spiced, or in my mind I always think of it as being incredibly savoury. But this is incredibly balanced because you’re taking a heavier malt mash bill and putting it into a brand new charred oak barrel to create a completely different experience. I honestly think we have one of the most unique ryes in the category.
MoM: You’ve said that bartenders have been responsible for some of the resurgence in whiskey’s popularity, how?
JZ: In rye specifically, a lot of the interest in rye came back through the craft cocktail resurgence. People were using these classic cocktails as templates and rye whiskey was getting called for quite a bit, especially with recipes that were developed during prohibition because it was available. The demand was always for something that was a little bit higher proof and that wasn’t going to break the bank and crash your entire cocktail programme. That’s the reason our rye is 100 proof and the price it is, because we recognised that that’s what was driving the interest in it in the first place. In general, the craft cocktail scene has been huge for a lot of distilled spirits, from the explosion of gin brands on the market to the resurgence of some sort of esoteric stuff that a lot of people haven’t paid attention to in a really long time, like cachaça, bitters etc. The craft cocktail movement has changed the perspective that you’ll ruin a distilled spirit if you throw it into a cocktail. It’s opening a gateway for people to experience in a way that’s familiar to them. Long live the cocktail!
MoM: How did being a bartender affect your approach now and inform the job you do now?
JZ: When working behind a bar you’re seeing it from a totally different angle. Price affects things, for sure, but you also realise how important the right packaging and things being ergonomically feasible for fast service is. This definitely affects conversations we have at Old Forester. It helps you gain a different perspective and it certainly helps you develop your palate. I didn’t necessarily recreationally drink when I was a bartender but you learn to balance and you get to learn a lot of flavour profiles. That has really helped me as far as articulating flavour notes that are in our whiskey, for sure.
MoM: What industry trends have caught your eye?
JZ: The biggest one that we’ve seen is honestly the lower-to-no alcohol trend. It can be hard for me to answer this question because my role is a global role, so the trend in the UK is different than the trend in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but lower alcohol and being more health-conscious and mindful is definitely not going to go anywhere anytime soon. There’s also a massive trend with the bourbon boom of losing this purist mentality and that’s fantastic. Whiskey as a category can be quite intimidating. For a very long time it was sort of put up on this pedestal and it was as if you could only appreciate it in its pure form. Which isn’t the case, whatsoever. You don’t ruin whiskey by putting it in a cocktail. You make your cocktail better by using a good whiskey as opposed to a bad whiskey. This isn’t the early 1900s anymore, you’re not trying to cover up swill liquor with sugar and such. You’ve got more quality and more regulated products out there and it’s a very exciting time to be able to mix things around a bit. We need that shift to make it a much more approachable category for everybody all over the place.
MoM: Next year is Old Forester’s 150th anniversary. I presume you guys are already working on some stuff to mark the occasion?
JZ: Oh you know that we have, for many, many years! We’re excited to finally get it out there and in the hands of the people who love this brand so much. So yes, you’ll be seeing some special stuff coming out next year. It’s going to be a big year for us.
MoM: What’s your go-to bottle of Old Forester and then your go-to cocktail?
JZ: Our 1910 Expression is really having a moment, I am absolutely in love with that one. As far as cocktails go, it is a harder question to answer. What I drink the most of is the 100 proof signature and it’s always in an Old Fashioned. I’m an Old Fashioned die hard!