In this episode of “End of Day Drinks,” Peggy Noe Stevens discusses her organization Bourbon Women and what the bourbon industry needs to do to promote inclusion. After becoming the world’s first female master bourbon taster, Stevens used her expertise to create Bourbon Women. There, other women can learn more about the spirit through workshops and what she calls “edu-tainment.” While some events revolve around bourbon food pairing and education, Bourbon Women has also debunked industry-wide myths that women prefer weaker bourbon. In fact, after holding a series of blind tastings, Stevens’ team found women actually prefer stronger, spicier, higher-proof, and more robust whiskies.
Here, Stevens shares what a master bourbon taster does day to day and some of the bourbon pairing advice from her new book, “Which Fork Do I Use with My Bourbon?”
She also discusses some of the issues in the bourbon industry and what steps retailers and trade show pros can make to take women seriously in the whiskey world. She insists that producers don’t have to “pinkify” a product, and should instead ensure they’re making space for more women to ask questions about different products.
Bourbon Women will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year, with thousands of women now in its ranks. Since Covid, the team has shifted to virtual events that have increased access to bourbon education for hundreds of women, including past “Sip-posiums” and an upcoming Toast to the Tenth Celebration.
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Adam: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, this is “End of Day Drinks,” where we sit down with the movers and shakers in the beverage industry. So pour yourself a glass and listen along with us. Let’s start the show. On today’s episode of “EOD Drinks,” we’re talking with Peggy Noe Stevens, the first female master bourbon taster and the founder of Bourbon Women.
Bourbon Women is an organization for women who are passionate about bourbon culture, women, and the promise of adventure when the two are combined. It’s an independent forum that brings women of all walks of life together over a glass of bourbon with a focus on initiating, cultivating, and inspiring deep and meaningful relationships; encouraging the development of women personally, professionally, and courageously; and supporting members in their journey to become the best versions of themselves in the world of bourbon. Additionally, they provide a safe, inclusive environment for fun, discovery, and learning. This was an interview that we recorded with Peggy right before the holidays. So she also gives us a little bit of information on pairing bourbon with some of her favorite dishes. All right, Katie and team, take it away.
Katie: Hello and welcome to VinePair’s “End of Day Drinks” podcast. I’m Katie, I’m the editorial associate here at VinePair. And I’m lucky enough today to be here with Peggy Noe Stevens. Peggy, thank you for joining us.
Peggy: Oh, my pleasure. Happy holidays to you.
K: You, too. Peggy is the world’s first female master bourbon taster and the founder of Bourbon Women, which is the first women’s consumer organization in the beverage industry, so we’re really lucky to have her on. I’m also joined by some of my fellow editorial team. So Adam Teeter, VinePair’s co-founder. Hey, Adam.
A: Hey Katie, what’s up?
K: And then Cat Wolinski, who is VinePair’s senior editor.
Cat: Hey, everyone, and hello, Peggy. So exciting to have you on.
P: Thank you.
K: So, Peggy, we’re so excited to have you, especially right before the holidays, and talk about everybody’s favorite fall and winter drink — that is bourbon. And we all brought a bourbon drink today. Right? So I’m curious what everyone decided to mix up.
P: I got to tell you, I’m even more curious on what y’all gravitated towards. So I’m all ears. I’m all ears.
A: I’m drinking bourbon the way I normally drink it, which is straight.
K: And what bourbon did you choose?
A: What am I drinking?
A: I mean, Peggy, are you gonna get mad at me if I tell you — I’m drinking Evan Williams single barrel.
P: Why would I be mad about that? In fact, I think I’m a little jealous, actually.
A: I just find it to be like, an amazing bourbon for the money.
K: Cat, what about you?
