“We always really have worked in the industry in different capacities, but women are now gaining traction in marketing, production and executive leadership roles.” – Peggy Noe Stevens
Peggy Noe Stevens is the Founder of the Bourbon Women Association and an accredited Master Bourbon Taster.
In this Whisky Women interview, she speaks about becoming the world’s first female master bourbon taster, how the industry has changed since she started exploring it in the 1980s, and teaching Julia Child about bourbon.
How did you first get interested in whisk(e)y?
It was when I began in the hotel business in the late ’80s. I was an event planner and of course being from Kentucky, had to immerse myself in the knowledge of spirits. We would host meetings and conventions for the different beverage companies in Kentucky and I always had to keep up with “who was whom” in the industry as far as products went. I was later head-hunted by Brown-Forman in the early ’90s and my true training began!
What was one of the first ones you fell in love with?
No doubt it was Old Forester; it was a flagship brand of Brown-Forman’s and truly an incredible product. Later on, working as the Director of Woodford Reserve, Woodford was my next romance.
You worked for years at Brown-Forman. How did that increase your knowledge of bourbon? What were some of the highlights?
I had an incredible training in the wine company of Brown-Forman by a man named Bob Lipinski. He taught me so much about all aspects of wine. With Bourbon, I credit the former master distiller, Lincoln Henderson. He trained me to become a master taster and had an incredible palate. He taught me everything from how to hold a glass to distinguishing aroma, etc. He had a captured audience with me.
You founded the Bourbon Women Association. What inspired you?
When I became a Master Taster, I would travel around the globe conducting tastings to groups. The audience was primarily men with a trickle of women. After I would speak, the few women who were there would come up and ask questions. I realized that they were just as curious and wanted knowledge as the men; it just wasn’t exactly a comfortable platform for them. So, when I started my own company and continued doing my tastings, I decided to make a bit of a change. I gathered some girlfriends over manhattans and we discussed the possibility of Bourbon Women. We then held focus groups across Kentucky with women to see if we were just dreaming, or if this was a real aspiration and passion of women, to learn more about sprits. The answer was an overwhelming yes! Thus, Bourbon Women was born. We now have over 600 women members in 22 states.
You’re also the world’s first female master bourbon taster – how did that come about? How did you feel being named as such?
When I was working for Woodford Reserve the general manager and Master Distiller thought I had a good palate. I was a die-hard foodie, managed the tour programme and truly understood the mechanics of production. The brand was growing rapidly and they asked if I would be interested in training. Over a year later, I received the designation of Master Taster for Bourbon and became the first female in the world. I remember being surprised that I was a first! It seemed impossible that more women were not, but at that time it was true. I am happy and proud of this, but even better, I now see other female tasters and even master distillers! It is fabulous.
You have a family lineage in bourbon – do you feel like you’re honouring that past through your experiences?
I do indirectly, but feel I am celebrating the history, heritage and tradition of Kentucky even more with Bourbon Women.
What changes have you seen in the bourbon world since becoming involved in it?
Certainly the rise of the female market, which we hope Bourbon Women has helped with this. Flavoured whiskey is hot right now even though I am a bit of a purist. Wonderful retro cocktails made by mixologists is another trend.
Do you think more women should or could work in whisk(e)y?
Yes and Yes…we always really have worked in the industry in different capacities, but women are now gaining traction in marketing, production and executive leadership roles.
What’s one of your favourite memories involving whisk(e)y?
Being with Julia Child and conducting a one-on-one tasting with her. She was in her 80’s and so curious and wanted to know everything. What a gracious woman! Also, giving Bobby Flay his first tastes of Bourbon in the early days of the Food Network when he was beginning his career. We had a blast and he has fallen in love with Bourbon and Kentucky since then.