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When it comes to Master Tasters, there are some who were clearly born to do the job. I once heard a story about Jackie Zykan in which she correctly identified several vodka samples in a blind tasting without even knowing what the options were. When Brown-Forman hired her to manage their single barrel Old Forester program and later elevated her to Master Taster, it was a natural fit.

BW: You are well-known in the industry for having an amazing palate. Do you feel this was innate or did you have to train it or was it a little of both?

JZ: Honestly it’s a little bit of both. From a physiological perspective, the more taste receptors you have, the more sensitive you are to flavor. The term “supertaster” is what gets assigned to humans with a higher than average number of receptors, however being a supertaster doesn’t necessarily mean you have the word bank of terms to articulate what you’re tasting. It takes exposure to various isolated compounds to lock in descriptors in your mind, as well as practice finding them within complex environments, such as a glass of whiskey. If you’ve never seen a needle, you won’t find it in a haystack, no matter how good your eyesight is.

BW: The 117 Series of Old Forester is notable for a lot of reasons, but mainly because this is the first time an Old Forester has been released with a woman’s name, your name, on the label. What’s the story behind it?

JZ: The 117 Series is a limited release offering which allows us to play around with flavor profiles one might not usually find in the everyday Old Forester family. As a brand, we really pride ourselves on quality and consistency, however there are so many discovery moments in the blending process in which interesting profiles arise. Typically the only ones who get to experience these components are those in the production process, so this series gives us a chance to capture those and share them with folks outside of that space. The most beautiful thing about bourbon is the vast array of flavors it can have, and pulling back the curtain on the elements that go into our blends helps drive a deeper understanding of how these notes come to be.

BW: What does your typical day as a Master Taster for Old Forester look like?

JZ: This is so hard to describe because every day is so very different. Typically you can find me either in the warehouses in Shively pulling samples and tagging barrels, or in my office at Old Forester Distillery tasting samples, writing descriptors, or sitting in any number of meetings about innovation and product development, label design, drink strategy, media opportunities, etc. With the pandemic my travel schedule has basically disappeared and been replaced with trainings, tastings. and barrel selections through digital formats with groups across the globe.

BW: What advice do you have for women who want to start a career in the bourbon industry?

JZ: For starters, there are many more jobs than you realize that touch the bourbon industry. It’s not all production, so don’t ever feel like you don’t have a place here if you aren’t a chemical engineer or a supertaster. The industry needs diverse backgrounds in order to thrive and sustain, so whether you’re in graphic design, marketing, accounting, warehousing, retail, sales, tech, public relations, I could go on and on, you can be a part of this world. Don’t feel pressured to buy every “accreditation” on the internet, and don’t feel pressured to drink every whiskey out there (even I haven’t come close!). If you do find yourself exploring through tasting, the biggest advice I can offer is to be responsible with it. A career in the alcohol industry is a job, not a party, and regardless of which sector you work in it will be important to show that understanding come interview day.

BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in Louisville.

JZ: Covid is over. It’s exactly 70 degrees and less than 50% humidity. I get up before the sun to go hike at Bernheim with my dog, and then make my way back to Louisville for either a taco/fried chicken/BBQ festival with my closest friends (who all happen to be previous or current coworkers because all I do is work!). But we go the entire day without talking about work – which is as rare as it can get. We eventually end up on a patio with fire pits not because it’s the only option but because it’s the best place to sip Old Fashioneds anyways. Even better if there is live music and late-night food (I eat A LOT when I’m sipping) and City Scoot is still a thing. The next day we all get vitamin infused IV’s and have mexican breakfast, ready to take on the Monday ahead.

Photos Courtesy of Old Forester

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