BABE #290: SYDNEY JONES - Distiller, Manifest Distilling
Originally on track for social work, Sydney pivoted career paths after becoming utterly fascinated with all-things bourbon: how it tastes, how it’s made and the history behind it. After an extremely difficult life transition, she moved home to Jacksonville and began the healing process while simultaneously landing a job that helped her grow, learn and become one hell of a distiller. At Manifest Distilling, Sydney plans and executes the production schedule, conducts distillery tours and develops and teaches alcohol learning experiences. She’s also a cocktail waitress at popular Jax speakeasy, The Volstead. This hustlin’ babe brings her kickass talent, resilient attitude and unwavering grit to the spirits industry, and we’re excited to share her story.
Babe you admire and why?
This might end up sounding really cheesy, and possibly unoriginal, but it’s 100% true; the babes that I admire most are my friends. As a kid I used to look up to celebrities because they were thin, or beautiful, or stylish; I saw traits in them that I wished I could mirror in myself. Now that I’m older and slightly wiser, I just want to be more like the women in my life. They are wickedly talented and so, so strong. My friends are crushing it at their hustles; they’re leaders in the service industry, they selflessly serve their community, they run their own personal businesses. They’re all women that constantly motivate me to work harder to be a better version of the human I am now. I honestly just want to be more like them when I grow up.
Go-to coffee order and/or adult beverage?
This 100% depends on my work schedule. If it’s a chill week at the distillery, I’ll stick with whiskey, or liquor in general, when I’m out or when I’m at home. However, after a long production day where I’ve been swimming in alcohol vapor for the past 14 hours straight, I’ll go straight for beer or red wine.
What’s something most don’t know about you?
My undergraduate degree is in Psychology and I was dead-set on becoming a social worker when I was in school. My love of spirits came much later.
Favorite Manifest spirit to date and why?
It’s a very close tie between our rye whiskey and our gin. I jokingly tell people that I’m married to whiskey; we’ve been in a long-term relationship for a while now. I had zero appreciation for gin before I started working for Manifest, but now I can confidently say that even though I’m committed to whiskey, I cheat pretty regularly with our gin.
Tell us about your hustle.
Manifest Distilling is a smaller company, and as one of their employees, I wear a lot of hats. My biggest, and arguably most important role, is to plan out and execute Manifest’s production schedule, which is a task I split with my coworker Mike. This involves cooking grain, monitoring fermentations, operating the still, proofing alcohol, maintaining our barrel program, tasting and blending, and bottling. I have my hands in every single aspect of crafting our spirits, including developing new projects in our Experimental series. In addition to that, I work on the education side of the business. I conduct almost all of our tours, and I develop and teach alcohol learning experiences. These have included a gin compounding workshop, a whiskey blending class, and a vodka tasting seminar. On the side, I also work as a cocktail waitress for a speakeasy-style craft cocktail bar called The Volstead.
What does your typical workday look like?
Saturdays are my marathon production days, and typically begin at about 6 AM, when I get to the distillery to fire the still. I run a 500 gallon hybrid pot still, which typically takes about 2-2.5 hours to heat up enough to produce alcohol, so it’s important that I get it running as early as possible. Overall, the still itself will run between 8-12 hours, and will usually produce about 40-50 gallons of 100 proof alcohol in that time period. While it’s running, I’ll also work on a mash cook, which involves boiling about 750 lbs worth of grain over a 4-6 hour period of time. Cooking this grain in water, at various temperatures, and with the addition of liquid enzymes will cause the starches in the grain to convert to sugar, which will then be available for consumption by our yeast during fermentation. We do about five of these cooks a week, and those dictate our distillation schedule. I juggle both of these production processes at the same time, while also doing other various tasks around the distillery; bottling, filling barrels, proofing alcohol, cleaning (a very, very large part of my job revolves around cleaning). At about 5 PM, I conduct the week’s Distiller’s Tours, which is a two-hour, in-depth look at everything Manifest produces, concluding with a guided sensory analysis and tasting of our portfolio. Between 7:30 and 8:00 PM, I turn off the still, shut down the production space, go home for a few minutes, before I’m back out at The Volstead for my waitressing shift at 8:45 PM.
