For the last two and a half years, businesses of all sizes and stripes have been forced to adjust to the shifting demands of a global pandemic. Hospitality and restaurants, education and health care, construction and logistics: Seemingly no industry has been left untouched by topsy-turvy employment trends, with scores of people leaving their jobs, willingly or not, to try something else — not necessarily another position at a similar company, but often something far outside their previous roles.
Whiskey hasn’t been immune either, not even at the highest tiers of distillery operations. In the last two years, a number of master distillers and blenders have departed seemingly plum positions at some of the largest spirits companies, striking out on their own and charting a new path for not just themselves, but American whiskey altogether. Since the fall of 2020, Jack Daniel’s, Old Forester, Maker’s Mark, Kentucky Owl, Bulleit, and more have lost some of their top talent.
Though the departures of these whiskey makers have been surprising, some of what’s driving them away should come as no great shock: Unsustainable workloads, corporate politics, creative restrictions, and general burnout have all been cited as reasons for leaving. But just as significant is the lure of starting a new distillery or brand that affords the maker full creative freedom and the chance to put their name on something that is entirely their own. It’s a sign of the bourbon boom times we live in that these master craftspeople are eager to step away from celebrity, stability, and a steady paycheck into the unknown.
Don't Miss A DropGet the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.
Not What It Seems
The recent trend of resignations was preceded, seven years ago, by the departure of Woodford Reserve rising star Marianne Eaves (then Marianne Barnes) to join craft startup Castle & Key, which she subsequently left four years later. But the pattern started in earnest in the fall of 2020, when Jeff Arnett announced that he was leaving his role as master distiller at Jack Daniel’s — news that came as a surprise to many industry observers.
“It was an awesome title to the world, that you were the master distiller of Jack Daniel’s, but at the end of the day you were an employee of Brown-Forman and that came with certain limitations and frustrations, corporate politics and things,” Arnett says.
But appearances can be deceiving. Unlike their predecessors in decades past, today’s master distillers have as much responsibility for serving as spokespeople as for the technical duties of making whiskey. At the head of the largest American whiskey brand in the world, Arnett felt he wasn’t adequately supported as the brand’s public face. “I got thrown into situations I was very ill-prepared for,” Arnett says. “I was asked to call the shot, to call the play so many times without any direction and then of course there’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking if they don’t like what you said or what you did.”
Other whiskey makers had similar experiences. Jackie Zykan, who stepped down as master taster at Old Forester — also owned by Brown-Forman — in July 2022, says that she had to be on all the time. “You never clock out,” she says, especially with such a high-profile whiskey role in a city heavy with bourbon tourism like Louisville, Ky. “You go to the grocery store and you’re at work. You’re constantly thinking, ‘How can I be conducting myself in the best interests of Old Forester at all times?’ And that’s not to say it’s a bad thing — it’s a weight that you carry around. It’s like a white noise stress at all times and that really adds up.”
Eboni Major, formerly a whiskey blender for Bulleit, recalls public appearances that required her “to kind of do the PR shield.” When the brand and its founder, Tom Bulleit, were in the spotlight following allegations of homophobia and abuse, Major was given an approved response to queries: “The family and the company have settled.” But as an LGBTQ ally, “[I] was always having to prove that I was a good person, and that was stressful,” she says.
Falling in Line
What might be called creative differences provided another impetus to exit. Zykan took the helm of Old Forester in its 145th year, coming from an eclectic background, and her creative approach often didn’t fit the established mold of Brown-Forman’s corporate culture. Describing the sentiment as “constant risk aversion,” she says that Old Forester was often forced into a mode of imitating what worked for other brands in the portfolio. “It almost robs every brand of its individuality when you do that,” she explains. “There’s learnings to be had for sure, but I think there’s constant effort being put in to try to fall in line with what has shown successful before.”
Zykan also struggled in pushing back against the industry’s masculine norms, which — even in a company that had made strides in diversifying — prevailed. “It’s one thing to say we’re going to have this many people represented of this certain type,” she says. “It’s another thing to then have a cultural shift that really gives them space to be exactly who they are. I don’t consider it equality if you’ve got 50 percent men and 50 percent women or whatever the hell. That’s step one, and that’s great, but then after that comes actually allowing women to manage business in a way that feels right to them and not constantly have to be fitting a mold.”
Ultimately, Zykan found that the pressures stifled her talents. “You’re constantly worried about validation, and that, over time, really does force you to start thinking within a box,” she says. “And you know deep down that you can think way outside of that, but there’s just no room for it.”
Dixon Dedman, founder of Kentucky Owl, didn’t have the same mega-corporate experience at Stoli Group, for which he worked since it acquired his whiskey brand in 2017. But all the same, as Kentucky Owl grew from a luxury boutique blend to a competitively priced, nationally available brand, Dedman found himself at odds with Stoli’s plans for its future. “When you sell a brand it’s not your brand anymore. I understand that, I totally get that,” he says. “But there was still such a part of me that was tied to it and associated with it that it was still very personal.”
