Travel–when done right–is all about creating authentic experiences to approach life with an adventurous spirit and challenge oneself and the world around us to expand our understanding of how we connect with each other. When it comes to trailblazers, few can lay claim to being groundbreaking pioneers quite like Peggy Noe Stevens.
Founder of Peggy Noe Stevens & Associates, she worked for the Brown-Forman Corporation for 17 years, eventually holding the position of guest services director for Woodford Reserve.
A true southern belle with an air of charm that masks her grit to change the world, Stevens is a woman with several firsts after her name: the world’s first female master bourbon taster, co-founder of the iconic Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and founder of the Bourbon Women’s Association, an organization devoted to women who are passionate about bourbon culture.
Rising to the top in a male-dominated industry, Stevens is recognized as a legend in her field, having been inducted into the Whisky Magazine’s Hall of Fame and the 2019 Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.
And, as if this long list of accomplishments wasn’t impressive enough, she is also co-author of the joyfully titled book, “Which Fork Do I Use with My Bourbon?”, which offers delightfully sage advice on hosting and entertaining friends and family, particularly for the annual running of the Kentucky Derby.
We recently had a chance to sit down with Stevens and discuss her incredible journey, one that has led to the expansion of the bourbon cultural landscape to not only reach a wider audience but to be more inclusive in its acknowledgment of its most passionate devotees–women.
A Rising Career In Kentucky Bourbon
Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Stevens attended the University of Kentucky, where she had the opportunity to take on a (rather unglamorous) internship with Hyatt Hotels. “You know how internships go,” she muses. “I think I was licking envelopes and typing things.” The experience led to her first post-graduation job at the Louisville Hyatt as their catering and conventional salesperson.
Stevens dryly notes she worked “about a million hours a week” in that first role but called it “the best Bootcamp I could have ever had in regards to wines, spirits, food, culinary…”. As her career status rose, she became the guest services director for Woodford Reserve Distillery. “It was there that–even though my roots are here in Kentucky, I grew up with bourbon, my mother’s favorite drink was a highball–I felt like that was really my start in my career of bourbon.”
Stevens had the opportunity to work with legendary master distiller Lincoln Henderson, who passed away in 2013. Stevens calls Henderson “an icon” in the industry and credits him with teaching her about conducting tastings and recognizing that she herself had a remarkably good palette–a sure sign of the potential for becoming a master bourbon taster.
Fresh from her foodie background at Hyatt, Henderson discovered that Stevens would often describe whisky in culinary terms. Intrigued by her unique palette, Henderson began formally training Stevens to become a master taster.
Stevens began conducting her own tastings around the world on behalf of the brand before moving on to Jack Daniels as a global director. The breadth of her experience led her to start her own business in 2008, Peggy Noe Stevens & Associates. “I saw this incredible rise in Kentucky Tourism. Craft distilleries wanting to come to Kentucky and everything I have ever learned or done in hospitality, food, bourbon, tourism–all of these things came together for me.”
A Master Bourbon Taster
In the wine world, there are Sommeliers, formally trained professionals using their knowledge to curate and recommend the best wines for any dish or occasion. Becoming a master bourbon taster is a little bit different, as it begins with the master distiller identifying and selecting the individual they feel has the most potential to become an excellent master bourbon taster.
As Stevens explains, the role of a master bourbon taster involves tasting samples out of the barrels, profiling them for their flavor components, and serving as an educator to people all over the world to teach them about the flavors and history of bourbon. Much of her time is devoted to her master taster work, with both new and established brands seeking her out to profile a product as she discerns whether it features “sweet, spice, savory, herbal, earthy–all of these flavor components that you will find in a good bourbon.”
Stevens also frequently serves as a whisky judge at spirits competitions. She also writes whisky reviews for American Whisky magazine. “I love every minute of it,” she says. “It’s fascinating, it’s creative for me, it’s innovative–especially when I am giving suggestions on how they can help the whisky.”
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail
“The Kentucky Bourbon trail is a bucket list item that you do not want to miss,” Stevens says proudly of the famed experience she helped found in 1999. And she insists visitors planning on it need at least a week to truly experience it, noting that Kentucky is a long state with over 90 distilleries to visit. “When the Kentucky Bourbon Trail first kicked off, I think we had 7 [distilleries],” she says.
The idea came about when Stevens and two of her fellow competitors would often travel together, enjoying each other’s drinks and brainstorming ideas on how to amplify tourism to their respective distilleries, which were all within an hour’s drive of each other. They came up with the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and pitched it to the Kentucky Distillers Association, which then created the first brochure. “It has become iconic,” she says. “Visitors literally come from all over the world just to enjoy it, and it’s so rewarding to me that it all started with 7 distilleries and 3 women just having a good idea.” It is estimated that over a million people a year visit Kentucky just for their bourbon.
“The Kentucky Bourbon trail is a bucket list item that you do not want to miss.”
