For bourbon fans, the thought of being paid to taste the brown nectar for a living sounds like a dream job. There’s no caveat coming — it’s a pretty sweet gig for any true aficionado. And Old Forester’s Master Taster, Jackie Zykan, is living that exact dream.
The road to getting paid to taste whiskey wasn’t always a straightforward one. Prior to working with Brown-Forman’s Old Forester, Zykan studied biology and chemistry while supporting herself as a bartender in St. Louis, Missouri, with plans to attend medical school. After graduation, she relocated to Louisville, Kentucky, where she took on bartending gigs for big-name whiskey brands like Four Roses and Woodford Reserve, amongst others.
Her energy and talent soon caught the attention of Brown-Forman staffers who frequented the venues and events Zykan bartended at. The company hired her initially as a master bourbon specialist before she was promoted to master taster. Working alongside Old Forester’s Master Distiller, Chris Morris, Zykan now assists with limited-edition releases while also operating the single barrel program.
This week, I spoke with Zykan about her beginnings in the industry, how to taste bourbon like a pro, and combating the obstacles that come with being a woman in the whiskey world. Read our conversation below!
What was your first introduction to bourbon?
Honestly, I didn’t really start getting into it until I moved to Kentucky from St. Louis. That was about 11 years ago. I moved to Louisville and just realized very quickly that there was such an expanse of products. I knew absolutely nothing about it and went in headfirst. It’s been an interesting road — I studied biology and chemistry while working as a bartender back in Missouri. And then when I relocated to Louisville for my first husband’s job it was just kind of like love at first sight with all these bottles.
When did you discover you wanted to pursue a career in the whiskey industry?
I was working more on the bar side of things and more cocktail focused, and different opportunities kept coming up. There are different brands based here in Louisville and they would come in and have a dinner and say, “Oh, can you create a specialty cocktail for us?” “Yeah, sure, no problem. I got you.” It was just this constant state of “yes” to all of these tiny little opportunities that really kind of made me realize that I have a passion for this, and I have a passion for sharing it with people.
And so it was just sort of addictive, really.
I had experience with a whole bunch of different brands that are based here in Louisville and around Kentucky. And the day came that Old Forester just kind of needed somebody who had both cocktail experience and could understand the science behind it all. And I had already built up a name for myself as someone who would show up on time and get things done, so I got a phone call and here I am.
With somebody who didn’t grow up around bourbon, it’s a totally different perspective that I have as an outsider. It’s not like, “Oh, grandma always had a hot toddy” and all these bottles on the back bar, in the basement, and all these other things. It’s very fresh to me and I look at it with different eyes. There’s so much intimacy that goes into that setting of tasting whiskey with other people. You have to bring your most vulnerable self because the sensory details that you’re applying to your tasting are things that are based on just your experiences in your own personal perspective.
I really love that people are willing to just open up and expose all of these wonderful memories that they have during it. Once that all started, there was no turning back whatsoever.
That’s exciting. And you brought out some interesting points as well. So, kind of going back to when Old Forester first contacted you, was it by word of mouth, or did you actually do some of their cocktails for them at an event?
So, I had worked with a lady who was then working with Old Forester, but before that she was working for the Kentucky Derby Museum and I worked with Four Roses and her on a virtual bartender exhibit that they had. So, she was in the room and raised her hand and was like, “You got to know Jackie!”…And then there were a couple of people at Brown-Forman who I worked with Jack [Daniel’s] or had worked with another little side gig. Honestly, Louisville is such a big, small town. There are so many people at Brown-Forman that knew me just because they were bar regulars at any of the restaurants. And so I just sort of had this built-in support network already that I didn’t even know I had. That’s really kind of what drove that I think.
For those who are new to bourbon, what advice would you give them on “tasting notes”?
I would definitely say — and I say this all the time — it is not a competition and there is no prize at the end of it based on the number of notes you can identify. There’s always that one person in a tasting that’s like, “I’m getting apricots, but also… vanilla” and everyone else is just kind of like, “Wow, okay.” It can be intimidating sometimes for folks if someone else that you’re tasting stuff with is picking up on notes that you aren’t, but it is literally whatever you get out of it is the right answer.
Step one, just relax with it. There is no right or wrong here, whatever you get is what you get. You’re only going to pick up on notes and articulate things that you’ve already had experience with.
