Kentucky woman among new batch of master bourbon tasters
VERSAILLES, Ky. Peggy Noe Stevens enjoys the reaction she gets when she tells people what she does for a living.
Master Taster Peggy Noe Stevens shows off a bottle of bourbon at the distillery in Versailles, Ky.
Stevens is the newest of a handful of master tasters at the Labrot and Graham Distillery, maker of Woodford Reserve, a high-end specialty bourbon. Her job is to sample the product at different stages of its years-long creation.
But sampling does not mean drinking.
"I normally employ the swirl-and-spit method," she said. "I learned early on that you're not going to get much done if you swallow every time you take a taste."
Like master distillers, who oversee the whiskey-making process and decide when spirits are ready to be distributed, master tasters are a small, tight-knit fraternity with very few female members.
Stevens joined the club in March when she was certified by Lincoln Henderson, the master distiller for many of Brown-Forman's brands, which include Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort and Canadian Mist.
"I've been at this for more than 20 years and I've probably only certified about a half-dozen tasters," Henderson said. "And Peggy is the first woman."
Tapping a glass of Woodford Reserve straight from a 4-year-old white oak barrel, Stevens first takes note of the deep amber color and candy-like aroma.
"You look for things like clarity is it really clean and crisp looking? Does it have some sparkle to it?" she said, holding up a glass to the light.
As Stevens swishes the liquid around in her mouth, she's looking for subtle flavors that average drinkers probably miss.
"Some might have more of a spicy taste, others are a little sweeter," she said. "You really have to train your palate to recognize all of the different flavors and nuances."
A Kentucky native, Stevens had appreciated the taste of bourbon for years before joining Brown-Forman in 1991. She worked in its corporate offices in Louisville for five years before moving to the distillery in Versailles.
As the head of guest services at Labrot and Graham, she created tours and other programs designed to teach visitors about the history of the 189-year-old distillery and bourbon in general.
To legally carry the name "bourbon", a whiskey must be made in the United States, contain at least 51 percent corn in the mash, and be aged a minimum of two years in charred white-oak barrels.
Nearly all of the spirits fitting this description are produced in Kentucky.
Eventually Stevens began interrogating Henderson on a daily basis.
"I started following Lincoln around like a little puppy dog, constantly asking very detailed questions about the process and about the different flavors," she said. "It soon turned into a passion."
Henderson said Stevens has worked hard to master her craft.
"There's no set guidelines or class you can take to become a taster," he said. "It's like with the bourbon in the warehouse it's ready when I decide it's ready. I decided Peggy was ready."
Being immersed in spirits day in and day out on the job hasn't dimmed her enthusiasm for the product at home.
"Tired of bourbon?" she asked with a smile. "Never had that problem."