Master Taster Leaves Bourbon ‘Dream Job’ To Start New Brand

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There are dream jobs. And then, there’s owning your own company.

Former Old Forester master taster Jackie Zykan leaves what WSJ called a “whiskey lover’s dream job” for a shot at a whiskey brand called “Hidden Barn,” her partnership with two 5280 Whiskey Society founders and Royce Neeley of Neeley Family Distillery.

For Brown-Forman, Old Forester’s parent company, Zykan’s departure comes just weeks after former Old Forester brand manager Jim Lake took a position at Bardstown Bourbon Company, which had recently been acquired by Pritzker Private Capital. And it’s the second time in less than two years, Brown-Forman (2021 net sales: $3.5 billion) has lost key whiskey talent to entrepreneurial leaps. Former Jack Daniel’s master distiller Jeff Arnett became the first Jack Daniel distiller to resign and start his own distillery.

Much like Arnett, Zykan’s departure warranted a Brown-Forman press release. “Jackie Zykan's leadership helped grow this storied, historic brand to become, once again, a beloved bourbon among consumers and bartenders,” Mark Bacon, senior vice president and managing director of Super Premium American Whiskey at Brown-Forman, said in the June 16 statement. “We wish her great success in her next venture.”

Hidden Barn’s first release will be a small batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon (no age statement) made with whiskey from Neeley Family Distillery. It’s scheduled to be released this summer, maybe as early as the end of July.

I caught up with Zykan to learn about her new gig and to better understand why she left one of the industry’s most coveted jobs.

Will you be distilling?

Nope. My palate is my strength and post distillation has been my focus over the last seven years. I'm carrying that experience forward into this new project as Master Blender for Hidden Barn.

What will you be making?

Whiskey so good you can't help but share.

Will you be buying brokerage whiskey or contract distilling?

Depends on the scope of the project at that time. We're hitting the ground running with whiskey made by one of the partners. More details regarding liquid specs will be released later this month.

What’s most exciting about it?

Everything about it is exciting as this is a completely different setup than I have been accustomed to. With a small team, we can be incredibly nimble, and we have nothing but room to play. We all are aligned as far as standards, transparency and quality are concerned. Although we each have different backgrounds, we share a common denominator of love for whiskey.

The team makes decisions as a unit, and with a balance of logic and intuition. That's really hard to come by once a brand grows to a certain scale, and it's refreshing to be able to get back into the start-up phase and just learn by doing.

I am so grateful for my past tenure with Old Forester, but I am incredibly excited to explore my own potential building a brand from scratch as opposed to picking up on something already established. This new phase of my career is a shift from being an employee to being an owner, which opens up opportunities to consult across multiple facets of the industry which I very much look forward to doing.

Speaking of Old Forester, what was your favorite Old Forester release?

I think the assumption is the 117 Series (and it's not a cop out), but I truly loved them all. The Statesman release activities were obviously the most unique and unforgettable, but there were some releases through the gift shop that meant so much more than just the liquid inside. Being able to bring in the first responders who extinguished the fire on Whiskey Row to select single barrels filled that day back in 2015 was a huge gift. Being able to add nods of respect and give back to the community while bottling great whiskey is very rewarding.

What was special about being a master taster and blender at Old Fo?

It kept me on my toes, that’s for sure. There were equal parts pressure and pride due to the legacy of the brand. I was in a position to represent 150-plus years of family, company and categorical history. While I took that responsibility seriously, it inherently created a box.

Old Forester is a brand founded on quality and consistency, which really are an admirable true north. With Hidden Barn, we're keeping the quality piece, but the approach to blending is quite different. The wide diversity of notes is more celebrated and full transparency prioritized. Those who share [Hidden Bar] will grow their whiskey knowledge together. I can safely say I did my best to bring my authentic self to Old Forester, and I do feel I served it well to my best capacities within that environment. I was but one of many stewards of the brand in its lifetime, as well as one of many people working to revive it.

I will always cherish my time spent representing it.

While you certainly had a great bartending career, you became a celebrity through the Old Forester role. Did you enjoy the spotlight?

It was a hard adjustment, especially being based in Louisville, where there was never really a separation of church and state, if you will. There was no clocking out, and that can take a toll on anyone. I like to think I've settled into a nice groove over the last few years balancing public life with time spent in nature and quietude.

Luckily, our [Hidden Barn] team shares a love for the outdoors and we all understand each other's need for fresh air, so it works well. I wouldn't say I'm an extrovert by any means, nor a classic example of an introvert. I'm quiet because I'm always in my head, which I think gets misread as being closed off at times, but I also have a naturally elevated energy level. I think can come across as extrovert behavior, but it absolutely isn't. Long story long, I'm a hummingbird trapped in a human body that just wants everyone due credit to have it.

I never got into this path to pursue any spotlight, and as a coworker at Old Forester phrased it: ‘She was the first woman to have her name on an Old Forester label, and the last person to brag about it.’

Last year, Old Forester reorganized, becoming a part of the overall whiskey portfolio vs. being an independent with in the Brown-Forman culture. How did this reorg play into your decision to leave?

I recognize that reorganization is necessary over a brand's tenure so that the company can apply best practices from other successes and support growth in efficient ways. You cannot run a brand the same way when it's less than 100,000 cases as you do when it's a million cases. In addition, you have to give yourself space to adapt to changing markets and technologies.

Consider that Old Forester has nearly quadrupled in size since 2015, when I first joined the team. As I depart now, I am the last remaining member of that original team. It's just the nature of the beast that as brands scale up, they have different needs. I am a person who thrives on being hands-on, wearing a hundred hats and with a high tolerance for chaos. I need to get my hands dirty and love the constant challenge of acting quickly to creatively solve. After a certain volume threshold, it's just not possible to do things single handedly without burning out. Duties have to become delegated or outsourced, and the system becomes more layered to protect itself.

This creates a disconnect which for someone such as myself can feel unfulfilling. That gritty prepubescent phase of a brand's life is where my strengths contribute their best. In order for me to share my passion authentically, I need to be able to feel connected to what I'm doing. I do not function well in auto-pilot mode; I am way too curious about what all the red buttons do.

You were at Brown-Forman for a long time. They have a strong corporate culture. How will you use that organizational style in your new role?

As much as I always identified as a black sheep in that setting, as I say my goodbyes, I have realized how many people I genuinely love and adore were a part of my chapter there. Brown-Forman is home to some incredibly wonderful people, and they really were my family for the last seven years.

That approach of just simply being kind to each other is the same for this new chapter, but what's not carried over are the guardrails or the additional effort required to turn a big ship. We're more like a kayak at this point. Having a small team means everyone is heard and feels valuable. Our choices are our own and we are accountable for them, and this encourages integrity and personal growth.

Three of the four partners are coming from a corporate sandbox to a wide-open pasture, and so we're very much aligned on creating an environment where we identify what we want, then how we get it, as opposed to automatically thinking of why we shouldn't or comparing our methods to other brands.

We all look at each other and go, ‘Oh yeah! We can do whatever we want!’ And that freedom to succeed on your own terms is like rocket fuel. Shifting from being conservative to expansive is nuanced, to say the least. And this transition is fresh. I catch myself putting reigns on creativity out of habit, and I expect it will take some time to rewire.

That fearless girl who wants to test the limits is still in there; she just needed some room to explore doing things her own way. Brown-Forman gave me experiences and exposure which allowed me to form a secure foundation, and for that I am grateful. Now it's time to shed the booster engines and focus on doing things which fully align with my own mission.

Fred Minnick is the author of several bourbon books. Follow him on Instagram and YouTube.


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