Jacquelyn Zykan, bar director over the cocktail programs at Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse and Raw Bar and La Coop Bistro: à Vins, has earned the title of Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS) from the Society of Wine Educators.

Jacquelyn Zykan, bar director, La Coop and Doc Crow’s.

Why is this noteworthy? Because it shows how beverage pros continue to move beyond tap jerking and cocktail mis-making to become serious craftspeople elevating drinking and dining out.

Plus, just as chefs have become increasingly popular, bartenders have, too, and rightfully so.

Zykan (who prefers the term “craft bartending” over “mixology”—which makes me an instant fan) is known for her stylish approach to cocktail classics. She is the featured bartender at the Kentucky Derby Museum’s interactive Urban Bourbon Trail Exhibition, and she has contributed several recipes to the Four Roses company website. Zykan is also the St. Germain liqueur brand ambassador for Kentucky.

(For those who’ve never tried it, St. Germain is the bomb, especially as part of a gin and tonic. My own mix is 1.5 ounces gin, 1 ounce St. Germain, 3-4 ounces tonic and a squeeze of lemon. Try it. You’ll thank me for the drink, but perhaps not the price: $36 a bottle. So try the drink at a bar before spending that kind of dough on such good sauce.)

The CSS exam, which Zykan took in September in Kansas City, Mo., is a rigorous test evaluating a candidate’s spirits knowledge and mastery of key elements within distillation and spirits production. During the final 30 days before the test, she studied four to five hours daily.

“I like to understand how each spirit is made so I can understand how to pair ingredients with it that match and elevate your cocktail experience,” Zykan said. “There are so many cool products on the market right now, yet people don’t know what to do with them. The more I know, the better our bartenders and drinks are.”

Candidates are tested on such topics as fermentation and distillation, whiskey, brandy, vodka, liqueur, gin, rum and tequila—the study of which has to be fun.

Apparently the effort’s worth it, too, as the certification is widely recognized and regarded by the international wine and spirits industry.

(It’s worth mentioning that her boss, Brett Davis, co-owner of both restaurants, is one of 200-ish certified Sommeliers in the world. Lots of cocktail cognition going on in that company.)

Zykan admitted she’s a bit of a bar geek for wanting to learn more about her trade, but she said her passion easily converts into meaningful professionalism that makes an entire restaurant experience better.

“Having that knowledge helps me be more confident in what I do … and helps customers appreciate the spirits and ingredients that go into their drinks. The goal of drinking at the bar is no longer to get wasted, it’s to have a good drink, she said. “Today everyone wants to know whether the chicken they’re eating is coming from a local farm, right? So why not treat alcohol the same way? Bartending isn’t about covering up (bad) booze with good ingredients. It’s more about helping people understand what they’re drinking and why it’s good.”

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.

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