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3-course interview: Peggy Noe Stevens, bourbon taster 

The world's first female master bourbon taster

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Master bourbon taster and brand strategist Peggy Noe Stevens is participating in two panels at the second annual New Orleans Bourbon Festival (www.neworleansbourbonfestival.com), which takes place March 8-10. Stevens grew up in Kentucky and is the cousin of Jim Beam distillers Booker Noe and Fred Noe. She launched her career in the hotel world and developed a passion for the food and beverage industry. She became the world's first female master bourbon taster and eventually founded Bourbon Women, an organization that educates women about making and drinking bourbon. Stevens leads the panel "Balance and Counterbalance: The Secrets to Bourbon and Food Pairing Basics" at 12:15 p.m. March 10. She spoke with Gambit about bourbon.

What sparked the inspiration for Bourbon Women?

Stevens: I was the first female master bourbon taster in the world, and that was in the '90s. I remember being struck by two things: I really wanted to be a master taster and teach people and travel around the world and conduct tastings. But the other thing that struck me, was, "You've got to be kidding me, there's no one else?" If I was really to think about the inspiration behind Bourbon Women, it's from when I was doing tastings as a master taster. I used to go and travel literally around the world, and in those audiences, it was always predominantly male. There would be a trickle of women, but the women wouldn't necessarily ask questions. They would come up to me after the tasting was over. I thought, "We need to change this." They were as passionate as anyone I've ever given a tasting to.

  It was clear we really weren't marketing or talking to women. Women are very passionate about the product, and they're very curious and want to know, so shortly after I started my company — about 10 years ago — I decided to do some focus groups throughout the state of Kentucky to kind of find out what women want out of bourbon and spirits. What do they want to know?

How does one become a master bourbon taster?

S: If you're familiar with the wine world, you know they have sommelier (training) and you can study and take tests and do all types of things. In the (spirits) industry, there are all types of titles like master blender, master taster, master distiller, but it's not a test you take. It shows that you've been recognized by the master distiller at the location. It's really hands on. I worked at a production facility, and I was trained by the master distiller. I did all kinds of sensory training, anything and everything to do with production and how to taste and do quality control.

How does one go about pairing bourbon with food?

S: My food and bourbon pairing is about teaching people how to break down the flavors of the food and the whiskey so you can match them well. I have my own way of doing that.

  First, I always do a tasting of the bourbon itself to identify the flavor profile. We look at the appearance, the aroma, the taste and the finish. I always tell people to think about going into your kitchen. You already know the food flavors, and it's all about food memory. You know what your spice rack is — basic flavors like cinnamon, pepper. You know what fruit you have in your refrigerator, like apples, maybe grapefruit. What people get intimidated by is they're afraid they can't come up with words to describe the flavors. They think they have to be well-versed in food. No, we eat every day. I train their palate how to break down those flavors and I have a system. I call it balance, counterbalance and explosion. I teach them how to select foods to balance a bourbon and how to select a food that counterbalances a bourbon, which is like opposites attract. Then explosion is what I call when we have a bourbon and we really want to heat up the flavor that's in the bourbon, so we pick a similar food, and it's like surround sound for your mouth.

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