When it comes to bourbon, Susan Reigler is nothing short of a powerhouse. The Louisville native wears more boozy hats that most: She’s an Executive Bourbon Steward, seasoned food and drink journalist, former biology professor with a Masters degree in zoology, author of several noteworthy whiskey-centric books and a prominent member (and former President) of the Bourbon Women Association, a growing organization focusing on promoting and uniting female whiskey-lovers around the country.
Whiskey is all too often a male-dominated domain. That goes double for bourbon—with its particular mix of gentlemanly Southern swagger and rugged Cowboy-esque lore—so providing a space where women are encouraged to foster their delight in all things bourbon is central to Bourbon Women’s mission.
As a part of her many duties, Reigler conducts tastings, gives talks, helps to put on conferences and, of course, imbibes her fair share of the good stuff. Her main motivation, beyond the smell of rickhouses in the summer and the vanilla-tinged warmth of a fireside sip? Reminding the whiskey world—and the world at large—that spirits are, and always will be, genderless.
We sat down with Reigler to learn more about how she got to the top, about her passion, and about the organization she so dearly loves.
Do you remember your first encounter with bourbon?
I was born in Louisville and grew up here. Louisville distilleries make one third of the world’s bourbon, which is pretty impressive. My father’s hobby was horse racing and so I spent spring and fall Saturdays of my childhood in our family box at Churchill Downs. (He also taught me how to play chess, how to read the Daily Racing Form and paid for my first riding lessons at age 5.) In the 1960s, the Churchill Clubhouse smelled of old wood, cigars, popcorn, hotdogs, and bourbon. That’s a very early memory.
How did you get started in the whiskey business, and what’s your day-to-day work life like?
I started writing about bourbon in the ’90s when it was coming back, but before too many people were paying attention to it, and for many years I was the restaurant critic and beverage writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal.
These days, I conduct a lot of private tastings for groups and individuals and have helped make barrel selections for retailers and restaurants. I’ve also written four bourbon books, including The Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book with Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame bartender Joy Perrine, and currently contribute to several magazines, including American Whiskey, Bourbon+ and Food & Dining.
I’m also, as I like to put it, a recovering biology professor. So when I give talks about bourbon, if the audience is receptive, I love to talk about all the chemical and biological aspects of bourbon making, from the flavorful yeast byproducts to the distillation fractions and, of course, the effect of the white oak barrels on aging.
What does it mean to be an Executive Bourbon Steward?
The Society of the Stave & Thief at Moonshine University in Louisville, part of the Distilled Spirits Epicenter, trains distillers who come to Louisville from all over the world to learn how to make spirits. It also trains people (usually restaurant staff) in bourbon stewardship. Participants undergo training, including sensory evaluation in the facility’s laboratory and take a written exam for the credential.
How did you get involved with the Bourbon Women Society?
I went to some of the society’s focus groups when it was just starting. Then I joined, and a year later I was invited on the board of directors. I served as president from 2015 to 2017.
What do you see as the Bourbon Women Society’s main mission?
Education, philanthropy (we raise money for charities) and connecting women from all over the country who are fascinated by bourbon’s history and culture. This year we have 150 women from 18 states coming to our 5th annual Sip-Osium conference at the Brown Hotel in Louisville. There’s always a great deal of business card swapping and the sense of camaraderie is extraordinary.
What role does the Association play in the industry?
We’re proud that we’ve been influential in helping the industry realize that it doesn’t have to “market to women.” Women love the complex flavors of bourbon and if a distillery makes great bourbon, women will buy it. In fact, Bourbon Women has had many blind tasting where women, without fail, choose the highest proof, most complex, bourbons as their favorites.
Many Bourbon Women members, including me, founder Peggy Stevens, Carla Carlton and current board president Kerri Richardson, give presentations and workshops at bourbon events around the country, including the New Orleans Bourbon Festival, Whiskey Live, and Louisville’s Bourbon & Beyond. We also like to support the industry in its lobbying efforts that allow the industry to grow.
Tell me about the organization’s membership. Is primarily made up of professional industry folks? Aficionados and enthusiasts? Collectors?
We have members from ages 21 to 81, literally. There are a few industry professionals, but it is mostly women who simply enjoy bourbon and want to learn about all its aspects. And we get a lot mother-daughter pairs attending our annual conference, too.
Throughout your career, have you seen an increase in women getting into whiskey?
I grew up with bourbon. My mother was a bourbon drinker. Women have always enjoyed whiskey. We’ve also always breathed oxygen. Nothing new here.
What are some of your favorite bourbons and favorite bourbon cocktails right now?
There is no way I could possibly name a favorite bourbon! Every single major distillery makes a bourbon I love. I will say I lean toward the ones with fruit and baking spices on the palate, but I sometimes like the dry, high rye bourbons, too. As to cocktails, I love the classics: the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned. And if I’m in a rye mood, I’ll order a Sazerac.