Bourbon Women members, from left, Jamie Estes, Peggy Noe Stevens, and Cynthia Norp enjoy a conversation over drinks of Kentucky bourbon in Louisville.
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LOUISVILLE -- Marketing executive Peggy Noe Stevens sticks to basics when savoring Kentucky bourbon -- no splash of water, just ice, stacked.
For the uninitiated, that's one ice cube at a time, followed by equal shots of bourbon. Then she lets the whiskey settle before sipping.
Stevens, a former whiskey industry executive, is a bourbon aficionado and founder of a new group called Bourbon Women. And she's finding out there are plenty of other women who share her affinity for Kentucky's signature whiskey, now that the industry is offering a growing lineup of higher quality, small-batch products.
"I think there's this sense of relief that finally we were at a point where we can be taken seriously as women who enjoy bourbon and the lifestyle that accompanies it," said Mary Quinn Ramer, a founding board member from Lexington.
"That it's just not for men anymore."
The group will offer plenty of chances for bourbon tastings, distillery visits, and girls' nights out, along with tips on new bourbon-laced recipes and how to liven up parties.
There's a serious side, however. Business executives are counted among the members, and mingling gives them a chance to network, said Stevens, who runs a branding and marketing company in Louisville.
"They are very independent, they are very curious," Stevens said of group members. "They're confident, they know what they like, immediately."
Experts say the comeback of traditional cocktails has led many women to bourbon. So has the rise of higher quality, specialty bourbons.
"With these kinds of top-shelf products, many women are getting to experience the softer, smoother side of bourbon," said Parker Beam, the longtime master distiller at Heaven Hill Distilleries, whose bourbons include Evan Williams and Elijah Craig.
Beam, a grandnephew of Jim Beam, said more women are showing up at bourbon tastings around the country. Groups such as Bourbon Women will help fuel that growth, he said.
For years, bourbon wasn't marketed to women, said Stevens, who spent 17 years working at Brown-Forman Corp., a Louisville-based liquor company that makes Woodford Reserve bourbon and other spirits.
"I just don't think it's been a primary or maybe even a secondary target," she said. "I do think things are changing."
Bill Samuels, Jr., the longtime president and CEO of Maker's Mark bourbon, points to one sign that more women are being attracted to the Kentucky brand famous for its red wax seal. The brand's ambassador program -- a fan club for Maker's customers -- used to be almost exclusively male, but now women represent more than one-third of new members, Samuels said.
"All the bourbons are much more approachable than they used to be -- they're better," he said.
Samuels' father, Bill Samuels, Sr., concocted the Maker's Mark recipe in the 1950s, but it was his mother, Margie, who coined the brand's name and came up with the idea of adorning the bottles with dripping red wax.
"She would have been the first to sign up for this new group," he said.
Stevens said she initially hoped the group's membership would reach 100 by year's end. Now, she thinks membership -- which costs $50 a year for women over 21 -- will reach that level within its first two months. Stevens also has philanthropy planned, including a scholarship fund for a female student at Sullivan University in Louisville.
Most of all, though, Stevens said the group gives the bourbon industry a chance to reach out to a new audience that could pay dividends later.
"Women do a lot of the planning for travel, for entertainment, for going out to dinner, for choices," she said. "So reaching this market will help in that pursuit of supporting bourbon."
Just don't ask Stevens her favorite brand: "My favorite bourbon is Kentucky bourbon."