Whiskey women

You can no longer put New York’s bourbon drinkers in a little box, or even a big one, says Jeremy Wayne – if you ever could.

Spirited Women Wanted!, says the flier for the recently launched New York branch of Bourbon Women, an association of women bourbon drinkers founded a decade ago by whiskey supremo Peggy Noe Stevens.

A Kentucky scion and a brand and identity marketing guru, Stevens has been involved with the bourbon trade all her professional life. She founded the Bourbon Women Association after identifying the need for women to have a voice in the industry, not only because of her own connection to bourbon, but on account of the sheer numbers of women who enjoy bourbon in what is still viewed as a traditionally male preserve.

“A whole segment of the human race was being neglected,” Angela Zivica, branch ambassador for the New York chapter of the Bourbon Women Association, told me on a recent phone call, describing Stevens as the industry’s “North Star.” “She’s been all over and has worked with everybody,” Zivica adds. “She was the first female bourbon master taster in the world and is the guiding light for like-minded women, who come together to enjoy our brown spirits.”

It was when she was first approached about the annual bourbon SIPosium, held every August in Louisville, Kentucky, that Zivica — herself the brand director for Jefferson’s Bourbon, a position she has held for the last six years — first became aware of the association. “I went down and saw it all first-hand. It was all about education, seminars and learning, with spirited, off-site meetings. I felt it was very similar to the beginning of ‘Tales of the Cocktail’ (the international cocktail foundation).”

There were two important differences, however, since the SIPosium involves just one spirit — bourbon — and is all women. “I realized this interest wasn’t just happening in Kentucky. There was already a chapter in Chicago, one in Indiana, another in D.C., and I thought, How sad that we don’t have it in New York.” This was the catalyst for her opening a chapter in New York City. With the “good graces” of Stevens and Sara Barnes (Bourbon Women’s managing director,) the chapter launched last August.

The inaugural event was held last October at the Liquor Lab in SoHo, a venue where people come together to learn about a couple of specific brands and make cocktails for themselves — all very hands-on. A second event, which had been planned for the Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn in late March, was inevitably delayed because of the coronavirus. But as soon as travel restrictions are lifted and the world begins to normalize, Zivica expects to reschedule.

Whenever she was in Kentucky for Jefferson’s, Zivica says she was aware of how people had been drinking bourbon for generations, how there was a kind of kindred spirit about it. “It made me really jealous — in a good way,” she observes. “I wanted to bring that feeling to New York.”

At the same time, she realized instinctively that a New York drinking experience would be quite distinct from a typical Southern one and she wanted to establish something that would fly, as she puts it, in the Northeast. What she had also noticed was that, in the South, bourbon is either drunk neat or on the rocks, or occasionally used in cooking — a slug in the braised brisket or the scallops, perhaps. But New York, “at the forefront of all things trending,” Zivica knew, was all about cocktails.

The other great thing for the New York chapter, Zivica says, is that while everyone knows the famous brands, or the “stronghold Kentucky bourbons,” as she puts it, bourbon has been “popping up everywhere.” It doesn’t just have to hail from Kentucky to be considered bourbon (unlike, say, real Champagne which can only come from Champagne, France, or Parmigiano Reggiano which can only come from Parma, Italy). There are some “fabulous” distilleries right here in New York, she points out — Taconic Distillery, the Finger Lakes Distillery, Kings County Distillery, to name but three. Another of her aims is to highlight their discrete approaches to distilling bourbon. She wants to share best practices and have her members appreciate that bourbon doesn’t only have to come from Kentucky to be meaningful, or memorable, or simply to taste good.

Post-coronavirus, following the rescheduled visit to Kings County, there will be an overnight trek up to Taconic (in Stanfordville, just north of Millbrook, New York), taking in the beautiful scenery of Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties, maybe incorporating some camping or picnicking. “Better than just sitting around a whiskey-tasting mat,” says Zivica, and you’d find it hard to disagree.

Bourbon Women come from all backgrounds, although a sizeable number of the New York chapter are actually themselves daughters of Kentucky women. Bourbon is something they have always had in their families. “These girls grow up, move on, go to college and end up in New York, but still want some link with home. They strive for that connectivity,” explains Zivica. Some are experts, industry professionals, while others are completely new to bourbon.

She says she uses the word “expert” in air quotes, because to be a member you don’t need to be a connoisseur or have any kind of bourbon heritage. Indeed, in many ways, Zivica says, the less you know about the brown spirit the better, because you are then open to new experiences, to trying new brands, especially in the New York chapter, which tends to be pretty open-minded. “There is none of the ‘If it’s not 10 years old, it’s not bourbon to me’ mindset,” she adds.

The annual SIPosium, meanwhile, provides an opportunity for women of all ages, and from a variety of backgrounds, to connect. Back in New York, she hopes members might also get together informally for book club meetings (J. R. Ward’s “Bourbon Kings” series? J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”?), exploring tasting menus or perhaps attending new restaurant openings, although this may be some way down the line.

The New York membership, which currently stands at more than 30, is growing, up from 12 at last October’s event. Membership dues are straightforward, set at $50 a year, with some events ticketed and others free of charge.

“In the end,” says Zivica, “it’s all about drinking bourbon in ways we love.” That could be neat, in a cocktail, or any other way you can think of. She throws out a few more ideas. “Over ice, as a winter toddy, over ice cream. With bourbon, the world is your oyster.”

For more, visit bourbonwomen.org.

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