C: So I also usually sip my bourbon neat, but in the festivity of the podcast, I tried to make a cocktail really quickly. I was going for a Hot Toddy because that’s sort of my thing the past couple of weeks. But I didn’t really have time to make it hot. So I basically just tried to mix in a drop or two of honey into a couple of ounces of Rare Breed. And I expressed some fresh mint leaves and dropped them in there, and mixed it up with an ice cube. The honey did not dissolve, which is probably not surprising, but it’s actually really tasty.
K: That’s quite fancy for a last-minute cocktail.
P: I’m impressed, actually.
C: We got creative in all that time working from home. You know, it’s like this is my chance to have some fun and do something weird.
K: Totally. What about you, Peggy?
P: Well, I have been doing some blind tastings today because I’m a whiskey reviewer for American Whiskey Magazine. So when I do that and I’m just tasting straight, I always want a real cocktail after I do that. And so it was perfect timing for your podcast. And I made a black Manhattan. And what I love about those, it’s your typical add your bourbon, but I also put a little bit of bitters, some cherry syrup, and then I put some amaro and that’s why they call it a black Manhattan, because you just put enough to change the color of the cocktail to a darker color.
K: That sounds delicious.
C: I don’t think I’ve ever put amaro in my whiskey like that.
P: And that’s the thing. It’s so funny because I find out that so many people don’t because they do vermouth instead. But I was turned on to this, oh gosh, probably five years ago. It was actually another bourbon woman that taught me about it. And once I did, I was hooked. And it’s kind of my go-to cocktail these days.
K: That’s awesome. Well, I’m drinking some apple cider that I heated up and I just put a little bit of Maker’s Mark in there. It’s really delicious. There’s a place right near by me that smells like fresh cider. So I’ve been drinking it a lot, spiked and not, throughout the days here because it’s really cold. I’m in Colorado, Peggy. So it’s been snowing, and it just feels like the perfect winter drink.
P: That sounds delicious. Absolutely. I hear a lot of Toddies, of course, and I just wrote an article about warm winter drinks. So you all are right in line.
K: We’re on trend. That’s good to know.
A: Always good to know.
K: So, Peggy, can you talk a little bit about Bourbon Women? I know that bourbon is obviously a very male-dominated industry, so I’ve just been curious what it’s like for you to lead a bunch of women in that space. And how have you seen things change over the course of your time working in bourbon?
P: Oh, wow. Well, it’s been an evolution, and the best way I can say it is when I was young in the industry and I worked for major spirits company, I was a master taster, female master taster, and I would travel around and conduct tastings and largely 90 percent, if not 98 percent in the audience were male. And if there were any kind of trickle of women, it would be just a couple. But I’d never hear from them during the seminar. They would always come up after the seminar and I was really understanding their loyalty to bourbon, how they loved it, how engaged they were during the seminar, but they just never raised their hand. And so fast-forward to when I started my own company and the industry still really wasn’t having what I call a conversation with women. They were out there. So I conducted a bunch of focus groups throughout Kentucky and asked women, what do you want? You know, if there was an organization or a way that the industry would talk to you about bourbon, what would that be? And would you like it? And it was just overwhelmingly unanimous. And so Bourbon Women Organization was born right after that. And that has been literally 10 years ago. And I’m happy to say that we now have thousands of women across the U.S., some international, we’re celebrating our 10-year anniversary. We’re calling it a Toast to the Tenth in 2021. I’m glad it wasn’t in 2020. And we’re having a two-day virtual where we celebrate 10 cities with distilleries and we have formal branches in, a little bit over 10 now, like New York, California, etc. And I’m just so excited about the enthusiasm that these women have shown because we’ve conducted well over 250 events across the nation in that period of time. All lifestyle events, whether it’s cooking with bourbon, bourbon tastings, whiskey comparisons, we’ve had distillery speakers, master distillers come in and the women just love it. And virtually where we thought we were so disappointed that we couldn’t do our annual sip-posium. That’s “Sip-posium” in 2020 because usually about 350 women come in for an entire weekend for bourbon excursions and culinary dinners at distilleries and all of these things. It was OK because we ended up doing a three-day virtual conference back in August and our reach through that virtual conference — there’s always a silver lining to 2020 — really extended it to more women. So we don’t know what to expect at our next conference in 2021 because we had just so many women reaching out saying, what’s this about? How do we join? They just loved it. So I could not be more pleased with how the industry has supported us, helped fund us at these different events, and how the women have responded.
