Monday, June 11, 2001

Taster ensures quality of whiskey

Woman enters male-dominated field

By Steve Bailey
The Associated Press

        VERSAILLES, Ky. — Peggy Noe Stevens enjoys the reaction she gets when she tells people what she does for a living.

        “When they hear that I'm a bourbon taster, their eyes kind of get wide and their mouths drop open just a bit,” Ms. Stevens says with a chuckle. “They automatically think I must have the greatest job in the whole world — and they're right.”

        Ms. Stevens is the newest of a handful of master tasters at the Labrot and Graham Distillery here that produces Woodford Reserve, a high-end specialty bourbon that is aged seven years before it is bottled.

        Her job is to sample the bourbon at different stages of its development to help ensure its quality and taste.

        “I probably have the healthiest teeth of anybody I know because no bacteria is going to live through what I put in my mouth,” she said. “I normally employ the swirl-and-spit method. I learned early on that you're not going to get much done if you swallow every time you take a taste.”

        Ms. Stevens has to keep her wits about her because she also serves as an ambassador for Labrot and Gra ham, part of the Brown-Forman Corp., which also produces such brands as Jack Daniel's and Early Times.

        “I have to be comfortable, confident and educated enough to help people understand what they're tasting, how it was made and why it tastes that way,” she said.

        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.

        Ms. Stevens joined that select group in March when she was certified by Lincoln Henderson, the master distiller for many of Brown-Forman's brands.

        “I've been at this for more than 20 years and I've probably only certified about a half-dozen tasters,” Mr. Henderson said. “And Peggy is the first woman.

        “I don't know of any other female certified tasters in Kentucky or associated with the bourbon industry. If there's others out there, they're rare enough that I don't know about them.”

        Tapping a glass of Woodford Reserve straight from a 4-year-old barrel, Ms. Stevens first takes note of the deep amber color as well as the candylike aroma.

        “You look for things like clarity — is it really clean and crisp looking? Does it have some sparkle to it?” she said, holding the glass up to the light. “The aroma should be clean as well, crisp with maybe a hint of a green apple or cherry that's not quite ripe yet.”

        As Ms. Stevens swishes the liquid around in her mouth, she's looking for subtle hints of flavors that aver age drinkers probably would miss if they weren't specifically looking for them.

        “Some might have more of a spicy taste, others are a little sweeter maybe like a caramel or a butterscotch,” she said. “You really have to train your palate to recognize all of the different flavors and nuances.”

        A Kentucky native, Ms. 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 Versailles distillery 20 miles west of Lexington.

        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 distillery and bourbon in general.

        “Being a Kentucky girl, bourbon was no stranger,” she said. “But I never understood the rich history and the complex process behind it.

        “Bourbon takes the most basic ingredients, like corn, rye and barley, and it turns into the most distinctive, wonderful flavors. Mother Nature and science are both at work here to create an extraordinary product.”

        On her tours, Ms. Stevens peppered visitors with enough facts to fill an almanac:

        • Bourbon whiskey has been produced in Kentucky since the 1780s and is arguably America's only “native spirit;”

        • To be called bourbon — by law — a spirit must be made in the United States, contain at least 51 percent corn in the mash, be distilled at 160 proof or less and aged a minimum of two years in charred white oak barrels;

        • More than 95 percent of the world's bourbon is produced in Kentucky.

        Over time, however, her curiosity got the better of her and she began interrogating Mr. 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. I became very interested in the different tastes associated with bourbon and how they could be used in food and with food to complement other tastes.”

        Ms. Stevens became fascinated by the flavor differences that could be obtained with just the slightest change in ingredients.

        “Each distillery decides what type of bourbon they want to create with its own unique flavor wheel,” she said. “The smallest little feature or variable gets changed and you alter the taste of your product.

        “Each barrel is sort of like a baby, really; you produce it from its basic ingredients, nurture it and watch it grow over a period of years. There really is a pride and a love at work like you would feel toward your own children.”

        Mr. Henderson said Ms. Stevens has worked hard to master her craft.

        “She's been a model student,” he said. “There's no set guidelines or class you can take to become a taster. It's like with the bourbon in the warehouse. It's ready when I decide it's ready. I decided Peggy was ready.”

        Despite being immersed in spirits day-in and day-out on the job, Ms. Stevens said she often enjoys bourbon at home as well.

        “Tired of bourbon ... never had that problem,” she said with a smile.


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