Hidden Barn Whiskey - The Next Chapter for Former Old Forester Master Taster Jackie Zykan

Jackie Zykan’s career with Old Forester Distillery is forged in fire. Her first day with Old Forester began on July 6, 2015 and she wrapped up her last day about the same time this year. Fans of the brand may recognize these dates from our recent Old Forester ‘The 117 Series – Whiskey Row Fire’ Bourbon Release story that talks about honoring the firefighters that saved Whiskey Row.

July 6, 2015 is the day that Louisville’s Whiskey Row, which was under renovation at the time, caught on fire. Firefighters believe a spark from an acetylene torch, or a smoldering pipe likely led to the blaze. That massive 4-alarm fire took two days to be completely extinguished.

Old Forester celebrated the brave men and women that helped to extinguish the fire by inviting them to take part in an Old Forester single barrel pick. The barrels they were choosing from were distilled on the day of the fire in 2015. Ironically, it was just last week, seven years after the fire and just days after Zykan’s last day with Old Forester that the brand released ‘The 117 Series – Whiskey Row Fire’ bourbon. That bottle of Old Forester was only the second bottle in the distillery’s 150+ year history that ever featured a woman’s signature. That signature belongs to Master Taster Jackie Zykan.

And, if you like to connect the dots, read on to the end to catch one more serendipitous firefighter connection.

A Brand Ready for a Resurgence 

Old Forester Distillery - Whiskey Row, Louisville, Kentucky
Old Forester Distillery.

Old Forester Bourbon, established in 1870, is Brown-Forman’s original brand. In September 2014 Brown-Forman announced it was returning whiskey making operations to Whiskey Row in downtown Louisville by investing $30 million for the new distillery, a number that soon swelled to $45 million.

While this was nearly a century and a half year old brand it was acting a lot like a startup in 2015 when Zykan came on board. Anyone that has ever been a part of a startup knows that it can be one of the most exciting times of your life. There is a lot going on, you are making a thousand little decision, and time moves quickly. People that like startups thrive in this environment, an environment where Zykan shines.

Zykan was part of a small group of people including Campbell Brown, great-great grandson of Brown-Forman’s founder George Garvin Brown, that took a pair of old buildings and built what is arguably one of the best distillery experiences on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. 

Over the years, Zykan was instrumental in the resurgence of the Old Forester brand and helping to bring many new products to market. When Old Forester first released the 117 Series in 2021 she said, “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.” A sign of where her passion lies. 

What Were Some of the Highlights of Your Old Forester Career?

“As I reflect on all the years there’s been so much incredible stuff that’s gone down. And the first thing that comes to mind has nothing to do with the 117 Series, it has nothing to do with anything of that sort at all, it’s all experiential. It’s the moments that I know will never happen again in my entire life.

“The Statesman launch at Comic-Con and attending the movie launch in London was one of those experiential moments.

“When we did the Statesman launch and we went out to Comic-Con, that was just one of the most insane things in my entire life. And then we went to movie premiere in London for the Kingsman – The Golden Circle. You are there with Elton John, Channing Tatum, every single person in the movie was right there. You are literally making cocktails for them and talking to them about products.

”Then at Comic-Con when Halle Berry chugged the iced tea that everyone thought was whiskey. That was a whole nightmare. That whole experience, I’ll never have again.

Brown-Forman Invests in its People

“Brown-Forman really is very generous about investing in people’s education. They send us all to learn about other brands. We took a group trip to Scotland and Ireland. If you can imagine a bus full of people that work in alcohol that are shipped off to Scotland and Ireland just to go to distilleries for an entire week. I won’t give any more details other than that, but that experience will never happen again. Its time spent with co-workers. It’s just the moments that I had with them.”

Zykan’s Kramer Moment: I Started My Own Perfume Business During Covid – ODUOAK

OduOak - Walk of Shame, Hiker Trash, Cold Shower and Hitch Hiker, Bourbon Based Perfume
ODUOAK – Bourbon Based Perfume and Cologne.

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During Covid lockdowns face to face events dried up. Old Forester was closed to tourism and in-person tastings were not possible. Like a hummingbird that can’t stop moving its wings Zykan’s mind kept racing. It was during lockdowns that Zykan created ODUOAK, pronounced O/DU/OAK. 

Just like Seinfeld’s Kramer dreamed up ‘The Beach’ cologne after spending the day at the beach, Zykan dreamed up ODUOAK after spending many days in barrel warehouses.

Kramer: “You know I got a great idea for a cologne? It’s called ‘The Beach’. You spray it on and its just like you came home from the beach.”
Seinfeld: “Hmm, a cologne that smells like the beach. I can’t believe I’m saying this but that’s not a bad idea.”
Kramer: “Tell me about it.”