What did your involvement in the spirits industry look like prior to Manifest?
I first fell in love with whiskey in Kentucky, on the Bourbon Trail. My ex-husband was stationed at Fort Campbell, and we took a week’s worth of vacation to visit all the major distilleries. I became fascinated with everything involving bourbon; how it tasted, how it was made, the history behind it. When we returned home from the trip, I dove in head-first; I purchased any and every book on whiskey I could find and tore through them. There’s a tiny town near Fort Campbell called Pembroke, KY, which is home to MB Roland Distillery. Founded in 2007 by a husband and wife pair, they produce bourbon, whiskey, and moonshines. In April 2016, I took a tour there with Paul and Mary Beth, the owner-operators, and asked enough “nerd” questions that prompted them to offer me a job. From that point on, they apprenticed me into the production process.
How did your involvement with Manifest come to be?
Around this same time, my marriage began to spiral out of control. What started as my ex’s infidelity rapidly devolved into a toxic, abusive situation in which my physical and mental well-being were in danger. Things finally exploded in October 2016, and after a brief hospitalization, my parents drove up to Kentucky in the midst of Hurricane Matthew and pulled me out. When I arrived back in Florida, I was extremely sick. I was thirty pounds underweight, I had a stress-induced ulcer, and my extreme anxiety left me physically debilitated for months. I couldn’t leave my house. Around that same time, Manifest Distilling opened its doors to the public. I had been following their progress up north through social media, and now that I was back in Jacksonville, I was intrigued and wanted to check the operation out. Once I was physically capable, I signed up for a tour (the same one that I give now), where I met Tom Johnson, one of our four founders. The rest is history. My past is something that I try to talk about a lot, because I feel like it’s extremely crucial for survivors to share their stories, especially since so much domestic abuse goes unreported. I’m a strong believer in speaking truth to this behavior as a protest against it. Furthermore, alcohol, and liquor in particular, have had a negative perception over the past hundred years. We still feel the effects of Prohibition and the Temperance Movement to this day, and I know and understand how alcoholism has hurt individuals and their families. But alcohol literally saved my life. My job at Manifest, this industry, the people that I’ve met through making whiskey; all of it gave me a reason to live when I was very close to giving up. Someone I once loved convinced me that I was unworthy and unlovable. Distilling allowed me to discover just how untrue that is. I’m in love with what I do because I literally wouldn’t be here without it.
What sets Manifest apart from others in the industry? What aspect of Manifest’s culture do you value most?
One of my favorite things about this company is how passionate we are about what we do. We throw around the word “passion” quite a bit, and for good reason. This isn’t just a job for us. We live and breathe what we do. It’s extremely invigorating to work in such an environment; it makes the long hours and the hard physical labor very much worth it. We’re a company, but we’re also a family, and the distillery is very much our home. I’m also extremely fortunate to work under mentorship that allows me a lot of room to create and experiment. If I ever have an idea for a spirit that I want to play around with, or if there’s something I want to change up that we’re doing, my bosses are always encouraging and supportive. It’s given me quite a bit of confidence, not just as a professional in this industry, but as a young woman too.
In your opinion, what characteristics make for a great distiller?
In my opinion, anyone can develop the skills to be a distiller over time and study. The things that can’t be taught are attention to detail and the desire to learn. The science is well practiced and mostly understood; as a civilization, we’ve been distilling for thousands of years. But there’s always new innovations, new methodology, new research, new variables to explore. Curiosity is absolutely crucial.
What is your favorite part of the production process and why?
There’s this very brief moment in the mornings, when the light has just started coming through the big windows that back the still. Crystal clear alcohol starts to bubble up through the glass spirit safe, the sun will hit it at the perfect angle, and the new-make whiskey takes on this brief, beautiful golden hue that it’ll eventually pick up permanently once it’s in cask. This happens so quickly and I usually miss it, but the times I do catch it happening, I stop and watch. Distillation is the serendipity of chemistry and art colliding; it’s what made me fall in love with this science in the first place.
How have your past professional and academic experiences and lessons prepared you for the work you do today? How have they not prepared you?
