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Meet the Tastings Team

 Jerald at BTIJerald O’Kennard, Director, jerald@tastings.com

Jerald O’Kennard is the Director of Tastings/Beverage Testing Institute, one of the world’s foremost authorities on alcoholic beverages. The Beverage Testing Institute (BTI)—was founded in 1981, as America’s premier independent alcoholic beverage review organization with a mission to create fair and reliable reviews of wines for consumers. In 1994, BTI began reviewing beers and spirits and founded the World Beer Championships and the World Spirits Championships—now named the International Review of Spirits. BTI regularly reviews thousands of beverages every year.

BTI was the first organization to publish wine reviews online —managing the America Online Food and Drink Network from 1989 to 1999. All of our reviews, including over 30,000 of our most recent reviews, plus hundreds of articles, now appear on our website, Tastings.com. Leading producers and marketers participate in BTI’s reviews and competitions because they recognize the Institute’s ability to identify and describe the best products and get that information out to consumers. Additionally, BTI partners with many other websites and media that feature its reviews. Examples include: CNBC, BusinessWeek TV, the Chicago Tribune, WGN Radio, Martha Stewart Radio, BBC Radio International, All About Beer magazine, Restaurant Hospitality magazine, and many others.

Jerald received his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Chicago, completed post-graduate work in the arts, and has over a decade of food & beverage management and event management experience. He has developed beverage programs and lists for many of the Midwest’s major cultural institutions and trained thousands of service personnel in all facets of wine, spirits, and cuisine.

He began his relationship with BTI in the late 90’s as a taster and quickly established himself as a senior panelist based on his remarkable sensory abilities. He then worked as a consultant for BTI, helping to develop e-commerce applications for BTI’s product review databases. In 2000, he was hired as Tasting Director. As a man experienced in both the arts and business, he brings a robust palette of organizational and creative skills to the Institute and is directly responsible for administering and marketing all of BTI’s tasting and private consultation programs. His writings on spirits, wine, and beer can be regularly found on Tastings.com and in All About Beer, the Chicago Tribune, and Restaurant Hospitality magazines. He is a beverage contributor to the CNBC television network, BusinessWeek TV, and BBC ‘s Radio International and is often consulted on and quoted by the New York Times, Business 2.0, Wall Street Journal, Men’s Journal, Reuters, and other national and international publications on the subjects of wines, beers, and spirits.

He loves to travel and learn from wine, beer, and spirits producers around the world and is developing a beverage television show that will share his insights and discoveries. In what little spare time he has, he is a musician and composer with several albums and movie soundtracks to his credit. He also has an intense passion for pursuing what he calls the “Three C’s” of the beverage and entertaining industries: culture, cuisine, and celebration. However, wherever he goes, he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convince people that he actually works for a living.


Alyssa Mercado Production Coordinator, amercado@tastings.com

Alyssa was introduced to the Tastings team in September of 2013. After receiving a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School, she ventured out into the real world looking for opportunities to learn and grow. At BTI she encountered the unique world that is the beverage industry, and is quickly discovering all of the aspects that make it diverse and intriguing. She is currently focusing on data maintenance, marketing pieces, and daily tastings, and looks forward to the endless knowledge to be gained.



Debra OKennard BTIDebra O’Kennard, VP Strategic Juggling, deb@tastings.com

Debra began her food career serving hash and flipping burgers at the local Woolworth’s, at the tender age of 15. Her passion for food led her to restaurant management school, where she received an A.S. in Applied Sciences. She has worked in the food industry for more than 30 years, including a stint with Arnie Morton and 15 years with the Chicago Caterers and Culinary Enterprises. Debra left the brutal schedule of food industry to become a mother, an occupation in which, by comparison (she says), the hours are minimal and the pay is great. Breaking her nine-month abstinence from drink led her to the perfect job; she can organize and rally the troops all day long, and taste the day’s leftover samples at leisure. She likes añejo rum, Rhône and rosé wines, cachaça cøcktåils, and non-über hœppy bière de garde.

 Gary E. Nei, CEO

A Northwestern University MBA graduate, Gary has served as CEO of biotech and pharmaceutical companies NPI, Lyphomed, Eon Labs. In his role as serious wine buyer, he has few equals. In addition to his current role as CEO of BTI, he consults to Welsh, Carson, and Stowe , a private investment partnership, and sits on the board of several other companies. Somehow, he still finds time to play a lot of golf, chase fish with a stick, and worry that he might not have enough Burgundy.