Living the Dream with Jackie Zykan

A woman stirring a drink with whiskey.
Jackie Zykan uses her experience as a bartender and deep understanding of the importance of bourbon to Louisville and Kentucky in her role as Old Forester's master bourbon specialist. Photo courtesy of Brown-Forman.

When Jackie Zykan began sipping whiskey and tending bar in college, she wasn’t looking to her future as a rock star bartender, but to medical school, where she hoped her biology and chemistry degrees would finally cement her “nerd” status. Growing up in St. Louis, she had always run with the boys collecting tadpoles and being outdoors from dawn til dusk. Zykan’s natural curiosity constantly challenged her to discover how things worked, eventually leading her to a college chem lab and courses on genetics.

But, like so many who step behind the stick to pay the rent, Zykan was sucked into the world of crafting cocktails and the high of being in the weeds on weekend nights. Little did she know as her taste for whiskey and passion for bartending grew, this curiosity would lead to a dream job with the oldest bourbon brand in the country: Old Forester.

“I’ve always been the kind of person who likes to say “yes” to everything because you never know when that information will come in handy," she says. "Once I latch onto something, I have to know everything.”

Saying “yes” to every opportunity she could grab meant landing the role as beverage director at Nashville’s Union Common, then moving to Louisville, KY with her husband to become the beverage director for the restaurant group’s Doc Crow’s on “Whiskey Row.” Doc Crow’s was Zykan’s baptism by fire into Louisville’s bourbon-soaked culture.

“It’s Louisville. You’re surrounded by bourbon. For the first time, I was in a position where I was being trusted for my knowledge. That was a great feeling. There was still a lot to learn. As the company grew, so did I. For instance, the group opened a French concept. That’s where I learned wine and aperitifs.”

Zykan’s curiosity and career finally fused in Louisville. She received her CSS and sommelier certifications and was acting as the shaker-for-hire for bourbon brands around the state while soaking in the deep cultural connection the brown spirit enjoys in Kentucky.

“My true passion for bourbon blossomed after I moved to Kentucky. It’s in the fabric of life, in the blood here. When I listen to my husband’s grandfather tell stories about fishing trips with Booker Noe … I mean, that’s not normal. In Kentucky, you’re not a booze hound because you drink bourbon, you’re just a Kentuckian.”

Zykan found herself winning cocktail competitions, being featured in the media for her inventive tipples and garnering the attention of whiskey and spirit brands from around the country. She had no idea the path she was carving out for herself was about to land her the role of a lifetime.

The weeks leading up to the “big call” from liquor giant Brown-Forman had Zykan buried in work. She had given up full-time bartending for a bigger role managing beverage programs and was in the midst of mapping out the cocktail course for three new concepts. That all changed the day she received the call from Brown-Forman and was given a chance to fill the newly created master bourbon specialist position at Old Forester.

“One week I was a beverage director, the next week, I was working with one of the biggest brands in the industry. Pinch me. It’s great because I can make this position my own, but it’s scary because I’m forging a path no one has gone down before.”

At 145 years old, Old Forester is the great-granddaddy of bourbon. A brand steeped in rich tradition and deep familial roots, many of its methods have been virtually unchanged since before Prohibition. It is the only modern distillery which remained in operation before, during, and after Prohibition, obtaining a special medicinal manufacturing license during the 13 dark years between 1920 and 1933. During the 1980s and 1990s, Old Forester began falling out of favor with bartenders who were focusing on the neon-infused, soda gun drinks of the glitzy nightclub era. But, in 2005, the craft cocktail movement was gaining traction, craft spirits were on the rise, and bartenders were rediscovering long-established brands like Old Forester.

“Bartenders are the reason Old Forester has found a home again in cocktails. They are the reason I have this job,” says Zykan. “The renewed interest from bartenders wanting to use a high-quality whiskey but still priced where you make money on a cocktail list is the key reason Old Forester has seen a resurgence.”

With demand for Old Forester increasing (particularly its Signature 100-Proof bourbon), the Brown family realized the potential the brand had to rebuild itself in a market now littered with craft distilleries. They needed an ace. They needed to bridge the gap between the bartender and the distillery.

“I speak ‘bartender,’ but understand the importance of bourbon to Louisville and Kentucky. The master bourbon specialist’s role is an uber brand ambassadorship. I give bartenders a real voice with a major brand that affects not only Old Forester, but a bar’s bottom line and cocktail program.”

Jumping ship with a restaurant group as their beverage director, a job she loved, was a difficult decision. But Zykan knew an opportunity of this caliber might not come back around again. She leapt.

“I was ready for the next step in my career. This isn’t a brand with a cute story of grandpappy in the woods with his still. Old Forester was founded, and remains to this day, in Louisville. It’s an urban brand. It’s the 19th century American industrialist, your one shot at glory kind of story. You can’t get much more American than Old Forester. I wanted that in my life.”

Zykan now travels the country on behalf of Old Forester conducting training sessions, tastings, and events on behalf of the brand. She’s meeting bartenders on their turf and their own terms. It’s a role she couldn’t be more suited to — part bartender, part ambassador, part distiller, part science nerd. With a $45 million distillery set to open in 2017, Zykan’s role will expand further to include barrel tastings and educating Old Forester’s thousands of yearly visitors. She expects some pushback from male guests as stereotypes in whiskey still exist, but says she’s not encountered much of that within her own industry.

“I think the shock value of women in whiskey is subsiding. You can’t ignore there’s still a bit of stereotyping, but Old Forester never saw my gender. They saw a fellow bourbon lover. They saw a bartender with a solid grasp on my craft. Will my role here change perspective of women in spirits? Probably not, but that’s not why I’m doing this or why I was hired.”

Zykan is forging a new career path, one she unwittingly helped create for herself through hard work, curiosity and years of seeking new opportunities to learn.

“If you’re passionate about bartending, cocktails — own it. When you’re ready to leave the bar behind and move to the next level in the industry, find a way. There’s always a door to enter. There are jobs in innovation, jobs in the lab, so many paths. Old Forester gave me a door, and I opened it into a world I never imagined possible when I started tending bar.”

Old Forester will be around as long as there are Browns roaming Kentucky. Zykan recognizes her role as a tick mark on the timeline of the brand’s storied history and continued success. She understands this is less about her, and more about representing the “sweet nectar of Kentucky.”

“Bourbon resonates with me. It always has, I suppose. I’m from the Midwest, and now I’m a Kentuckian. To me, bourbon is home. Old Forester helped build that, and I’m proud to be a part of the story now."

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