Dedman parted ways with Stoli in the spring of 2021, stepping back to run his family’s inn and make plans to launch a new brand, 2XO (Two Times Oak), debuting this fall. “I couldn’t sacrifice what I thought was right for what I was told we needed to do,” he explains, noting that the decision was not easy. Kentucky Owl had been created in homage to a whiskey Dedman’s great-great-grandfather had once made. “I may have given myself more credit than I deserved, but I feel like my name, me personally, was very closely associated with and tied to that brand,” he says. “It had my name on it — my signature on the bottle. … So I was guarded about that.”
Stress and Struggle
Many whiskey makers cite the all-consuming nature of the job as a major pressure. Zykan, a single mom, had a demanding travel schedule that kept her from time with her child, as did Jane Bowie, the master of maturation and director of innovation at Maker’s Mark, who departed earlier this month. Working from home during the early part of the pandemic proved eye-opening. “The big wake-up for me was how much I’d been missing at home,” Bowie says. “I traveled a lot, and suddenly I was home with my kiddo. … I loved it.”
Bowie’s counterpart, Denny Potter, the general manager and master distiller at Maker’s Mark, left the company with her. The two plan to start a new venture together, though they aren’t sharing details yet. While both describe their years with the distillery in positive terms, Potter admits that the pandemic was a wake-up call for him too. In the fall of 2021, “it was the first time that it really hit how exhausting it all was,” he says. “My blood pressure was through the roof; I couldn’t get it down for months. Losing hair, gaining weight, all of the things. And you go to the doctor and the doctor’s like, it’s stress. This is what it is. … It makes you think about what’s important from a work perspective and if you have ambitions or thoughts.”
Major, who is Black, faced stressors that white whiskey makers don’t have, and her experience at Bulleit was ultimately the reason for her departure. “I always felt as a minority, I was the bigger issue because it was just easier to appease the majority,” she says, citing her repeated efforts to achieve equal pay with white colleagues and other instances of racial bias that she says occurred during her tenure.
After months of mediation with Diageo, Bulleit’s parent company, Major left, refusing to accept a settlement offer and later filing a lawsuit that has been moved to arbitration. Her experience at Bulleit isn’t limited to that distillery, she says, noting that when she was offered a job at another company, the manager she would have been working for said it was more or less a diversity hire, not based on Major’s merits. “You get that as your offer, you can only imagine what your treatment will be when you’re there,” she says.
The emotional fallout from her ordeal made Major question whether she even wanted to work in whiskey — work that she had loved — at all. “I felt like I had to fight my way to get back to loving it because of the experience that I had,” she says. “For me to continue my job, I had to leave.”
The factors pushing whiskey makers away from their stable corporate jobs are matched, and perhaps exceeded, by the forces pulling them — above all, the opportunity to create something new that is entirely their own. “We left a place that we truly love,” Bowie says of herself and Potter. “It really was about the opportunity, versus trying to get away. … We’re looking forward to shedding some skin and figuring out who we are outside of Maker’s Mark.”
As the head of Jack Daniel’s, Arnett had access to the best tools, resources, and people to make new whiskeys a reality — with a big catch. Every innovation had to have the potential to scale up massively. “To move the needle there, because the brand was so large, success was something you could get a million cases out of,” he explains. “It had to be that type of idea or it just wasn’t worth their time.” Arnett joined the new Company Distilling in the spring of 2021, serving as master distiller; ironically, this smaller outfit gives Arnett the chance for broader creativity than he had at Jack. “A million cases is not the goal,” he says. “It’s about doing my best and doing things that I think people will find interesting.”
It’s similar for Zykan, who announced her partnership in Hidden Barn Whiskey a few weeks after leaving Old Forester. “A smaller brand allows me more creative freedom,” she says. “We can do whatever we want and that’s kind of overwhelming at times but also nice to have.” Ditto Dedman: “I’m 40 years old,” he notes. “I want to be doing what I want to be doing. And I want the freedom to do what I think is right for something that has my name on it.”
Major has put her name on her new endeavors too, but, she says, “It’s not just about that. We’re taking a platform to try to be better and greater for more people in everything we do.” That means focusing on true inclusivity. “You just wonder if the industry is ever going to allow you to be yourself, and that’s what made me create Major Whiskey,” she explains. “This is what I want to do. … I want to create a whiskey for everybody.”
The timing for all of this isn’t coincidental. American whiskey has been booming for years, and the growth shows no signs of slowing. There has been lively interest in the sector from venture capital and other outside investors eager to sink funds into new brands — especially if they’re connected to creators with sterling bona fides. “You have people that are interested in the industry, who’ve got the financial backing, who are looking for talent to get them there,” Arnett says.
“Ten years ago, your options were limited,” Dedman explains. “The opportunities are far greater now than they were then, and I think that probably, for some people, it makes the leap easier to take, knowing that there are plenty more places to land than there were even five years ago. And then it’s just about finding the right fit.”
For all of these makers, and others like them, the future is wide open. It has to be: This is whiskey, after all. “We haven’t even written the first chapter — we don’t even know what the fucking chapters are,” Potter says. “We’re legitimately just getting started and in our industry, these aren’t short stories. These are novels. So it’s really exciting but it’s also a test of patience.”
Correction Sept. 27, 2022: An earlier version of this article misstated the status of Eboni Major’s lawsuit with Diageo as still pending, not moved to arbitration.
This story is a part of VP Pro, our free content platform and newsletter for the drinks industry, covering wine, beer, and liquor — and beyond. Sign up for VP Pro now!