Every September, bourbon enthusiasts from all over the world come together at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. This year, the festival’s new Vice President of Operations and Administration brought her decade of experience in the industry to the five-day celebration. Meet our inspiring new FACE of Louisville, Jennifer Cissell!
How did you get your start in the bourbon industry?
I grew up in Loretto, Kentucky, which is where the Maker’s Mark distillery is. Both of my parents worked for Maker’s Mark, and as a young kid, I always thought that was really cool. But, like a typical teenager, I wanted to get as far away from my hometown as I could. So, I ended up going to college at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. After that, I landed in Nashville before ending up in Houston. I kept getting further away and into bigger cities, but Houston was about as big of a city as this small-town girl could take, so I boomeranged back home and accepted a position as a tour guide with Jim Beam. My career there spanned 10 years. After working as a tour guide, I was promoted to trade and hospitality manager, then became the manager of the visitor’s center last year.
Was working in the industry your plan when you returned to Kentucky?
No. I wasn’t sure what career move I was going to make next, and I was open to different opportunities. I’d studied broadcast communications and worked for the Tennessee Titans; Houston, Texas; and Houston Rockets before I moved back home. I was still kind of thinking I wanted to do the sports track — maybe at the University of Kentucky or the University of Louisville — but my son was about a year old at the time, and I didn’t want to commute quite that far. Bourbon was here, and it just made sense. It also really ended up becoming much more of a passion for me than I realized. When you’re in this part of the world and it’s so instilled in you to love bourbon, it makes sense. It became a perfect fit because I got to have an audience to talk to about my genuine love of bourbon and Kentucky.
Have you experienced challenges as a woman in a male-dominated industry?
I think it’s kind of cool that my career has always been in what would typically be seen as a man’s world, but I’d be lying if I said that there haven’t been challenges because I’m a female. I’ve definitely felt that at different stages and throughout my entire career; unfortunately, I think that’s how a lot of women feel. However, I do think people nowadays are more cognizant of treating everyone equally and hearing the females in the room. I think when I was younger, I tended to just kind of sit back and listen. But now, I make sure I’m part of the conversation and I share my thoughts and opinions — maybe more so than I would have in the past. I can only think of the handful of times that I really thought I was being treated unfairly because I was a woman. There have certainly been challenges through all aspects of my career, but ultimately, my experiences have been positive. It’s amazing how many women are at the top of the bourbon industry. It’s typically male-driven, but more and more women are up and coming in bourbon.
What was it like transitioning from Jim Beam to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival?
Coming from a company like Jim Beam, I thought that I knew what operations and administration meant, but it’s a little different with the Kentucky Bourbon Festival because we’re a team of two for a nonprofit, 501(c)3 charity organization. When I started this past June, I just grabbed any opportunity that I could to help fill in gaps. I did a lot of coordination with getting people loaded into the lawn and helping them get set up for the festival. The position also requires a lot of customer service, which hadn’t occurred to me. But since we’re only a team of two, somebody had to fill that role. So, my duties kind of lie anywhere that the wind takes me on that day — that’s what I’m sinking my teeth into, to keep things moving forward and making sure we’re progressing in the right direction.
What’s your favorite part of working for the festival?
Seeing life come into the festival! There’s just so much planning involved; there’s planning, and spreadsheets, and emails, and phone calls. There’s so much that goes into it, so it’s great to actually see life on the ground, and to see the smiles on people’s faces, and people trying new cocktails. Seeing all that life come through was really exciting and very fulfilling.
If there was one thing you’d want people to know about the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, what would it be?
We’re all really friendly, and we all genuinely get along. I don’t think everyone realizes how close-knit the bourbon industry is; we’re all friends. I think that in other industries, people would not be as friendly. I can’t imagine Pepsi and Coke setting up a festival and hugging each other and being excited about the other’s success. But in the bourbon industry, we’re in such a close radius here in the state of Kentucky that we’d be silly to not be friends and not work together. The salespeople may be fighting for shelf space, but when it comes to the rest of us, we all recognize that as the industry grows, everybody’s piece gets a little bit bigger. We really do champion one another to be successful, and I think that’s very unique in such a competitive, global industry.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Make yourself an asset. I don’t remember who gave me that advice, but I think about it every time I approach a job or an opportunity. Make yourself an asset, figure out what needs to be done, sink your teeth in, and go for it. Stop waiting for people to tell you to do something; stop saying, “This is all that I’m paid to do.” Instead, start looking for what you can do outside of that so people will go, “Wow, she’s onto something — follow her.” That advice has never steered me wrong.
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
First, a luxurious eye cream. There are a lot of late nights in this industry, and whether I use it before bed at night or in the morning, it definitely helps brighten me up and gets me going for the day. Second, dry shampoo. It’s a staple nowadays; I can’t live without dry shampoo. And lastly, a glass of bourbon at the end of a long day.
The next Kentucky Bourbon Festival will be held September 14-18, 2022. Find more information at kybourbonfestival.com.
Meet more inspiring women from Louisville and across the South by visiting our archives.