K: That’s awesome. And so you said that you’ve been kind of conducting that virtually, which I think is really cool because obviously it does help gain access for people who might not have been able to go travel. So I think that’s really awesome. I’m curious, as a master bourbon taster, first of all, if you could talk about — what does a master bourbon taster do, and how does that work during this virtual world that we’re currently living in during Covid?
P: Right. Well, first of all, I became a master bourbon taster. I was the first female master bourbon taster in the world, if you can believe it. That was back in the ’90s. And I remember almost taking a pause when they said, do you realize you’re the first one ever given this title as a female? And I thought that was, as excited as I was, and honored that I was, it was almost odd to me. Right, because I couldn’t believe that in the 1990s that we were that far behind. But what a master taster does, it can be different from distillery to distillery because that’s how we roll in our industry. And there’s master blenders, master distillers, and we each kind of do our own thing. The master taster is usually quality control, it is usually identifying flavor profiles within the whiskey to have the consumers understand what they’re drinking. And I would conduct tastings. I served as an ambassador for a particular brand for quite some time, and then in my own company, it became truly part of my business. Business being sourcing whiskey for different companies that wanted to start a distillery. I mentioned just a minute ago that I was doing some blind tasting. I do whiskey reviews. I’m a spirits judge and invited to many spirit competitions to really kind of profile different whiskeys and judge the quality of them. So a master taster can really envelop quite a few areas within the industry. And it’s been tons of fun. It has been something that I purely enjoy and have truly parlayed my love for a whiskey palate into food pairings with bourbon. And so that’s another passion of mine. And so I just came out with a book along with my good friend Susan Reigler, who’s also a spirits writer. It’s called “Which Fork Do I Use with my Bourbon?” Because people are almost gun shy. They think wine is the only thing that could ever go with food. And that is certainly not the case because bourbon is so complex. So we not only teach in the book the tricks of the trade, but how to conduct a tasting, what to look for in a bourbon, how to food pairing, how to entertain in your home using bourbon. So we kind of took everything that I’ve ever learned, I think, in bourbon and entertaining, and put it in the book so that a consumer could enjoy it in their own home.
A: So, Peggy, you’ve been around bourbon for a very long time, obviously very famous family connection to bourbon. I’m curious to really dig in here and talk about what the bourbon industry needs to do, and I think the whiskey industry, in general, to make itself more welcoming to women, because there are so many people that talk to us, readers who say, “I’m a massive whiskey drinker, but I just don’t feel like the industry ever talks to me. I don’t feel like the brands talk to me. They always assume that it’s just something that men drink.” And so what does the industry need to do better? And what do we as a publication need to do better in order to ensure that we are talking to women equally when it comes to talking about whiskey?