There isn’t a lot of overlap between a psychology degree, social work internships, and a career in distillation, at least at first glance. I can confidently say, however, that it has equipped me to understand and interact with people with a little more understanding. A large part of my job is teaching people about Manifest, our spirits, and how we produce them. I feel as if my background has allowed me to communicate much more efficiently, especially with some of the more abstract principles. Spirits tourism is booming right now; people not only want a delicious beverage, but they want to know everything about the spirit in their glass. Being able to make that information accessible and consumable to our visitors is a crucial part to the success of our tasting room.
What would you say is your biggest career milestone to date and why?
I’m not entirely sure if I have one single moment that I would define as my biggest career milestone. Making whiskey is all about the long game; making the actual alcohol takes about a week, but it doesn’t become something truly special until it sits a few years in a barrel. Everything happens slowly. I’d say my career is the same. Getting hired, obviously, were big moments for me, especially after my life collapsed on itself. My dad credits that moment as the instant he knew that I was going to be okay. But everything else has happened gradually. My promotion to distiller, my development of our education program, seeing our expansion across Florida and eventually out of state. I take huge pride in all that’s happened. But working in this industry, you develop a focus on the future. I think my big milestones are still on their way.
How would you say being a woman has affected your professional experience? What can we do to create more equal, uplifting (and well-paying!) spaces for women in your industry?
I’ve never received any pushback or condescension from male peers in the professional realm. I’ve always felt as if I’ve been listened to and respected. I have not always had this experience with our visitors at Manifest. There has been a sharp increase in the amount of distilleries that offer tour experiences to their guests, which has created a lot of so-called “experts.” It’s not unusual to have a guest, (and at the risk of sounding sexist, I can say that this happens more often with male visitors than it does with female), challenge me on any number of subjects, especially in a tour setting. Even then, not all of them like listening to a 26-year-old woman educate them on subjects that have, for some reason, been deemed “masculine.” My biggest piece of advice when it comes to creating uplifting spaces for anyone, man or woman, in my industry: respect them, no questions asked. It’s pretty simple. Another weird, female-specific issue that I’ve run into is just the general fascination with me, as a woman in her mid-twenties, doing the work that I do. I can’t describe how many times a guest has come in and marveled at the fact that I’m distiller. Not only is it an awkward conversation, but it’s become frustrating. Even though it may not appear to some people as being normal, this is a natural thing for me. I do what I do because I love it, not because it’s trendy or edgy.
What’s the gender ratio like in your industry? Do you see it evolving? Why or why not?
It’s hard to confidently say, because there isn’t a whole lot of solid data on the subject, but based on my casual observation, there does in fact appear to be a great deal more men in the distilling sciences than there are women. That being said, this figure is changing. A lot more women who have been a part of this workforce for decades are finally gaining the recognition they deserve, and new women are joining the ranks every day. The Women’s Distillery Guild has been having annual summits at various national conventions, like the American Distilling Institute conference. I’ve seen more articles and videos online highlighting women in the spirits industry, which is fantastic. But, as I mentioned before, it does get annoying after a while that people seem to be more fascinated by our gender than our actual God-given talent.
Who are some women in your field that you look to for inspiration?
Liz Chester is the senior distiller at MB Roland, and she was the first female distilling role model I ever had in this industry. Not only did she take me under her wing at work, but she also showed me that it is entirely possible for a woman to be in a leadership position in a male-centric industry. Like myself, she stumbled into her job, and she was the one who proved to me that I, with my lack of experience and STEM degree, could still become a full-fledged distiller. She is phenomenal at what she does, and I’ve always tried to actively be more like her. Mary Beth Tomaszewski is one of the co-owners and founders of MB Roland, which, as I mentioned before, was founded in 2007, just as the craft boom was starting. A great deal of people who visited the distillery while I worked there assumed she was just the owner’s wife, which is 100% not true. She is an integral part of that entire operation, from keeping the books to organizing events that bring (literally) thousands of people in to visit. Seeing her crush it as a female business owner has always been extremely inspiring to me. I hope to one day be as strong as her.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Keep going. Even when life gets difficult, or painful, or seemingly impossible, keep going. There will be people and situations that you’ll come across that will try to convince you that you’re not worthy of something; healthy love, a successful career, supportive friendship. None of it is true. We are all deserving, and capable of having, an incredible life.
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