If you’ve never smelled cinnamon, you’re never going to smell a glass of whiskey and go, “I’m getting cinnamon” because you haven’t made that connection in your sensory bank yet. So a really great way of really prepping yourself for tasting things — and this was not just with whiskey, it’s with wine, it’s with anything — is to just make time and be mindful of exposing yourself to everything. Smell things at the grocery store. I do. I’m that weird person walking through sniffing stuff left and right.
Smell different candles, different fragrances, start to lock in what those words are with those scents that will help you to articulate what’s going on. Don’t feel like you have to start with high proof. The lower the proof, the easier it’s going to be to decipher this stuff on the front end. That’s especially important for those that are new to the category.
Just don’t feel like you have to jump all the way into barrel strength. Because that high alcohol content can really anesthetize your senses and you won’t be smelling much after that. And then at the end of the day, guess what? If you don’t like drinking it neat – don’t. Drink it in a cocktail. You don’t like that either? Don’t. Life’s just too short to be drinking and sniffing and tasting stuff that you aren’t happy with. So, no pressure on it whatsoever.
When I first got started, I was hung up on, “Oh, I don’t really know how to articulate what I’m tasting” or “I need to be this expert already!” because, like you mentioned, it can be a little intimidating when you’re around others who are experts. On that note, I’ve written a lot about the dynamic faced by women in whiskey. I’ve interviewed Becky Paskin and Marianne Eaves, among others, and have gotten their feedback on how they’ve been able to beat stereotypes in whiskey.
Have you faced challenges that felt specifically related to being a woman in whiskey?
Oh, for sure. I mean, we don’t have enough time to go through all of it. [Laughs] In general, I can say that I have had my absolute fair share of people doubting what I have to say, questioning me constantly, ignoring me. I’ve done so many tastings where literally not a single person stopped talking and I just had to scream at the top of my lungs. And then, eventually, I just stopped talking and waited ‘til it was awkward – and then they stopped.
There are people who are handsy. There are people who don’t want to talk to you if you don’t look just like the promo model that you’re forced to stand next to behind the tasting booth. There’s a lot of interesting things that happen in this industry, but at the end of this day, I choose to release all of that pretty readily.
You just keep going and you just keep showing up. I’m not doing what I do because I’m a woman and I have a point to prove, I’m doing what I do because I love what I do. And I work for a great company and a great brand and I’m happy. So I think the more and more it’s important to address it — and it’s important to know that there are still struggles out there with it — but the more you really sit around and think on it, the more energy you give it. And you just have to release that.
It doesn’t just come from men. It comes from women as well as — from all different sides. But it’s just part of the changing landscape of what aged spirits are, you know? For the longest time [in] whiskey, women weren’t as involved in the marketing and advertising. So a lot of what the consumer was painted to be was really a projection of self-interest. And now that a shift has occurred, I think we all just need to hang in there and trust that in due time it will level out and it will be much better.
Just staying present in it and not letting it bog us down is really kind of the only thing we can do.
That’s very well said. Thank you for your transparency too. It’s something that’s definitely a hurdle, but you have such a great attitude about it. What would you say has been the biggest highlight of your career?
Considering that I just sort of flowed with a current into where I am now — and that’s not to say that I didn’t put in a hundred hours a week of work prepping for it — but the first step that I remember from this position where I actually identified like, “Oh, wait, this is an opportunity. And I’m going to get it, and I’m going to do this.” It was the transition from what my job was before, which was the master bourbon specialist role, which is similar but different. It wasn’t production involved. It was more mixology and PR and things of that sort. But when I definitively said to Campbell Brown, “By the time that new distillery opens, I will be the master taster for this brand.” And he was kind of like, “Whoa, okay, that’s a little forward, but all right.”
So then within a year I hunkered down and knocked out all of the training that needed to happen and sort of really led the charge. And I remember sitting at lunch with him [Brown] and my PR manager at the time when he told me, “So, congratulations. We’re changing your title over to this.” And I just started crying. I don’t know why, but it was sort of the first purposeful mission that I had in this role. And then, there’s been so many little ones along the way. But really vocalizing, “I’m going to do this,” and then sitting there at that moment, realizing I had done it was very empowering.