BABE #225: PEGGY NOE STEVENS - Founder, Bourbon Women Association
Our team had the honor of sitting down with Peggy in Louisville, Kentucky — the bourbon capital of the world — for this interview. Huddled at a small corner table in a crowded VIP tent at Bourbon and Beyond, we chatted while snacking on charcuterie and sipping from the Bourbon Women glass she gifted us. Peggy is the world’s first female master taster, and founder of both Bourbon Women and Peggy Noe Stevens & Associates. A Louisville native, she has created a booming network of resources and community for women in bourbon to learn, grow and have their voices heard. We’re so grateful for this hustlin’ babe’s insight into business, womanhood and coloring outside of the lines.
Babe you admire and why?
Oh wow, there’s so many. I’m a professional speaker and hold seminars across the US, and Maya Angelou is the most captivating, enticing, engaging, passionate speaker I’ve ever listened to. In so many ways I try to embody some of her talent. She is very poetic, her words drip out of her mouth. She speaks with such control and slowness — every single word she says has meaning. I’m a fast talker and I need to learn to engage by sometimes slowing down. She’d be my babe.
How do you spend your ‘free’ time?
It used to be with my children, but now that I’m an empty nester, it’s different — because it was always either work or my family. I’m Italian. Family is everything to me, and that truly was how I divided my time for so long. Now that I’m a empty nester, I’ve had to reequate myself with my husband. Almost like saying, '“Hello, how are you? What have you been up to for the last few years?” So now we’re finding things to do together — traveling, and attending our old college football games (because we met in college and it’s just kind of fun).
What would you eat for your very last meal?
Italian food, hands down. I would do cavatelli famacia canelloni with cream sauce, and a big fat glass of Bookers on the rocks to wash it down.
What does your typical workday look like? Which various ‘hats’ do you wear throughout the day?
Put on your seat belt, this is called Babes Who Hustle, right? My normal rise is 5a.m.; it’s when I’m the most creative because there’s nothing to bother me and no phones are ringing. I start at my home office checking email, and by the time 8a.m. hits, I start making my phone calls to people (who just received those emails - ha!) I’ll then schedule out the rest of my day of doing one of three things — conducting a seminar, doing a one-on-one training, or I’m speaking about (or tasting) bourbon. So those are kind of the worlds I live in. I also build craft distilleries and work with large companies on consumer experiences (for example: the visitor center experience you might have!) I also write for Bourbon Plus and American Whiskey Magazine. Basically, morning time is creative, and the rest of the day is in full execution.
What got you into bourbon?
Probably the hotel industry. My first job out of college was as catering manager for the Hyatt, so part of that was learning all about food, wine, spirits, and the execution of events. I’m a Kentucky gal, so I grew up around it — starting with the eggnog at Christmas always being spiked with bourbon — but formally speaking, the Hyatt is where I had my education on it started. Then Brown-Forman headhunted me to work with their company, which led me to my journey of becoming a master taster.
How have you developed your palate for spirits? How would you guide other tasters in getting started?
First and foremost, lots of practice — which is a good thing with whiskey. I think people overestimate the level of difficulty it takes to be a master taster or distiller. I don’t say that to belittle; it’s all about food memory. Everybody eats. You know what banana, apple and caramel taste like; you know what steak and mushrooms taste like. All you have to do when dissecting a flavor is nose it and go “What’s fruity? That’s a banana” or “What’s spicy? Well, if I walk in my cabinet and check my spice rack, I can tell that’s cinnamon.” If you want formal training, there’s a wonderful program called Stave and Thief Society; they do awesome work.
Which mentorship programs would you recommend to women in the Bourbon Industry?
Absolutely — Bourbon Women! During our last Siposium, we had a mentorship program where we invited female students to come and meet industry professionals to get better acquainted with curriculum and jobs in the industry. I did a seminar on professional presence — how to shake hands, look people in the eye, etc. We’re excited to continue that program.
What would you say is your biggest career milestone?