P: Well, I simply love that you’ve identified that and have asked that big, bold question. And there’s quite a bit that can be done. One of the premises, too, of the Bourbon Women Organization was not just to start a conversation with women and give what I call edu-tainment to women, but it was also to debunk the myth that the industry had. They thought that a woman, in order to drink bourbon, that they would have to dumb it down and make it sweeter and lighter proof and not so robust. And it was quite the opposite. So one of the things that we really dug into was research. And we conducted, again, blind tastings. We conducted tasting profiles based on a woman’s palate. And what we found hands down is that women across the board, this is no coincidence, liked stronger, spicier, higher-proof, and more robust whiskies. And so when we deliver that information, we kind of what I said, debunked the myth that’s out there to let spirits companies know, don’t dumb it down, you don’t have to “pinkify” it just for a woman to enjoy it, to make it more welcoming for a woman. And I’ll just take a quick example. Take your whiskey trade show. I have attended so many of those across the country and scores of men will come in, women will come in. And I have noticed that the representatives sometimes behind the table that are pouring the whiskey, they really pay attention to the men. And they’re pouring the whiskey and they’re talking to the men. And the women almost have to beg for a glass or say, “Hey, I’m over here.” And they need to identify with women when they are approached by a woman. To talk to them, to welcome them, to give them that glass, ask them if they have questions. Because what we have found is these women are no whiskey 101 people. They know their stuff. They are researchers, they’re educated, they’re working women. They study just like men do. Another area that I think is really important, too, is in the retail stores, especially when you go to a liquor store and a woman is going down the aisle looking at bourbons, to ask her if she needs any assistance and let her ask questions. That’s another area that I think is really important. Some of the events that we hold, we just did one, for example, with Four Roses. We call it the Sip and Stream. And we did a hand-selected barrel pick with Four Roses and bottled it and sold it in the liquor stores and it was specified to a women’s palate. We did another one with Maker’s Mark this holiday season. It sold out in two hours, a whole barrel of bourbon sold out in two hours by the women buying it because that shows passion. So I think the more we show the love that females can have with this industry and with a product, it’s quite profitable for the industry because we’re the other half of the population.
C: More than half, in most cases. I was going to ask, Peggy, what you think about the cross-collaboration with other beverage industries? Because today, we actually just published our 50 Best Beers of the year, and one of them was the Brooklyn Brewery Black Ops 2019 Vintage, which was aged in Four Roses barrels. And that was a really special treat for us to try and ended up in our top 50. And something we see a lot in beer, like bourbon-barrel-aging products, and we see it everywhere now, I mean, what’s your opinion on, is bourbon reaching beer drinkers that way, or is beer reaching bourbon drinkers? And then finally, what about bourbon-barrel-aged wines?
P: Well, I have to tell you, I think you struck a really hot trend right now, and first and foremost, I shall say I’m an equal opportunity drinker. I will have a beer, I will drink wine, I will drink my bourbon. So that’s good because we can all play together and we can play together very well between all the different industries. What’s a very hot trend right now are what is called “finishes” or barrel-aged products. In fact, I just wrote another article called “The Final Finish,” where a lot of bourbons are traditionally making their bourbon as they normally do, but they are sourcing different barrels. They might be an Armagnac barrel. It might be a Calvados barrel, it may be a rum barrel. And they’re doing a finish by letting the bourbon, some of the bourbon rest in that secondary barrel. And that is called technically a barrel-finished product. So with beer, using the interior of a barrel, we can only use in our industry a barrel one time. That’s according to our bourbon definition, white charred oak barrel, one time use. And then we sell it to people like wineries and tequila will buy bourbon barrels, the Scotch industry, etc. But what everybody needs to know is that usually up to 85 percent of the flavors, the best flavors of that barrel are given to bourbon. And then the used barrel you can still, of course, get great-quality flavor. It just takes a little bit longer. And because bourbon is complex and adds so many great congeners to beer, wine, etc., that’s why you’re seeing such a trend, because of our complexity. And there are some really great bourbons that are Cabernet-finished that I have tasted. There are really great beers that are bourbon-barrel finished. So I think it’s really insightful. I think it’s innovative, and I think we need to keep playing with each other.
K: So going back to something that you mentioned a bit ago, you were talking about how a lot of people think that wine is the only thing that you can pair with food, and that you completely disagree. You think bourbon can pair really well with food. Can you talk a little bit about some of your favorite bourbon and food pairings?