“I started my own company during Covid to have a creative outlet to feed that beast in me… I started a company called Wildfire. I had been studying perfumery to really fine tune my sensory skillset. I started this brand that makes perfume and cologne literally using bourbon as a base instead of perfumers alcohol. It’s funny because some times when walking through a rickhouse the warehouse people would say, ‘I wish I could just bottle it and spray it on me.” And in my mind, I’m saying ‘You can, you can wear bourbon as perfume. Why not, if only in Kentucky.‘ And its done really well.

“That was the nudge that I needed to empower myself to think, ‘I know what I’m doing. I trust my instincts on all this. I’m capable of running a business.’

“My beach was a bourbon warehouse.”

The Founding of Hidden Barn Whiskey

Hidden Barn Whiskey - Co-Founders Matt Dankner, Jackie Zykan, Nate Winegar and Royce Neeley
Hidden Barn Whiskey – Co-Founders Matt Dankner, Jackie Zykan, Nate Winegar and Royce Neeley (L to R).

Zykan had the seven-year itch where she was starting to feel it was time to do something new, a new challenge. She knew she didn’t want to go apples to apples and work for another large distillery but what she wasn’t thinking was that she would go from apples to donuts.

While on a ski trip to Colorado, a trip that was focused on playing in the snow with friends, she heard about this new startup. During a ride in the car to do some cross-country skiing, a trip that should have taken 45 minutes turned into a 5.5-hour white knuckle wintery drive. That gave everyone in the car a lot of time to talk. The person behind the wheel that day was Nate Winegar Co-Founder of The 5280 Whiskey Society. As Winegar talked, he shared that he along with Matt Dankner and Royce Neeley Co-Founder of Neeley Family Distillery in Sparta, Kentucky, were thinking of starting a whiskey brand.

Hummingbird - Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufusAs a hummingbird flaps its wings about 53 beats per second, Zykan’s mind was buzzing as she learned about their plans and she couldn’t help but to bombard Winegar with questions.

“I started asking questions about it and I could see his face in the rear-view mirror of the car. I could see his face squishing up and I could tell they hadn’t considered the questions I was asking him until that moment. And that’s when he said, ‘I think we need your help.’”

It was at that moment Zykan realized that in addition to honing her exceptional pallet that she had also picked up an extensive education in the world of whiskey production and marketing with her time at Brown-Forman. That was just a friendly conversation. Months later when Winegar and Danker went to Kentucky to do some tastings at Neeley Family Distillery they invited Zykan to join them.

The world now knows these four went on to create Hidden Barn Whiskey.

I Don’t Want to be a Master Distiller, I Want to Blend

Hidden Barn Whiskey - Master Taster Jackie Zykan and Royce Neeley
Master Blender Jackie Zykan and Master Distiller Royce Neeley.

Zykan went on to say, “This group, they are such a good humans. We all think really similarly, we all get along. The mission that this brand is founded on is what I want to do in whiskey. And what I want to do is blend. Blending is what I want to do. I don’t want to feel pressured into going the Master Distiller route. My skill is my palette. It always has been. There is so much science to post distillation and the maturation process. I don’t think American whiskey gets as much credit as it deserves the way old world whiskey does when it comes to blending.”

What is Hidden Barn Whiskey?

James E. Pepper Distillery - Tobacco Hanging in a Barn Across the StreetThe name Hidden Barn Whiskey honors the old barns across Kentucky that may or may not be hiding whiskey or tobacco or a 1963 Corvette Grand Sport.

“The name Hidden Barn Whiskey pays tribute to black barns across Kentucky,” said Zykan. “It’s something you don’t notice necessarily until someone points it out to you but then you can’t unsee it. There are these sorts of clusters of black barns across Kentucky where they would be hiding distillation operations. Because of the black mold that forms that eats all the ethanol spots form on the outside. It’s very easy to see where booze operations are going on. It’s a dead giveaway. So, they painted their barns black. But then of course if you painted the whole barn black, they know what barns are making whiskey. So, everyone painted their barns black to help protect their whiskey source.

“It’s this sense of community, this sense of working together to make sure you have good whiskey to drink. And that’s where the Hidden Barn Whiskey name comes from.”

Hidden Barn Whiskey is expected to announce their first bourbon whiskey release later this month. We’ll have more to share on that topic very soon.

An Eventful Last Day, First Day and a Wedding

In wrapping up our conversation Hidden Barn Master Blender Jackie Zykan added, “My last day at Brown-Forman was my first day at Hidden Barn Whiskey.” But that wasn’t the only life changing event that happened on the first official day with Hidden Barn.

Jackie has a firefighter friend named Chris. They both love adventures. “He always says, ‘It takes a certain type of person to willingly run into a burning building. You are dealing with a different breed.”

Jackie and Chris got married on her last day at Old Forester. Cheers!

Learn more about Old Forester Distillery.
Learn more about Neeley Family Distillery.
Learn more about Hidden Barn Whiskey.
View all Kentucky Distilleries.
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