For visitors looking to experience the legendary Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the adventure is one that simply cannot be found anywhere else in the world because bourbon is a uniquely American drink. “It is a true, authentic Native American drink,” Stevens explains. “It was really founded 200 years ago, and it’s been perfected today. But it wasn’t until 1964 that bourbon was designated in a specific category, much like champagne. If you go to France, it’s champagne, but if you go to California, it’s sparkling wine. We really wanted to have that pedigree.” In 1964, an Act of Congress declared Bourbon whisky “a distinctive product of the United States.”
Yet even with its uniquely American history and spirit, Kentucky Bourbon is another category entirely. “One of the key components in being a Kentucky bourbon is that it has to be made in Kentucky. You can make bourbon anywhere in the United States,” Stevens points out. “But to call it Kentucky bourbon? We have special requirements.”
Founder Of The Bourbon Women’s Association
“We have incredible palettes. It’s biologically known that women’s olfactory sense is better than men’s.”
Stevens knew from her own marketing experience that outreach was primarily directed at white males. Her own background led her to believe the distilleries were missing a key part of their audience.
“I knew that we had something more to say to women,” she says. Her tastings were largely male audiences, populated with just a few women here and there.
So 11 years ago, Stevens felt inspired to start the Bourbon Women’s Association in an effort to acknowledge the audience of women she knew existed but was not being heard or marketed to, declaring, “We need to talk to women. We are the other half of the population!” And Stevens knew women had discerning tastes. “We have incredible palettes. It’s biologically known that women’s olfactory sense is better than men’s.”
Stevens was determined to not only acknowledge and expand a key audience in bourbon culture but also to debunk the myth that women only liked “softer, sweeter, and lower proof” bourbon.
Conducting focus groups across the state, Stevens focused on creating “an aura of camaraderie” by regularly hosting lifestyle events–blind tastings, culinary events, author signings, and garden parties. And, just as Stevens suspected, their focus groups debunked the myth that women didn’t like strong bourbon, finding instead that women overwhelmingly go for the more robust, spicier bourbons that are higher proof.
Calling the association “the love of my life,” the passion Stevens has put into expanding the experience into an inclusive one has transformed the culture and audience of bourbon drinkers, distillers, tourists, and travelers visiting Kentucky.
“Which Fork Do I Use With My Bourbon?”
For anyone who has ever sat across from a date in a fancy restaurant only to stare down in horror at the burgeoning assortment of forks and wonder which one to pick up first, Peggy Noe Stevens has a book for you.
Armed with an Etiquette and Protocol Degree from The Protocol School of Washington, Stevens knew exactly which fork to use–and whether you should care. “The thing about bourbon that you have to know is that we want it to be approachable and friendly,” she says.
“A lot of times, when you think of etiquette and protocol, you’re so worried about ‘which fork do I use’ when you’re at a dinner party. So I decided to bring those two things together. So, “Which Fork Do I Use With My Bourbon?” is really a celebration of saying ‘Hey, there are no rules.’ It’s all about how you experience bourbon and how you want to entertain in your home.”
Drawing on her experience in hospitality and her expertise in bourbon, Stevens, along with her co-author Susan Reigler, shared her years of insider knowledge on dining, hosting, bourbon pairings, hosting an excellent Kentucky Derby party, and how to have an authentic good time.
Kentucky: There’s No Place Quite Like It
For travelers looking to make Kentucky their next destination, Stevens has some advice. Besides suggesting folks hydrate aplenty before stopping at the many distilleries, Stevens encourages folks to go to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail website and study the map of distilleries, along with suggestions on where to eat and what to do, to plan out an itinerary.
She recommends booking tours early as they can fill up fast–especially in the spring around the Kentucky Derby. “What I would never miss is this combination that Kentucky has become known for–the bourbon and horse scene,” she says. “Whether it’s going to the Kentucky Derby or going to the racetrack at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, which is a stunning racetrack that also dates way back in our early bourbon age, horses and bourbon are just absolutely tied together.”
There is a reason for this: the limestone water in Kentucky is strong in calcium, which is great for strong bone formations in their thoroughbred horses, and coincidentally, is just as great for making bourbon.
Ultimately, wherever travelers decide to start their journey through Kentucky, their adventure is bound to be filled with authentic experiences. “Here’s what’s great about Kentucky,” proclaims Stevens. “I don’t care what end of the state–or the middle of the state–that you go to. You are going to find friendly people, an incredible culinary scene, distilleries in your backyard wherever you travel, and just so many things to do. It’s a very bountiful experience.”
And as for Stevens, after many firsts that saw her graceful charm transform the world around her, what else is left for her to do? “I stay incredibly busy,” she cheerfully admits. Between spirit competitions, whisky conferences, conducting tastings, writing whisky reviews, public speaking, growing her organization, and working on a new book, Stevens’ refined charm and infectious enthusiasm for life cannot be contained.
For travelers looking for inspiration to explore the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and the culture and history of bourbon, Peggy Noe Stevens’ life is a reminder that travel is indeed all about the journey.