P: Oh, sure. It depends, of course. I love to pair bourbon throughout the course of the meal, so when I entertain in my home and have groups of people over that are bourbon fanatics, we don’t serve wine. I pair a different bourbon with each course and also with the appetizers. So we have a ton of fun doing that. But I would say appetizers to me are the most fun to pair because you can really get layers and layers of flavor. One in particular that I’m making for Christmas, it’s a Christmas holiday, one that I favor, it is a mushroom cap and I take country ham and Boursin cheese, which is kind of an herbed cheese, and I blend those together. I stuff the mushroom, brush it all with olive oil, and then I bake them until the cheese is kind of bubbly. And I serve that with a barrel-strength whiskey, because it is a very earthy flavor with between the country ham, very savory, and earthy again with the mushrooms. And then that herb cheese with the olive oil — it is just phenomenal how it harmonizes with that salty country ham. So you almost need, because it is so rich, you almost need a barrel-strength bourbon to almost cut through some of that savoriness. And what it brings to the table is this overlay of caramel note and vanilla note. So think about all the flavors that I just spoke of coming together and taking a bite of that.
C: That sounds delicious.
A: Yeah, you’re making me really hungry.
P: You know, that’s why I just love dissecting an appetizer and kind of breaking down all the flavors and then, you know, what to pair it with.
A: So you’ve obviously seen the bourbon industry evolve over the past few decades. What do you think is to explain for two things? One, just it’s explosive growth in general. And two, the recent sort of explosion of these certain bottles that become collector’s items and then the prices just become insane. So I’m thinking, obviously we all know Pappy Van Winkle, but, you know now it’s basically anything that comes out of Sazerac, right? It’s all of these different producers that I remember for example, I used to be able to buy some of these for 30 bucks, you know, five, six years ago. And now I can’t even find some of these producers on the shelves. What do you think is explaining all of that fervor around bourbon?
P: Well, I will tell you, going back, let’s say, to the mid-’90s bourbon, actually, I’ll go back to the ’80s, bourbon actually had a decline in the ’80s, and we weren’t doing a great job of marketing across the world. Globally, Scotch was kicking our butts, if you will. And so I think what happened in the ’90s, we started to see a resurgence and it was a myriad of things. It was the cocktail culture. For example, bartenders were starting to bring back some retro cocktails like the Manhattans, the Old Fashioneds, Highballs that demanded use of bourbon. And so I think cocktails really helped people gravitate back to bourbon. I think pop culture had a huge hand, like “Mad Men,” if you watched that, they drank a lot of bourbon.
P: And so with all these influences happening, we became better marketers. We launched the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which, it’s a bucket list thing to do now, where you can travel around to the different distilleries throughout Kentucky, I think we now have over 60 distilleries in Kentucky. So we just started to do a better job globally as well, breaking into markets, having other destinations. Japan especially fell in love with bourbon. So globally, we developed a better footprint in reach. And so that’s really — it didn’t happen overnight. And we’ve seen a trajectory. I think the Kentucky Distillers Association, about five or six years ago, did a 20-year trajectory that our growth would continue. And so far it has, so knock on wood. Now, the other side of the coin I think that you spoke about was limited expressions and exclusivity. That seems to be right now anyway, the name of the game. I think that scarcity of product like Blanton’s for example, you mentioned Sazerac. It’s really difficult to find right now and where once I could buy a case at the local liquor store.
A: Me, too!
P: And its fervor, as I call it, or fever, I should call it, of consumers who, it’s all kind of word of mouth. “Oh, this you’ve got to try this. They’re running out of that.” And also the distilleries now jumping on that bandwagon of limited expression. You see Woodford Reserve doing a bit of that, just saying we even put this in a smaller bottle because there’s only a limited amount. The more exclusive, the more people want. And that is my distinct impression. And there are, believe me, some bourbons out there that I just think are incredible that are worth the price of purchase. Peerless is making a beautiful rye right now. Colonel Taylor, I can’t even find myself.
A: I can’t either. I love Colonel Taylor, too. And I can’t find it anywhere.
