Bourbon hunting can be frustrating, even in Bourbon Country, but Jackie Zykan is doing her part to make sure visitors to Old Forester’s Whiskey Row distillery can find something special on their shelves. This week, Old Forester has announced the arrival of The 117 Series – and these limited releases are so special that they’ll take you behind the scenes of a day in Zkyan’s life as their Master Taster.
The 117 Series takes its name from Old Forester’s home place at 117 W. Main St in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. The distillery called this location home from 1882 – 1919 and returned in 2018 with a tour and tasting experience, complete with a gift shop to buy your favorite Old Fo expressions. This gift shop is what gave Zkyan the idea to roll out her latest new release.
“It’s interesting because when opened the distillery downtown, we needed something that was just exclusive to that space,” she tells The Bourbon Review. “So we led with the President’s Choice expression, that you can only get there and at some select Kentucky retailers. And that was a historic expression for us, it was something we actually did up until 1972, but it was just a barrel strength or near barrel strength single barrel – and we just dusted off the President’s Choice label.
“But as we’ve had a little bit more time to get our footing down there, and we have to be a little bit more mindful about how many expressions we have, we took our time to figure out where our next niche was going to be. With innovation, especially in distillery only releases, it runs the gamut, and you see a lot of very very strange offerings out there in the market, doing all kinds of weird funky stuff. And that’s not necessarily our schtick as Old Forester – it has to be quality, and we’re not going to like infuse something with Froot Loops just to be weird for the sake of being weird.”
So Zykan set out to create something completely different – while staying grounded in giving fans a deeper look at the same products they already know and love.
“What we have is this really great opportunity to deconstruct what we already do for our blends and our products, and that was kind of where The 117 Series came in,” she explains. “It’s not just giving people a different side of Old Forester’s flavor profile, it’s helping them to understand the process we go through to make Old Forester this beautiful, balanced, consistent bourbon. With that though, you’re going to get these little bits and pieces and fragments of blends that are isolated into batches, and they’re not going to be – and I hate that I’m saying this – the greatest whiskey you’ve ever tasted. Maybe it’s not going to be the flavor profile or the oomph of a Birthday Bourbon, but it’s going to be interesting. But for the whiskey nerd that wants to understand “oh, when barrels are only low yield, this is what they tend to taste like,” or “when barrels are only aged in this warehouse, this is what they taste like,” we’re doing that in isolated ways to help to “deconstruct” Old Forester, and to offer that up so people can help connect why our whiskey tastes the way it does.
“It’s about those little discoveries that can only be made when you have your hands in whiskey all day long, and that’s what I want to share with people… I know the things I’m exposed to on a daily basis are things that people might be interested in that they might otherwise never have the option to experience.”
For her first release in The 117 Series (all gift shop only limited edition bottlings), Zykan has chosen High Angels’ Share. This blend of barrels each had a yield too low to be considered for the distillery’s single barrel program. which she revamped just last year. Angels’ Share is what distillers affectionately call the whiskey lost to evaporation in the warehouse as barrels age – but in the case of these barrels, the angels took a bit too much.
“As the single barrel program goes on and you choose barrels for it, they have to hit a certain volume in that barrel to qualify for the program,” she says. “If barrels didn’t fill the tank for their carbon treatment enough to be above the agitator, they couldn’t be filtered. So barrels that were too low in yield were automatically thrown out of the program. But I started saving them, as I tasted them with the other barrels, and started to see what was going on. And they just have such a unique flavor profile because everything is so concentrated. They’re a little bit older, and yes, they’re a little bit higher proof, but not to a significant reflection of how much liquid we’ve actually lost. Like yes, they’re concentrated, but if you dilute it back out it still doesn’t taste like a regular bourbon, is what I’m trying to say. The heavier oxidation that goes on makes a completely different flavor development go on, so they’re very interesting.
“So I started saving them, started hoarding them all away in a spreadsheet, and thought well maybe if we just batched them together. It’s an interesting situation to be in because this first bottling that has my name on it is a very very robust whiskey, but for me as my personal palate, would that be what I would go for as an everyday drinker? No, but I stand behind the concept of showing people what they taste like. It’s been kind of a weird thing to wrap my mind around – this isn’t “my” whiskey, but it’s the way that I want to show you whiskey.”
Official tasting notes from the distillery tell us to look for a nose that’s “bold, with rich caramel, toasted coconut, dried cranberry, and dark brown sugar amongst a background of intense oak spice,” a palate that’s “full bodied, opening with molasses and dense dessert elements then trailing into anise and celery seed,” and a finish that’s “extensive, full palate, with roaring spice, roasted coffee and black pepper.”
