Meet Jennifer Cissell, Vice President of Operations and Administration for Kentucky Bourbon Festival. She plans and executes one of the largest whiskey festivals in the country (and that’s saying something). Learn how she went from tour guide at Beam to her current role at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Our favorite quote from her that has us thinking about the changes Bourbon Women advocates for across the industry: “Change can be hard, but often those changes are necessary for lasting success and ultimately to protect the longstanding heritage.”
BW: How did you end up working in the industry?
JC: I guess you could say I was born into it. I grew up in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it area between the Bourbon Capital of the World (Bardstown) and the oldest operating bourbon distillery (Loretto). My parents- along with so many others in my family- have had a hand in the success of Kentucky distilleries for generations. As a teenager, I naturally wanted to reject following in anyone’s footsteps, so I took off for the big city and began a career in the sports industry. Life boomeranged me back to the Bluegrass and as I contemplated my next career move over a glass of bourbon, I found my answer.
BW: When did you discover you wanted to work in the bourbon industry?
JC: Honestly, the bourbon industry found me. I had just moved back to Kentucky and was anticipating a career change. Jim Beam was near completion on its new visitor experience (their first major upgrade back in 2012) and was hiring. I started as a tour guide- an incredible way to learn different aspects of business and interact with people of all backgrounds. Before I knew it, I was all in. I had spent several years living out of state sharing my love of bourbon and now, there were people- thousands of people each year- who were as curious about bourbon as I was! People from all over the world were descending on Kentucky eager to learn more about the product and the people who make it. Bringing people together and sharing that passion had me hooked.
BW: What was something surprising you learned in your early days at Jim Beam?
JC: Early on it was how passionate distillery employees are about their craft! Too often people assume that because Beam is a massive producer, the only goal is to get it out the door quickly. The front-line workers take so much pride in the quality of their work and being a part of such a great history. I’ve found that to be true at all distilleries whether big or small. The people behind the brands are what makes the product so special.
As time went on, I was blown away by how many things have to go right every single day in order to get a finished bottle on the shelf! From farmers praying for good weather that will yield a successful crop, the coopers who are insanely skilled at building all those barrels, the teams who check the quality of everything that comes in and everything that goes out, the employees overseeing the equipment and daily operations, to the master distillers protecting integrity… the list goes on and on. It is a well-orchestrated dance to get bourbon to its lover’s lips.
BW: How do you use your background in your current role? How did your background prepare you?
JC: Beam is an amazing company and a challenging place to work! The standards are high so you’re constantly pushing yourself to be better. Beam is also rooted in a deep legacy so there is always a balance to honor the steadfast core values yet continuously push forward while being flexible to necessary change. Evolution is what keeps brands on top of their game. Change can be hard, but often those changes are necessary for lasting success and ultimately to protect the longstanding heritage.
BW: After working in the industry for more than 10 years (correct me if I’m wrong), what are some of the changes you’ve seen?
JC: The industry has really changed the way people drink bourbon over the past few decades. There was a long history of taking a shot of whiskey rather than sipping and savoring it. Bourbon brands have invested greatly in visitor experiences that educate the consumer. More and more people are enjoying their bourbon neat or on the rocks or learning how to craft a specialty cocktail or even a mocktail. It’s no longer just about getting it down quickly, but how it can best be enjoyed. This shift allows for festivals and bourbon groups to also cultivate unique and meaningful bourbon experiences.
BW: What’s the future role or vision you’d like to see the industry move towards? What are the biggest roadblocks and how can we overcome them to get there?
JC: Probably due to my country upbringing, I have an instilled belief in the need to protect natural resources. The bourbon industry is over two centuries old and still requires the same natural resources- quality grains, sturdy oak trees, and superior water. Thankfully we’ve already seen a great shift in how companies think about these resources and putting long-term commitments into action. Beam with its Proof Positive initiative, Maker’s Mark upcycling bottle program, Independent Stave Company sustainable forestry, Angel’s Envy Toast the Trees also come to mind, but there are so many more. While it may appear that marketing is the driver of these programs, it’s really something that the bourbon community as a whole should embrace. These steps to change aren’t a political stance and they don’t just check a box; these are measurable actions to ensure the quality of the product you enjoy as well as better communities for us all and the generations to come.
BW: What advice do you have for women who want to work in the industry?
JC: Never stop learning and make yourself an asset.
BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in your city.
JC: If I could dream big, my perfect weekend would be surrounded by all of my favorite people from the different chapters of my life- those people who you used to see daily and share the minutia of life but are now too far away to hug. We’d gather on an outdoor patio (with zero humidity) and an amazing sunset as our backdrop; there would be lots of decadent snacks (that are magically calorie-free); all of my favorite sports teams would be playing (and winning); everyone would have their favorite bourbon in hand, however they like it- no judgment here; we’d reminisce about embarrassing times and laugh so hard we ugly cry.
Oh, and definitely someone else to do all the dishes!