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April 23, 2024

UK alums share words of wisdom during 'In the Business of Bourbon' webinar

By Diane Massie and Haley Simpkins

Panelists explored topics such as finding a career in the bourbon industry, current market trends and the future of the industry

Panelists explored topics such as finding a career in the bourbon industry, current market trends and the future of the industry

The University of Kentucky College of Communication and Information recently hosted its first alumni webinar titled "In the Business of Bourbon." The panel was moderated by Anthony Limperos, UK Department of Communication chair, associate dean for the Graduate Program in Communication and James. B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits Faculty Fellow. Invited panelists were all UK alumni from the College of Communication and Information and the Gatton College of Business and Economics.

Panelists included Tia Edwards (a 2001 integrated strategic communication graduate) and Sean Edwards (a 2009 management graduate), owners of Fresh Bourbon, the first Black-owned bourbon distillery in Kentucky; Peggy Noe Stevens (a 1997 communication graduate), the first female master bourbon taster and president of Peggy Noe Stevens and Associates which designs and builds brand strategies for world-renowned clients; and John Vidal (a 1984 communication graduate), vice president and director of portfolio innovation projects for Brown-Forman.

As a $9 billion industry, bourbon helps fuel Kentucky's economy. According to the 2024 Kentucky Distillers' Association Economic Impact Report, Kentucky’s bourbon industry generates more than 23,100 jobs with an annual payroll topping $1.63 billion. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail and Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour experiences are busier than ever, with total attendance exceeding 2.55 million in 2023. There are now nearly 50 destinations along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, including Fresh Bourbon in the Craft Distillery category.

Panelists explored topics such as finding a career in the bourbon industry, current market trends and the future of the industry.

Each panelist shared their career journey in the bourbon industry, whether it be seeing a need for a fresh perspective on bourbon like the Edwardses, working their way up the corporate ladder through years of experience at Brown-Forman like Vidal, or stepping into entrepreneurship after 17 years in the corporate world like Stevens.

Stevens went on to share the following advice for any young professional looking to enter the bourbon industry.

“For someone wanting to start in the industry right out of college, look at being a tour guide,” Stevens said. “But then use that opportunity to learn about the distillery and the business. Many go on to get an entry-level marketing position after being a tour guide. It’s a great way to get your foot in the door.”

Panelists also dug into the current trends and opportunities in the bourbon industry and how they expect to see these trends play out over the next few years.

Stevens shared how the demographics of both employees and consumers in the bourbon industry are changing.

“It’s a diverse market, marketing more to different audiences, instead of the typical 30- to 50-year-old white male,” Stevens said. “Women are half of the population, and this presents a huge opportunity.”

Vidal gave insight into the current competition the bourbon industry is facing from other products.

“I’m concerned about the industry because of the competition from cannabis,” Vidal said. “THC cocktails are growing trends that compete with bourbon. Also, Dry January is becoming bigger and bigger, and people are drinking less. New brands like High Noon are coming out of nowhere, and old brands are making a resurgence; so, there is a lot of competition. Keep bourbon authentic. Whether consumers are novices or tasting experts, the bourbon experience must resonate with them right.”

With the idea of building bourbon experiences in mind, the Edwardses shared how they are focusing on building a unique bourbon experience for their patrons.

“We market our fresh approach,” Tia Edwards said. “You don’t have to have a ‘neat’ experience forced on you. We’re creating a tasting room that is welcoming to everyone.”

“We hone in on the experience, and have people return to their experience multiple times,” Sean Edwards said. “We want each person to enjoy their bourbon experience and that will mean something different for each person.”

New distilleries like Fresh Bourbon bring a rejuvenated energy to the bourbon industry, something that is necessary to parallel the growth expected in the industry, Vidal said.

“The hope is that the bourbon industry will continue to grow,” Vidal said. “It takes new owners like the Edwardses with new ideas. New startups can move into the shelf space of tired old brands. We need to keep our bourbon stories light, fun and entertaining. We tell great, authentic stories without pretense. People warm up to us both figuratively and physically when we drink the products.”

For those interested in learning more about the bourbon industry or those looking to grow in the industry, the James. B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits on UK’s campus provides a multitude of resources.

“The onsite distillery is a great opportunity for all in the bourbon industry,” Limperos said. “For people who engage in training at the distillery, companies can have confidence that they are getting someone who has hands-on experiences and understands the basics and more advanced skills related to distilling. Also, with experimental distilling and trained sensory panels, I feel the onsite distillery can offer value added consulting regarding new make distillate and finished products to all whiskey makers.”

The full recording of the "In the Business of Bourbon" webinar can be found here. The UK College of Communication and Information expects to continue their alumni webinar series in the future. Visit to stay up to date on future events.

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