Jackie Zykan has a tattoo of an Old-Fashioned cocktail on her arm.
Zykan, who grew up in Florissant and is a graduate of Incarnate Word Academy, is the master taster for Old Forester bourbon.
The job is almost as good as it sounds. Zykan, 35, is in charge of the distillery’s quality control, new product development, blending, single-barrel strategy and cocktail strategy, and helps with the marketing.
She will be back in town Friday as part of Whiskey in the Winter, the St. Louis Whiskey Festival. There, she will be chatting about Old Forester, sharing cocktails made with Old Forester and, at a seminar, sharing samples of some of the finest bourbons the company has to offer, Birthday Bourbon and President’s Choice.
She saves the best for St. Louis because it is her hometown, Zykan said on the phone from Portland, Ore., where she was participating in another whiskey event. She lives in Louisville, Ky., where Old Forester has its headquarters.
Birthday Bourbon “is the Pappy (van Winkle) of Old Forester, if you will. It is the highest end of Old Forester,” and is made in such limited amounts that “people camp out on sidewalks for it,” she said.
President’s Choice is a single-barrel whiskey literally selected by the company’s president, Campbell Brown. It is usually only available at the distillery itself in Louisville.
Zykan studied biology and chemistry at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Her goal at the time was to study pathology at medical school, “but everything just happened the way it was supposed to happen,” she said.
She had worked in restaurants since she was 15 and worked as a bartender throughout college. Her husband’s job took her to Louisville. Although the marriage didn’t last, her affection for the town that houses many bourbon companies did.
“I got back into the bar industry and just fell in love with it completely. It was wonderful to be immersed in it, and I never looked back,” she said.
As a bartender in Louisville, her skills were frequently in demand for special events hosted by the distilleries. While working at those events, “I got a reputation for, let’s say, having a very discriminating palate,” she said.
She even became a sommelier, a certified expert in the taste of wine.
So Zykan was almost uniquely qualified for the job when it became open: She is proficient in distinguishing the undertones in the flavor of alcohol; she has a background in chemistry and biology; and she has the experience behind the bar to be able to talk about cocktails with bartenders.
In addition, “I grew a name for myself as the person who showed up on time and got things done.”
She was hired after sitting down for Old-Fashioneds with Brown, the company president.
She doesn’t drink whiskey straight — straight whiskey reminds her of work, she said. She is all about the cocktail, especially Old-Fashioneds. “My body is probably composed of, like, 33 percent Old-Fashioned,” she joked.
And she is particular about the Old-Fashioneds she drinks. She likes a two-ounce pour of 100-proof bourbon, mixed with just under a half-ounce of syrup made with a two-to-one ration of demerara sugar to water — not a sugar cube, she said, because they make the drink sweeter as you drink it down.
She likes a blend of bitters in the drink — traditional aromatic bitters plus a little smoked cinnamon bitters — served with cracked ice (“always stirred, never shaken”), a lemon peel and an orange peel. No soda water and no muddled fruit, because she is particular about the drink’s texture and consistency.
“I won’t judge you if you muddle,” she said.
If that seems like too much trouble, Zykan developed a line of bitters and syrups for Old Forester, including a just-add-bourbon syrup to make an Old-Fashioned just the way she likes it.
It’s the ideal job for Zykan or, basically, anyone who enjoys bourbon. Perhaps what she enjoys most about it is the friendly, cooperative way the bourbon companies treat one another.
“If you go down the history of bourbon and the tree of all the brands, everyone has worked with everyone,” she said.”If your stuff breaks down, they will let you borrow theirs.
“Everyone is so cordial with each other. We all drink each other’s stuff, we all sample it. We all sneak samples of the good stuff. It’s such a great industry.”
Whiskey in the Winter will be held Friday at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch. The event is sold out.