In today's article we interview Peggy Noe Stevens, who devoted herself to 30 years of hospitality, entertaining and developing spirit brand destinations and is the only female in the world to be inducted to both the 2019 Bourbon Hall of Fame and 2020 Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame. Peggy became the world’s first female Master Bourbon Taster in the industry and can trace her lineage back to some of the great bourbon making families in Kentucky. In 2011, she created the Bourbon Women Association, the first female consumer group in the industry to celebrate and support Kentucky’s signature product with a multi-city platform for women.
Could you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your background in the whiskey industry?
I was born and raised in Louisville, Ky and attended school at the University of Kentucky, receiving my PR and communications degree. With such an open field, it was difficult for me at the time to determine the best route for my career. The Hyatt Regency in Lexington offered me an internship and so it was easy to take my first job offer at the Hyatt Regency Louisville as a catering manager. I had never worked so hard in my life! However, I learned all facets of food and beverage and whet my appetite for planning a myriad of events. I also worked at the Chicago Hyatt and received a taste of the “big city life” for a woman all of 23. My goal was to eventually become a General Manager at a luxury resort, as I had not entertained a career in the spirits industry.
You worked for years at Brown-Forman on some iconic brands such as Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve. What were some of the highlights?
Growing up in Louisville, my Noe side of the family did not choose the bourbon industry as a career. I believe I have now changed that! I was head hunted by Brown-Forman from the Hyatt and developed their travel and meeting planning department, planning over 100 events annually and globally. Eventually I was promoted to become the Guest Services Director for a new start up distillery called Woodford Reserve in 1994. Truly one of the best experiences of my life and gave me a taste for being entrepreneurial and building a brand culture from inception. It was there that I was identified by the General Manager and Master Distiller, Lincoln Henderson, to become a Master Taster. Little did I know at the time that I would become the first female Master Bourbon Taster in the Industry. That news hit over 120 newspapers and I remember being a bit perplexed as to why this was big news? Now I understand, as I am thrilled to see female Master Distillers begin to hit the scene of the industry.
Continuing my experiential marketing and brand development side, I was promoted to manage all the brand destinations for the company and later became a global director for Jack Daniels which was a true honor and “ceiling breaker” for women. During the 17 years of being with Brown-Forman and earning my Bourbon pedigree. It was 2008 when I departed Brown-Forman and followed that original stir of entrepreneurship that I had out of college and began my own company Peggy Noe Stevens & Associates. I gathered all my personal brand assets and love for the industry and today work with image and experiential branding for companies including distilleries, wineries, and breweries. The industry keeps on growing and evolving and I look forward to the next venture I will seek, as the industry can be full of surprises and at the same time a steady and reliable friend. Although I never set out for a Bourbon career, it found me, and I have followed it as a loyal ambassador. I now am a whiskey reviewer, author, and creator of over 34 brand destinations. I was honored to have been awarded the Hall of Fame from Kentucky Distillers Association and Whiskey Hall of Fame from Whisky Magazine.
Peggy also serves as the first female Master Bourbon Taster in the industry. Very impressive! How do you become a Master Taster?
What makes our industry unique is that becoming a Master Distiller, blender, or taster in the industry is not a “test” you take, you are selected. I had the privilege to learn from an icon, Lincoln Henderson at Woodford Reserve who trained me in all aspects of the process and quality control. He truly developed my palate and eventually said I was ready like the maturing whiskey. From there I began conducting tastings with audiences around the world and worked on all aspects of the brand development.
How have you developed your palate for spirits? How would you guide newcomers in getting started tasting bourbon and American whiskey?
I have always had a passion for the culinary industry and was trained by Hyatt in all aspects of food and beverage. I was adept at pairing food and wine, and it dawned on me many years ago that bourbon was so complex with flavours that the consumer did not understand and that whiskey was an equal contender for food pairings. I walked myself to my kitchen to hone in on fruit, sweet, spice, umami flavours. From there I applied it to whiskey and created a culinary flavour wheel and process to break down the flavours.
I even wrote a book called, Which Fork do I use with my Bourbon to better educate the consumer.
You were also instrumental in the creation of the famous Kentucky Bourbon Trail; can you tell us a bit more about this experience?
During my time at Woodford, I was also pleased to have worked with two women (my competitors at the time from Maker’s Mark ,Donna Nally and Jim Beam, Doris Calhoun) to create the Kentucky Bourbon Trail with the KDA. (Yes, there were women behind the KBT).
We were all directors of hospitality and wanted to cross-market to attract consumers. We took the idea to the KDA and touted that tourism would increase if all the distilleries came together. I believe at the time there were only around seven distilleries. When it became a success and I started my own company, I was brought back in by the KDA to create the long-term strategy for the Bourbon Trail and now here we are!!
In 2010, you founded the Bourbon Women Association. What inspired you?
It was also my sincere pleasure to be the founder of the Bourbon Women’s Association that now boasts the reach of thousands of members across the nation. I always knew that the industry just needed to start a conversation with women. With the help of some very dynamic women and a few Manhattans, the Bourbon Women’s Association was born. We are formally in over 12 states and hold an annual conference called the “SIP”, where over 400 women attend each year. We have executed well-over 250 events and support the industry to help celebrate and spread the word on the lifestyle and culture that surrounds our esteemed industry.
We are celebrating our ten year anniversary in 2021!!
In relation to Bourbon Women, how have you seen things change over the course of your time working in bourbon?
Most certainly and I think we were a catalyst for change, as traditionally brands only marketed to men and now, they see a HUGE passion for women drinking whiskey. We are the other half of the population and have debunked some myths about women liking sweeter, low proof whiskey. In fact, we created studies and blind tastings that prove that women go for the spicier, more robust, and higher proof whiskey! Brand marketers now seek us out for an audience with women to talk about their brand.
If you had to pick just one individual in the whiskey industry or a distillery that you have not yet visited or met, who/where would you pick and why?
My all-time favorite Master Distiller is Jimmy Russel and although I have been to Wild Turkey, more than I could count, a private tour and tasting with Jimmy is a still a treasure. I met him when I was very young in the industry and was a competitor, yet he treated me first-class and was always interested in what I was working on and how I was doing. A woman never forgets that type of kindness and respect.
What’s the most memorable bourbon tasting experience you’ve been a part of?
During a vintage tasting with Bourbon Women, I had the pleasure of sipping a 1980’s Makers Mark and it was stunning. Deep texture with caramel notes that exploded out of the glass. It was rich and decadent, complex beyond words.
In our “A Century of American Whiskey” Auction, what three bourbons would be on your dream bidding list?
I would run to ANY of the E.H. Taylor products and curious as heck about the Henry Clay.
It is the largest collection of Willet I have ever seen, so would choose a few from that, as well.