I should probably say becoming a master taster, and I should probably say creating an entire bourbon culinary program, but I won’t say those things. It was starting my own company, Peggy Noe Stevens & Associates. I was 40 years old, and it was the most empowering moment of my life. In every decade of a woman's life, you have different values and certain things feel more important than others. You feel different about your career in your 20s than you do in your 30s, and you sure feel different about your career in your 40s and 50s. For me, my 40s was empowering... everything in my body said, “You’re finished with corporate life.” I wanted to do something inspiring, I wanted to do something that was totally mine to create, and I was willing to take full responsibility for the outcome. That’s when I decided to start my own company. That was a turning point.
Did you always envision being an entrepreneur?
I honestly did. From the time I got out of college, I wanted to immediately have my own company. I didn’t come from money, and I didn’t have a car, and I was constantly being told things like, “you need to have a few more grey hairs before you start a company.” It wasn’t like today – everything is so entrepreneurial and now there are entrepreneurial degree. When I graduated in the 80s, entrepreneurship for women was like “…Really? What are you talking about? Go work in a job and make money.” so for me to make that break in my 40s, because I knew I had the entrepreneurial spirit I just knew it, I just didn’t know when.
How would you say being a woman in your role has affected your experience in the industry?
Going way back, it inspired me to create Bourbon Women. I should thank that part of my life. Sometimes, even the things that seem horrible are actually good things — they help you get to where you’re going. I saw back then, in the 80s, 90s and even early 2000s, we weren’t talking to women — not only in the industry, but also consumers. We were only talking to men, because bourbon was viewed as a masculine drink. That inspired me to start Bourbon Women. First off, being a woman helps me be a better master taster because women have better olfactory tasting. It’s anatomically proven. So I personally felt that sometimes I did a better job at articulating my senses versus my male counterparts. That eventually led me to being the first female master bourbon taster in the world. I didn’t know that at the time, though. They sent out a press release about it before even telling me, and it hit 120 newspapers on the AP. I had no idea. Basically, being a woman helped me stand out.
What can we do to create a more equal, uplifting and well-paying space for women in your industry?
Women have to be supportive of each other, raise each other up, and network with one another. Just like I said that my 40s were about starting my company, I have total clarity in my 50s that my legacy is about developing women for the next generation. I will only be successful if I have brought other women along in this industry helped create a better path for them than I had.
What’s one of your most memorable moments from your career?
One that really helped me understand that I was doing something good was when we held the Bourbon Women’s Association inauguration at the governor's mansion in Kentucky. The President of the Kentucky Distiller’s Association attended, and the first lady shared a speech about how women have worked for 200+ years in the bourbon industry — but we were in the office, or in the field pulling the grain, or in the bottling line. The speaker then fast-forwarded to today and what we had formed with Bourbon Women. Having that event and speech take place at the Governor’s Mansion meant a lot to me, especially being from Kentucky myself. That was seven years ago.
What events and features of Bourbon and Beyond are you most excited about?
Oh my gosh! Well, I think I’m personally excited because I know the producers of the fest, Danny Wimmer and Danny Hayes. They are the most gracious, fun visionaries, and they’ve done so much for Louisville. It’s always great sitting down to talk with them — they get it. Now that I’m here, I’m excited about my seminars! I love reaching out to the audience, educating and sharing our story. I know there are a lot of musicians here, too, so secretly I’ll see Sting. Lenny Kravitz isn’t bad either.
What bourbon should we try today?
Well, I don’t know all that they’re serving here, but I’d recommend Bakers. I love that it’s 107 proof. As for a beginner bourbon, Old Forrester is great. You can start there — it’s 86 proof. Then you can work your way to Bakers.
Career advice for other babes?
Color outside of the lines. As women, I think we play it too careful; we’re so afraid of making a mistake. We feel we have to be perfect, and stay within the lines. Go outside the lines. Scribble. Figure it out. And use whatever damn color you want.
In collaboration with: Bourbon and Beyond
Bourbon and Beyond is a Louisville, KY-based festival featuring a perfect blend of bourbon, food, and music. Learn more about the fest here and keep an eye out for the 2019 dates soon!