When you think of Jack Daniel’s, you think of tradition, history, the Lincoln County process. But you may not think of whiskey innovation.
Heather Howell, director of global innovation for the Jack Daniel’s family of brands, along with her team, looks to change that perception.
A formidable woman in the predominantly male-oriented whiskey industry, she joins an innovation team at Brown-Forman, Jack Daniel’s parent company, that’s actually led by three women.
Howell explained that the first task for this innovation team was to convince Jack Daniel’s officials that a 150-year-old-brand had to start taking risks. She did so by living in an Airstream trailer in Lynchburg, Tennessee, to acclimate herself. Then became part of the team and got people comfortable with change.
The culmination of this came as the team went on to create Jack Daniel’s Bonded, a “Whiskey of the Year” award winner, and has opened innovation up to the vaunted brand.
Howell recently spoke with The Whiskey Wash about how she built trust, why innovation is important even when you’re already one of the world’s largest whiskeys, and why creating an innovation council was key to getting buy-in from the larger team.
The Whiskey Wash: How did your career path lead you into the spirits industry, and what were some of the initial hurdles you faced as a woman in the industry?
Heather Howell: “I was recruited in 2015 by Brown-Forman. Prior to that, I was the chief tea officer of a start up organic tea company in my hometown of Louisville, known for Kentucky bourbon. We sold our organic tea out of the back of our minivans at farmer’s markets and the brand took off. We secured distribution in 50 states. Then, one day I received the phone call that changed my life. I was offered a role at Brown-Forman. I always wanted to work for a global business, so I took a big leap from running my own ready-to-drink tea business to the wide world of super-premium spirits.”
“I joined the global innovation department at Brown-Forman (eight years ago). I brought with me my entrepreneurial spirit and passion for building brands. As a thriving entrepreneur, these skills are pivotal in my role and would serve me well as I learned about the spirits business. Knowing what I know today, I better understand the steep learning curve of entering an established company like Brown-Forman at the director level. From entrepreneur to corporate brand innovation, it’s not the usual path. I was fortunate to work with people who wanted to do things differently. Bringing fresh eyes into a company has big challenges, but the positive impact it can have shouldn’t be underestimated.”
“Once at Brown-Forman, I began doing what I do best, creating, crafting, and delivering products to our consumers. Throughout my career, I have learned that ‘people build brands’ and that those people driving the bus, need to have the right partners to create magic in a bottle. I have seen the bus make a few stops to realign and get the right strategy and people in place to ignite the engine of an innovative mindset. I am an achiever at work, I pour myself into each brand and most important, I welcome subject matter expertise. Innovation requires multiple seats on the bus, from our Master Distiller, Research & Development, Insights, Design, Supply Chain, Packaging, Marketing, and Bottling as well as creatives and PR. This way your journey is shared with those who respect the process.”
TWW: How would you describe your early days working at Jack Daniels?
HH: “The first thing I did as part of the Jack Daniel’s team was attend Camp Jack. I stayed in an airstream for one week on distillery property. Camp Jack took me to a place in my childhood, where time stops, cellphones aren’t existent and the natural landscape fills your senses. It’s a brilliant baptism into Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey.”
“During Camp Jack, Jack Daniel’s Historian Nelson Eddy shared stories about Mr. Jack and how he created this brand. My mind raced with references to history and the terroir, it was an innovator’s playground. This early experience would feed my future work on innovation at Jack Daniel’s.”
“I knew that if I could take my years of experience in smaller entrepreneurial and emerging brands and blend it with what I was learning, plus what I believe is the largest and most complete distilling operation in the world, we could create something special. Keep in mind, it had been 25 years since Jack Daniel’s had created a super premium set of expressions. Then, I met the master distiller and assistant master distiller and we started creating and chatting a path for the next generation of whisky drinkers.”
TWW: What led to the creation of an innovation team at Jack Daniels?
HH: “It happened organically. I took the description of the bus analogy, and together, we developed the Jack Daniel’s Global Innovation Council. Every quarter on the calendar, a group of professionals bring their expertise to the table. We share timelines, cross collaborate, report competitive intelligence, and begin plotting our own history. The most important folks aren’t at the table yet … our consumers. We think of how to surprise and delight them, from the highest proof whiskey in Coy Hill to the Bonded Series and our Aged Series. We think of ways to ‘show up’ and make Jack proud. From bikers to bankers, consumers are in our hearts and minds and have a big seat at every meeting.”
TWW: How has your position helped break down barriers in that sector of the spirits industry?
HH: “At Brown-Forman, there are many superb female leaders. The Jack Daniel’s team is led globally by a female. The innovation team I lead includes several powerhouse women who are engineers and MBA graduates. We are all respected by the brand, the company, and the entire distillery family in Lynchburg.”
“I believe that what makes us the most exciting whiskey in the world is the diversity of people that creates a diverse portfolio. We each bring our own experiences with us to Jack Daniel’s. I’d say the only barrier I have ever broken is being myself and allowing those around me to bring their best self to the table. That collection of talent is what we call the magic in each bottle.”
TWW: Is the industry and its leaders getting more comfortable with the change?
HH: “The world is evolving. Diversity of thought is mandatory for business to thrive. It’s no longer a male-dominated whiskey world. It’s a big, wide, complex world and it’s inevitably changing and shifting. We’re also still recovering from a global pandemic.”
“We do not underestimate the power of our consumers. They are smart, powerful and complex. They seek brands with real people, real stories, and we intend to push ourselves to connect, so if my innovation table or ‘bus’ from the analogy above, doesn’t have the seats filled with folks who look like our consumers, we are missing something.”
TWW: How would you describe the innovation work being done by your team and others like it at the hundreds of large whisky operations across the U.S.?
HH: “Innovation is a big word at Jack Daniel’s, it encompasses a breadth and depth of knowledge. Whether it’s adding unique sizes, leveraging global partnerships like Jack & Coke, developing new structures, or sustainability, it takes loads of strategy, planning and preparation.”
“I do NOT innovate alone. Together, with our master distiller, and leadership’s support, we develop plans years out to surprise and delight the consumer.”
TWW: What are some of the biggest changes at Jack Daniels you’ve seen or been a part of?
HH: “Testing and learning, taking risks and building categories. Jack Daniel’s is a torchbearer in American whiskey, and we are not going to slow down.”
“Recently, we launched the highest proof whiskey that has ever been bottled at Jack Daniel’s … Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, Coy Hill. This year, we will launch the first ever American single malt finished in Oloroso Sherry casks in our Global Travel Retail channel. We launched ‘The Bonded Series’ to include Bonded, rated the #1 Whiskey in the World by Whiskey Advocate in 2022. This series also includes Triple Mash – a blend of three straight bonded whiskies.”
“I could go on and on, but we hear our consumers. We are listening and we hope to make them proud.”
TWW: Where do you see the future of the whiskey industry and Jack Daniels in five, ten years?
HH: “G-R-O-W-I-N-G! Whiskey will continue to dominate the spirits world. Why? Neat, on the rocks, in a classic cocktail whiskey is ever-changing, and the trends look to continue. I envision Jack Daniel’s will continue to be the most valuable spirits brand because we care. As the saying goes down in the holler, ‘Every day we make it, we make it the best we can!’”
Read the full article at Jack Daniel’s Heather Howell Talks Innovating At A Big Whiskey Brand