While Zykan admitted to us that High Angels’ Share isn’t her favorite style of whiskey, she knows exactly who will keep this bottle on their top shelf.
“I would say that this particular expression kind of resonates with a similar flavor profile to the third batch of the 150th Anniversary bourbon – dry and spry. I’m always a sweet-tooth bourbon drinker – I always gravitate towards the really sticky, viscous sweet stuff, but High Angels’ Share has a finish that will not go away, and it is spice driven and it is intense. But there’s so much there, and as you water it back it still stays balanced, it still stays stable, and it doesn’t just like fall apart. So it’s beautifully structured whiskey, it’s just it’s on the spicier, more herbaceous side of the spectrum, and it’s just fascinating to drink. It’s a very interesting whiskey so I’m excited to see what people think about it.”
Although the 117 Series can only be found at the Old Forester Distillery, Zykan hopes that it can almost always be found at the Old Forester Distillery.
“The goal is to always have some at the distillery,” she says. “The goal was never to drop it and have it sell out in a weekend. When we drop President’s Choice, it’s gone in a day. When we drop single barrels there, they’re gone in two days. So there are gaps in our retail shop where if someone comes from out of town and asks, ‘what can I get that I can’t get anywhere else’, they have to say, ‘sorry, you just missed it.’ So we definitely want to make sure we’re attempting to keep this on hand for people to discover, and we have to see how this first release goes. If it all disappears within a week then we’re in trouble cause that defeats the purpose of what we’re doing. We’ve prepared accordingly to try and keep something on the shelf throughout the year, whether it’s this one or to try and do something different.”
Zykan proofed High Angels’ Share down to 110 for bottling, but she actually recommends you don’t drink it neat.
“Lower yield barrels do tend to have a higher proof on them, and we’ve proofed it down to a level where it wasn’t insanely volatile, where there’s still balance. But I have a bottle of this at home, and I’ve spent my time with it trying to get to know it, and I do recommend personally that this be your “on the rocks” pour. On its own it’s great and interesting but because of the concentration of flavors, it likes a little bit of water to open it up. I highly recommend this one on the rocks, which is great because the weather is warming up so this is your summer sipper.”
As a fitting tie to Women’s History Month, it’s important to note that this is the first time in the 150-year history of the brand that a woman’s signature will appear on a bottle of Old Forester. Zykan tells us what it means to her to see her own name on the label.
“As you go through the day to day of doing this job, things start to normalize for you – tv interviews, talking to a thousand people, becomes weirdly normal,” Zykan says. “But every now and then, there are these little moments, like when I transitioned to the master taster role – Campbell and I were sitting at Doc Crows and he told me, and I just cried, like holy sh-t, this is happening, here we are. You get so just in the grind of day to day that you don’t ever feel like its building to anything, you just feel like you’re upkeeping, upkeeping, upkeeping, and then things like this happen and you have this moment of being able to see that you’re a different person than you were. Not that having your name on a label means anything – it’s a piece of paper with some ink on it, and I just put my head down and work, but I’ve gone from point a to point b now. the fact that it’s a woman’s signature on a brand that’s lasted this long is the most important part of all of this.”
For her next step, Zykan is just ready for the bottles to be ready for the public.
“It’s been hard because I’ve seen the mockup, I watched the bottles come off the line, I have this bottle – and I can’t say anything, not even to my family because they’d post them all over the place! I’m just sitting here with this secret that I can’t say anything about so I’m just ready for it to be out there.”
The first bottles of The 117 Series: High Angels’ Share will hit the distillery’s shelves on Wednesday, March 24. “Due to social distancing requirements and in-store capacities, a limited number of tickets will be issued daily for fans to purchase up to four bottles of The 117 Series,” says the distillery. “Tickets must be redeemed the day they are received.”
The suggested retail price for the 375ml bottle is $49.99, which Zykan tells us she expects to stay steady for the following releases in The 117 Series.
“This is our first 375 in a higher-end product that we’ve done and it’s great for people traveling,” she says. “We’re not gonna jack the price up by any means, and as a brand we try to keep the price reasonable (although we can’t control the secondary) and try not inflate it just because bourbon is cool. But that does somewhat limit this line and what we can do because we’re setting it at this price point and hoping that’s where its gonna stay. So you’re not going to see a whiskey that’s gone through four different finishing barrels because that’s what the majority of the cost is – the barrel.”
This won’t be the last we’ll see of The 117 Series. The distillery tells us that “subsequent releases in The 117 Series may explore selections from specific warehouses, barrel manipulations, deconstructed blends and more… From controlling the mash and yeast strain, to barrels and maturation environments, the possibilities are limitless.”