P: Right. It’s exceptional, but it’s so darn hard to find. So even though those have become what I call “cult products,” you just wonder, though, when people kind of give up and say, we’re just going to have to start drinking something else because we can never find it. So when does the pendulum swing?
A: Well, and just as a follow-up there, that’s what I’m wondering. Because that’s what we’re hearing on the editorial side from Irish whiskey producers, from Scotch, again, who are starting to say, well, we’re producing liquids with age that is sometimes older than a lot of these 10-year-old bourbons people are going crazy for. And you can find us and we’re also 35 bucks. And is this our opportunity? And I think what you’re talking about here is really interesting, because the fact that you’re recognizing that that could be a problem, that that’s a threat for bourbon, that the scarcity that everyone’s obsessed with now could possibly hurt the category is really interesting to me.
K: Yeah, definitely.
P: Well, it’s my perspective, and they’ve proven me wrong many times, I’m sure. But my perspective is I think it’s really cool that people are excited about bourbon and exclusivity. I think it’s really exciting. It’s just at what threshold will a consumer stand back and say, we’ll wait for that whiskey to come out or we’ll wait for that — you know, I just don’t know that answer. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder. And I described it recently to somebody as an analogy of art. You know, I know that if I look at an art piece, it might touch me personally, but it might not touch my husband personally because he thinks it’s ugly. And so bourbon is kind of in the eye of the beholder, just like art is.
A: I like that.
C: So, Peggy, I actually have a question that’s taking the opposite perspective from long loved-legacy bottles. In the Bourbon Women group, how many people are you seeing who are aspiring entrepreneurs, who are looking to start their own bourbon brands or whiskey brands or launch another kind of business in this industry?
P: Many. Now, we are a consumer group — we just happen to have industry people that like us and join as well — but we are truly a consumer group. However, within that consumer environment, I know there’s a woman right now who actually retired from her first industry love because she fell in greater love with bourbon. And now she has a job in the bourbon industry. And we see a lot of that, that people have fallen in love with the culture. They had no idea that it could be a career. So we try to network women as much as possible. That’s part of our mission with Bourbon Women is to create a great networking resource for those young females. I was on the phone just the other day with another young individual millennial that is in a totally different industry, but she worked during the summers at a distillery, really wants to start a career in that. So she sent me a resume. I’m circulating her resume. We have those kinds of connections and we can’t do it, of course, for everybody. But as many as we can touch that are female, we do.
K: That’s awesome. Well, Peggy, thank you so much for coming today and talking to us about all things bourbon: Bourbon Women, bourbon pairings. You are clearly super knowledgeable about the subject and we were very excited to have you come. So we really appreciate it.
P: Well, I loved it. And if anybody is interested in joining Bourbon Women just go to BourbonWomen.org. You will see our February event Toast to the 10th on Feb. 25 and 26. And I hope everybody joins us. You’ll see what we’re about.
K: Great. Well, congratulations on 10 years, that’s so exciting.
P: Thank you.
A: Thank you so much.
C: Thank you, Peggy. It’s been a pleasure.
P: All right. Bye bye.
Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of “EOD Drinks.” If you’ve enjoyed this program, please leave us a rating or a review wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps other people discover the show. And tell your friends. We want as many people as possible listening to this amazing program.
And now for the credits. “End of Day Drinks” is recorded live in New York City at VinePair’s headquarters. And it is produced, edited, and engineered by VinePair tastings director, yes, he wears a lot of hats, Keith Beavers. I also want to give a special thanks to VinePair’s co-founder, Josh Malin, to the executive editor Joanna Sciarrino, to our senior editor, Cat Wolinski, senior staff writer Tim McKirdy, and our associate editor Katie Brown. And a special shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, VinePair’s art director who designed the sick logo for this program. The music for “End of Day Drinks” was produced, written and recorded by Darby Cici. I’m VinePair co-founder Adam Teeter, and we’ll see you next week. Thanks a lot.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.