Working for a major beverage conglomerate can be a good life. Top-of-the-line distilling equipment. Warehouses full of aging barrels. Bulging multinational pockets that can send you around the globe sharing decades-old products. So what would compel Jackie Zykan to leave her seemingly plum gig as master taster for Old Forester, Brown-Forman’s legacy brand, that she had headed up since 2015, to start her own thing?
“I honestly got to a point over time where I felt I wasn’t bringing my best self to any areas in my life because I was dedicating myself to figuring out how to survive with boundaries that didn’t align with my true nature,” says Zykan.
She had become one of those bourbon celebrities of the sort who travel the country, if not the world, talking about and tasting fans on her flashiest new release. Two such fans were Nate Winegar and Matt Dankner, Coloradoans who run the 5280 Whiskey Society. They hit it off over glasses of an old vintage of Birthday Bourbon; several years later, they are business partners in Zykan’s latest venture, Hidden Barn Whiskey.
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The name refers to the illicit days of Kentucky’s past when barns were painted black to cover up the presence of black mold known as Baudoinia compniacensis that grows on the outside of buildings in which distillation is going on. Even those Kentuckians who were not moonshiners would sometimes paint their barns black in order to confound authorities while showing solidarity with neighbors. Zykan hopes Hidden Barn can engender a similar sense of community among bourbon drinkers who have increasingly become antagonistic toward each other in the pursuit and hoarding of valuable bottles.
“I fully admit that the color of whiskey is gorgeous, but I can assure you the teams of people that busted their humps making it a fine product didn’t do so to create a trinket for the mantel,” says Zykan. “Open your bottles. Life is too short and can be shorter still by surprise, and you could have tasted and experienced all that glorious liquid with those you love.”
Zykan, Winegar, and Dankner source their gorgeous liquid from the Neeley Distillery in Sparta, Ky., run by master distiller Royce Neeley. Their first release, Series One Small Batch, was proudly made “the hard way”; double pot distilled from a mash fermented in cypress tanks using wild-caught Kentucky yeast, it consisted of a mere eight barrels blended together by Zykan. (Comparatively, even a super-allocated product from Old Forester, like, say, Birthday Bourbon, might come from over 100 barrels.)
Dropped just this July, Series One was well received by bourbon fans typically not prone to lauding upstart brands. Instagram was flooded with images of collectors flexing the bottles they had just scored. This fervor over a fairly young bourbon — just 4 to 5 years old — was unquestionably due to the presence of Zykan, not a household name just yet, but already a darling of the cognoscenti. After her remarkable success at Old Forester, they’re willing to follow Zykan wherever she wants to take the industry.
“We are here to unapologetically construct a brand that supports passionate producers who are prioritizing quality, transparency, and integrity,” says Zykan. “The bourbon industry is a unique one, which has a long standing history of being collaborative and supportive, as opposed to competitive and malicious. There’s space for everyone to express their particular take on the craft of whiskey-making. By working together to shine a light on those who align with our core values, we hope to preserve that long- standing tradition of camaraderie.”
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