Why Jackie Zykan is so Important for St. Louis, Old Forester and the Bourbon Industry
by Colonel Steve Akley
If you listen to our podcasts on the ABV Network, or read Bourbon Zeppelin, our email magazine, you may think Old Forester Master Taster Jackie Zykan’s full legal name is: St. Louis’ Own Jackie Zykan. I’ve said it enough times, pretty much everybody at the ABV Network now says it as well; even though they aren’t from St. Louis.
So why is this important?
Why would anyone care to tack-on “St. Louis’ own” onto someone’s name?
Well, for us, the people of St. Louis, it is a big deal. If you notice, I didn’t say the “bourbon or whiskey drinkers of St. Louis” there, I said, the “people of St. Louis” and I truly believe that. If you are from St. Louis, and you can see “one of our own” ascend to the upper echelons in his or her field, you are proud. While that may be true of any town, for us, I do believe it runs a little deeper.
In St. Louis, we don’t have amazing beaches to visit, incredible weather, mountains to ski on or casinos that look like Paris or New York. We have stuff that only we know about. Unique foods you can’t find anywhere else. Neighborhoods, each with their own personality and hidden gems. A history dating back to the pioneers of this country. We’ve also got just plain old hard-working good people. That’s St. Louis.
One of the greatest testaments we have to how great St. Louis is remains in the fact people simply don’t leave. When I was a salesperson working for a large worldwide company, I used to love to attend events Dallas, Miami, Los Angeles, Atlanta… you name it… while attending these seminars, trade shows or company meetings, I would always ask where the people there were from. It would always amaze me as they would tell me Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Arizona, Pennsylvania, anywhere but where we were at the moment.
It’s not like that in St. Louis. It’s answers like: “the Southside” (the southern part of St. Louis city), “North County” (the northern part of St. Louis County, which is separate from St. Louis City), “Dogtown” (a neighborhood in St. Louis City), “Belleville” (a town in Southern Illinois which is in the Metro East of the Greater St. Louis area) or “Oakville” (my town in suburban South St. Louis County). We aren’t from anywhere else. We’re from here. It doesn’t matter what your answer is in my examples here, you are a St. Louisan, and that’s important to us.
Certainly there are people “who get away” from our city. Like Jackie. Life or your job may take your body from St. Louis, but, this midwest town of almost 3,000,000 people still has your heart; even if you are hundreds or thousands of miles away. In talking to Jackie, she may live and work in Louisville, but she’s still 100% St. Louis. She spends the holidays here, enjoys as much time here as she can get during the summer and often flies out of St. Louis’ Lambert Airport on her business trips. She literally makes the four-hour commute regularly for her almost weekly trips because she can drop her dog off to her parents to watch and enjoy seeing friends and family and a get a little hometown welcome before heading out to represent her brand across the country.
The funny thing is, while on a national basis, Jackie’s name may be dwarfed by the likes of Jimmy and Eddie Russell of Wild Turkey, Fred and Freddie Noe of Jim Beam and even Chris Morris, the Master Distiller for her own company as well as many others, in St. Louis, she’s on equal footing. I would imagine it’s safe to say, in my group, the St. Louis Bourbon Drinkers, we spend as much time talking about Jackie and what’s she’s doing as anyone else in the industry. It could be from new products “did you see those new cocktail mixers and bitters Jackie put out for OldFo” to sharing her tasting notes on bottles to random sightings in St. Louis (“Jackie was at the Total Wine in Brentwood last week.”)
Are we stalkers? No way! We’re just proud of what she’s doing. We love whiskey and it’s pretty damn cool to see someone who grew up where we did doing such important things in the industry. Jackie has promised to make it to one of our meetings at some point. It’s pretty safe to say, if that ever happens we’ll roll out the red carpet like we never have before.
What she is doing is so meaningful to us because in St. Louis, we have a long history in the whiskey/bourbon business, but it’s almost forgotten at this point. Jackie represents contributions to the business in the modern era and is one of the few examples of our continued relevance in bourbon, a place we were firmly entrenched before Prohibition.
So you have to admit, Jackie is way cool in St. Louis. Isn’t she lucky to be working at Old Forester at such an incredible time in its history?
Well, if that’s your sentiment, you kinda got it wrong. In reality, “Isn’t Old Forester lucky to have Jackie at such an incredible time in its history?”
You see, what makes Jackie so special, and invaluable to Old Forester, is perhaps the one thing in this industry. you can’t teach: an off the charts palate. I would never downplay the importance of Chris Morris. He is without a doubt one of the greatest Master Distillers of all-time. He’s been doing this for over 40-years. He’s one of the best representatives of the bourbon industry. He’s a teacher and mentor to many. Perhaps most importantly, he’s genuine and an all-around good guy.
Even with that being said, you can teach an individual how to make whiskey. It’s a process. It takes a long time to master it, but if you dedicate yourself to it, and you have the right instructor (perhaps none better than Chris Morris at sharing knowledge), it’s a skill you can learn.
The palate is something else entirely. Certainly, you can refine and hone your skills. I would imagine even those known for a special palate still have to work at it. (In addition to Jackie, the likes of Freddie Noe of Jim Beam, Andrea Wilson of Michter’s or Jason Brauner of Bourbons Bistro come to mind). While you can better yourself through sensory training, there is no way you can “train up” to the level of those with the gift have, though.
Chris Morris has a secret weapon in Jackie with her unique ability to taste and profile whiskey. This truly is a lost art in whiskey. Far too many companies rely on computer reporting and mingling of batches instead of the art of tasting by a person.
The importance of flavor profiles by barrel becomes incredibly important in introducing new products and we’ve seen Chris collaborate with Jackie on everything from new offerings in the Whiskey Row Series (Statesman and 1910) to the yearly Birthday Bourbon releases since she’s been there to the new Rye they are now selling.
We’ve also seen Jackie do something downright amazing in the President’s Choice series. Campbell Brown is the President of Old Forester, so technically, these offerings go out under his name/signature when they are bottled and sold to the public. I’ve heard Campbell Brown himself, on multiple occasions, say this is a Jackie Zykan program. It’s her selecting the barrels for these special “gift shop-only” releases. The flavor profiles of these bottles are each unique, wide-ranging and they jump out of the bottle.
Her Old Forester branded syrups and bitters take her back to her days working behind the bar and they are changing the way amateur mixologists make cocktails at home. Jeremy Schell, my podcast co-host and I, two notorious lazy and inept home bartenders, actually made some cocktails on the air with Jackie using these products and they were incredible. These flavors of these products, and failsafe easy to use directions mean making your own in-home cocktails is as easy as pour, mix, drink.
It’s pretty safe to say that Old Forester is lucky to have St. Louis’ Own Jackie Zykan and wouldn’t have reached the lofty heights they are now at without what she brings to them.
So with all of this going on, Jackie transcends what she is doing at Old Forester and is important for the industry as a whole. She’s literally dynamic and empowered woman leading the charge to make a historic brand cool again. The best thing about her story is, she’s literally at the beginning of her career. No one knows how far she will climb to in the world of bourbon, but, I can guarantee you this, I know a town that’s rooting for her in everything she does. So you may love what Jackie’s doing and be rooting for her as well, but we love her a little more here in St. Louis and we’re rooting for her just a little harder.