With more than two barrels for every person living in Kentucky, it’s no surprise the state produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon. Nearly 11 million barrels of bourbon are aging in Kentucky at any given moment. The number of licensed distilling operations in Kentucky has more than quadrupled between 2009 when there were 19 in the state, and 2021, when there were 95. Bourbon is hot and growing. What might surprise you is how many visionary women distillers are disrupting the historically male-dominated industry.
Here are five women changing the face of bourbon in Kentucky:
Peggy Noe Stevens founded the Bourbon Women Association for women who are passionate about bourbon culture and the promise of adventure. With branches in 15 areas, and Louisville as its national branch, the independent membership-based forum brings together women of all walks of life over bourbon for professional development and growth, networking, and providing an inclusive environment for learning. Stevens described Bourbon Women as a movement.
“Bourbon is a conversation to Kentuckians ― whether a secret to your perfectly made cocktail or a favorite heirloom recipe. Bourbon has character and depth that has become an art of the master distiller, as well as a craft,” she said.
Kaitlyn Owens and Nicole Stipp are founders of the now-legendary Trouble Bar, a must-stop for any Bourbon fans visiting Louisville. The duo customizes tastings, excursions, and classes for bourbon fans. The experiences create one-of-a-kind experiences for bourbon seekers.
“One of my favorite days out was around Bardstown,” Stipp said. “We started with an early morning bourbon tasting and breakfast at our tasting room, Trouble Bar. Then we rode out to Maker’s Mark for their Oak Experience, this fabulous 2.5-hour tour of the distillery where you get to see the importance of oak trees and the company’s commitment to being an environmentally conscious company. From Maker’s Mark, we took this group for lunch at the fabulous Bar at Willett and then over to the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center for a cocktail, followed by being privately led through their You Do Bourbon experience ― where you have the opportunity to fill your own bottle of a specially selected single barrel from Heaven Hill’s inventory! After that experience, we headed to the Chef-owned and operated Harrison Smith House, where Chef Newman Miller and his wife Rachel have built one of the premier dining destinations in the entire state. Dinner here isn’t just a culinary experience, it’s a journey through what makes hospitality so special in Kentucky and the foodways that bring some of the best culinary minds here.”
Owens describes their customer base as diverse and just plain fun to hang out with: “Trouble is a neighborhood bar first, a Louisville bar second-first, and a bourbon bar third, as well as, with our utmost gratitude, a gathering place for people who are passionate about creating community and building the city and the world they want to live in. We get our neighbors, grad students, and law students along with UofL professors, doctors, and nurses who work downtown, bachelor and bachelorette parties, bourbon industry friends, a few city and state government officials, journalists, union organizers, and reps, and new parents who just got out of the house for the first time ― and that’s a pretty typical crowd for a week.”
Elizabeth McCall, Assistant Master Distiller of Woodford Reserve, represents the second generation of her family to work in the bourbon industry and is one of the youngest female distillers in the United States. She followed in her mother’s footsteps, starting as a sensory expert and working in Woodford’s quality department.
“I got my start in the bourbon industry completely by chance, though because my mother worked in the industry I was always aware of that field,” McCall said. “My mother worked at the old Seagrams plant in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I was attending my younger brother’s graduation party and discussing my upcoming graduation from graduate school, where I was getting my master’s in counseling psychology. Coincidentally, there was a man there who worked for Brown-Forman and overheard me discussing my future career plans. He informed me that the Sensory Department had a technician that was leaving and would have a spot open. I sent in my resume and a few months later I got the job! My career at Brown-Forman began as a sensory technician, washing dishes and setting up tasting panels. A few years later I took an internal class on spirits, where I made a positive impression on our Master Distiller Chris Morris who, unbeknownst to me, was looking for someone to train to be Woodford Reserve’s Master Taster. A few months later, he asked if I wanted to train for the role. I said yes, of course! After working as Master Taster and Senior Quality Control Specialist for the past three or so years, I was promoted to Assistant Master Distiller in 2018.”
McCall said the balanced and complex flavors of Woodford are what make it unique. “We deliver on this promise through our detailed quality systems that we have in place. No detail is overlooked when it comes to Woodford Reserve. From grains, production process, new make testing, to maturation, final batches, packaging, our production staff, brand team, and our homeplace ― not one piece is overlooked. Our bourbon gets sensory tested no less than seven times before it makes its way into a bottle. That is our way of delivering a high-quality product that consumers want to revisit time and time again, and it is how we win awards. We don’t cut corners and we take a tremendous amount of pride in the product we make.”
Andrea Wilson, Master of Maturation and COO at Michter’s, manages barrel specifications, barrel procurement, heat cycling and temperature monitoring during aging, tracking maturation of barrels, whiskey filtration in preparation for bottling, and innovation. Andrea has achieved many honors during her illustrious career, including being the first woman to ever serve as Chair of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association and being welcomed into The Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame®. Wilson is admired for her accomplishments in the whiskey industry and has been involved in all aspects of making Michter’s whiskeys. She credits the family aspect at Michter’s as a key to their success.
“Working for a family-owned business is wonderful,” Wilson said. “At Michter’s we have the freedom to focus on making the best American whiskey at whatever the cost. If we know there is something we can do to make it better – we do it! Quality is a critical factor with consumers across the globe and we feel the focus on consistent quality is allowing our brand to grow. That is why quality transcends everything we do at Michter’s. We focus on processes that raise our production cost to levels considerably above industry standard, but in our opinion elevate the quality of the final product. Taking special, extraordinary steps during production is not inexpensive, but it makes a better whiskey. All of this takes a great deal of attention to detail and discipline by our team to ensure our quality specifications are being met each and every time.”