Peggy Noe Stevens is certainly a winner in many aspects of the business world, plus she’s quite the trailblazer. She holds the distinction of being the world’s first female master bourbon taster, which pairs quite nicely with her expertise as a certified etiquette and protocol consultant. She worked for the Brown-Forman Corporation for 17 years, climbing the corporate ladder to the position of guest services director for Woodford Reserve. Twelve years ago, she began her own business, Peggy Noe Stevens & Associates, consulting companies globally to advise them on executive training, image consultation and customer service training. She is the founder of the Bourbon Women’s Association, co-founder of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and she has been inducted into Whisky Magazine’s Hall of Fame and the 2019 Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. She’s one of the authors of Which Fork Do I Use with My Bourbon?, which offers excellent advice on how to throw a divine Derby party. With the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby taking place this Saturday, September 5, and since it will be run for the first time without fans, which means tons of Derby viewing parties will be taking place throughout the South, it’s only proper that we introduce you to the multi-talented Peggy Noe Stevens!
How did you get your start in the bourbon industry?
After I graduated from the University of Kentucky, I moved back to Louisville, where my first job was with the Hyatt Hotel in town. I was the convention catering manager. My husband and I moved to Chicago in 1988, and I worked at the Hyatt there in the same position, and then moved into sales and became a sales manager. We later moved back to Louisville, and I was headhunted by Brown-Forman to create their tourism and travel department. We next moved to Atlanta, and I continued to freelance for Brown-Forman, and then we returned to Lexington. The Woodford Reserve Distillery was under construction, and Brown-Forman tapped me on the shoulder to ask if I would be the guest services director for Woodford Reserve. So that’s how my journey began with them.
How did you become a master bourbon taster, and what is involved with that position?
When I was working for Woodford Reserve, I was trained by a very iconic figure in the industry, Lincoln Henderson. Lincoln worked for Brown-Forman for years and created the Woodford Reserve brand. I’m very fortunate to have learned under his tutelage. Since that time, I’ve conducted tastings literally around the world. I try to not only teach people about how to taste bourbon but why we’re so proud of it here in Kentucky. America’s native spirit is bourbon, and 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is made right here.
Tell us about your involvement in the Bourbon Women’s Association and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
I founded the Bourbon Women’s Association shortly after I started my own company. I knew that as a Kentuckian, many of my female colleagues enjoyed bourbon, but we were never marketed to by the industry. I decided to do a series of focus groups throughout Kentucky talking to women, finding out what they would enjoy and what they would like to learn about whiskey. And that was the catalyst for Bourbon Women.
As for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, there were two women I knew, one who worked for Maker’s Mark and one who worked for Jim Beam, and we all were doing the exact same job for our distilleries. We had to try to generate traffic at the distilleries, so we discussed doing cross-marketing of our brands. We went to the Kentucky Distillers Association to see if they’d be interested in broadening this and doing a brochure, and they said they would. We started with seven distilleries back in the ’90s, and now there are about 60.
The title of your book, Which Fork Do I Use with My Bourbon?, is quite intriguing. Tell us about it and how it can be used to prep for our Derby parties?
It’s all about entertaining your guests and teaching you how to do bourbon tastings in your home. It also focuses on food and bourbon pairings. What’s really exciting about this book is that it’s everything I’ve had in my head for many years on the tricks of the trade, the secrets behind how we entertain in the industry and how I entertain in my own home. These are things you can do that are not expensive that make your presentation of bourbon look great and your food look great. We have recipes in there, invitation examples — so many things. It’s all about making entertaining approachable.
What are some secrets when it comes to pairing food and bourbon?
Years ago, I came up with a system called “Balance, Counterbalance, and Explosion.” The balance comes from when you take the flavors of a whiskey and you match it in the food. So if you have a whiskey with orange or citrus, then most likely I’m going to pick a food that has orange or citrus in it so it’s complementary. For a counterbalance, you take two opposite flavors that will support each other. The last explosion is when you take one of the flavors that are predominant, like a bourbon with bold chocolate notes, then you take a big, bold dark chocolate cake to pair with it. It becomes almost too much of a good thing.
Do you have any hobbies?
Anytime I can sit and watch a movie or any time I can read a magazine cover to cover is great. I have a vegetable garden and have grown to love gardening and spending time in my yard. I am making a concerted effort on Pure Barre. It’s a pretty intense exercise regime. I also love spending time with my sons.
Is there anything about you that people would be surprised to learn?
I think because I do live in the world of whiskey and restaurants and high-end food, people may think that I eat gourmet meals all the time. The truth is, I love going to a baseball game or a football game or eating concession stand food. I love a big bratwurst with sauerkraut, or nachos, or peanuts.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Some of the greatest advice was given by a mentor of mine when I was going through a difficult period in my career. She said, “Never put your wishbone where your backbone should be. A lot of people wish they had it better, but they never do anything about it.”
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Bourbon, Italian food, and shopping.
Thank you, Peggy! And thanks to Jolea Brown for the fabulous photos.
Subscribe to StyleBlueprint for your best “me moment” of the day. Click HERE!