women in whiskey
Meet the women shaping the whiskey industry
Jackie Zykan: Making Herstory at Old Forester
Women’s History Month might be over, but I think we can all agree women have always been an integral part of the whiskey industry and always will be. It’s terrific seeing companies and mindsets changing and women being acknowledged for their contributions to the industry.
Old Forester was created in 1870 by George Garvin Brown and is the founding brand of the Brown-Forman Company. Quality and consistency have been their cornerstone, and they’re the only brand that’s produced continuously for over 150 years (they got around the little matter of Prohibition by getting leave to make spirit for medicinal purposes).
Jackie Zykan came to Old Forester through a winding route but has made her mark as their Master Taster. From a background in biology and chemistry to cocktail creator, bartender extraordinaire, and beverage director for a small regional chain, her passion, knowledge, and professionalism caught the attention of Brown-Forman staffers in Louisville, KY. Upon being offered a position as their Master Bourbon Specialist, she realized the golden opportunity before her and seized it.
The position was one of PR and marketing, but when she learned the extent of the project for the new distillery on Whiskey Row, she boldly told Campbell Brown, President of Brown-Forman, that by the time the new distillery opened, she’d be Master Taster for the Old Forester brand. Then she got down to work doing all the necessary training and championed herself for the role. When the distillery opened, she was, indeed, promoted to Master Taster - a position which still encompasses public education events, but has far more to do with the production and quality control side of things, not to mention her work showcasing the many facets of Old Forester’s flavours.
Renowned for her powerhouse palate, Zykan has directed the Birthday Bourbon and Statesman series, and is now releasing the 117 Series (named in honour of Old Forester’s original homeplace on the famous Whiskey Row on Main Street in Louisville from 1882-1919, and where the new distillery sits).
Created to highlight the brand’s pursuits with experimentation and innovation, the inaugural High Angels’ Share Release “showcases a selection of barrels which lost exceptional volume to evaporation in the aging process, resulting in a bourbon that is rich and multidimensional, layered with dark flavor notes, dried fruits and unexpected herbaceous qualities.”
It was actually the gift shop of the new distillery which gave Zykan the idea for the 117 series. They wanted something specifically for that space, and after careful consideration of the different labels they already had, they wanted to go a new route while still sticking with quality spirit; they didn’t want to do something funky just for newness’ sake. Fortune came straight from the Angels, it seems. When she was revamping Old Foresters single barrel program last year, there were barrels that were eliminated from the program due to lack of volume - too much had been lost to the Angels. Instead of dumping them, Zykan started a spreadsheet, thinking something could be done with them down the line, as they showed very interesting profiles. She found a uniqueness and concentration in these barrels, and the higher oxidation made for completely different flavour development. Batching them together was the beginning of the 117 series.
What’s even more unique about this bottling? It’s the first time in Old Forester’s 150 year history to have a woman’s name on the bottle: Jackie Zykan.
When asked about crafting this series, Zykan had this to say: “Creating The 117 Series has been a labor of love and seeing my signature on the label is one of the highlights of my career. My mind is exploding with the endless possibilities of this smaller scale of experimentation and innovation. This series presents an opportunity to pull the curtain back and share the isolates of the blending process to help deepen the understanding of how variants in maturation affect flavor profile. We’re playing in uncharted territory here and those who love Old Forester like we do will have the chance to explore with us.”
What can one expect from the High Angels’ Share bourbon? Bold, robust, and spicy - not Zykan’s preferred personal drink of choice, but one that is interesting and unique in character. “I would say that this particular expression kind of resonates with a similar flavor profile to the third batch of the 150th Anniversary bourbon – dry and spry. I’m always a sweet-tooth bourbon drinker – I always gravitate towards the really sticky, viscous sweet stuff, but High Angels’ Share has a finish that will not go away, and it is spice driven and it is intense. But there’s so much there, and as you water it back it still stays balanced, it still stays stable, and it doesn’t just fall apart. So it’s beautifully structured whiskey, it’s just it’s on the spicier, more herbaceous side of the spectrum, and it’s just fascinating to drink. It’s a very interesting whiskey so I’m excited to see what people think about it.”
This new line is meant to be a distillery staple, and the 375ml bottles retail for $49.99. Further bottlings in the 117 series may look at “specific warehouses, barrel manipulations, deconstructed blends and more… From controlling the mash and yeast strain, to barrels and maturation environments, the possibilities are limitless.” New beginnings in a long history - a definite win for women in the whiskey industry.
The 117 Series: High Angels' Share
Batch No. 001
Nose - 81/100 A dense, full on nose with caramel, vanilla cream, rich oak, dried coconut, dried cherry, cinnamon, pepper, allspice, clove, varnish. After adding a few drops of water it became lighter and the sweet notes really shone through, along with some light fruity notes (cranberry), and soft brown sugar.
Palate - 81/100 Full bodied and spicy! A tingly heat from the alcohol hits the front of the tongue then warms all the way back as it mellows. Very well integrated oak flavours, those spices again, along with a touch of sultana, caramel brittle, coffee, and grain dust. Adding the water definitely helps tame down the spice and the sweet notes came out to play - brown sugar again, and the intensity was more pleasant as it was toned down a notch.
Finish - 82/100 Long with lovely oak spice and lingering chili heat.
Conclusion - 81/100 This is a big, bold, intensely spicy whiskey. It's well balanced in itself, but just intense. Adding a little bit of water helped round it out and blunt the hot spice edge. Zykan herself says it's not one she'd drink straight - so go ahead and add that water, ice, or make it into a robust cocktail!
Tasting sample was provided by Old Forester, but the above tasting note is the honest assessment by the author.