Recently we were in Louisville, Kentucky to visit a few distilleries, to do photography and interviews for some new articles. Through a dear friend who should definitely be mentioned — Penryn Craig, the last descendant of Elijah Craig and owner of the original Craig farm in Prospect, just outside Louisville — we met a remarkable lady who has earned her spurs in the bourbon world.
She may be a bit of an unsung hero outside Kentucky, but Susan Reigler really deserves to be called “Dame Bourbon” on a wider scale. She kindly agreed to an interview at her beautiful Louisville home, an offer we could not refuse. So, pick your favorite bourbon, your favorite chair, settle down and read how the bourbon bug found its way into the life of an entomologist who has a way with words.
In the early years of her professional career it didn’t seem likely Susan Reigler would become one of the first — perhaps the first — fulltime bourbon writers worldwide. Born in Louisville in 1955, she was raised there; after earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Louisville, Susan went on, as a Humphrey Scholar, to earn a master’s degree in zoology from Oxford University, Somerville College, specializing in entomology.
At Oxford she had taken a few wine courses, but enjoyed drinking real ale and G&Ts more than whisky at the time. When Margaret Thatcher closed down a number of government civil service positions in the late 1970s, Susan lost the job she was about to start. She had never planned to leave England, loving the country, culture and climate, but without a foreseeable income in the United Kingdom, she decided to go home to Kentucky.
An avid reader, she soon found work in a bookstore. The manager’s husband wrote for the Louisville Courier-Journal and suggested Susan should interview for the restaurant/food critic position. She became a part-time writer in 1992 and was working full time by 1999. After reading a Washington Post article about the Buffalo Trace Distillery revival, she asked her editor why she wasn’t reading about bourbon in their own Kentucky newspaper. The editor took the bite and that launched Susan’s writing about spirits, under the column “The Sipping News.” During her 15 years as an award-winning writer at the Courier-Journal, she interviewed many notables, her favorite being an interview with Jane Goodall in 1999.
Meanwhile, Susan — a trumpet player from age 10, had continued with brass instruments, (mainly the cornet and the E flat tenor horn); she obtained a bachelor’s degree in music from Indiana University at the age of 50.
Her writing featured several cocktails by Joy Perrine, one of the pioneers of bourbon cocktails and a legend in her own right, as Drink of the Week. (Sadly, Joy passed in 2019.) Her house bar was at Jack Fry’s, a famous restaurant in Louisville and worth a visit (which we actually did the same day as the interview). Together Susan and Joy created The Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book in 2009, after Susan had retired from the Courier-Journal.
To date Susan has written about 10 books, including the Complete Guide to Kentucky State Parks from 2009. For the latter, she worked with Pam Spaulding, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, who also did the cocktail photography for the book with Joy Perrine.
She continued writing about bourbon, publishing Kentucky Bourbon Country: The Essential Travel Guide in 2016 and completed two books with bourbon historian Mike Veach — The Bourbon Tasting Notebook (2018) and The American Whiskey Tasting Notebook (2019).
Currently, Susan is a research associate at Indiana University Southeast. She has also been both a visiting and adjunct lecturer in biology and in music at IUS. She was the resident biologist at Blackacre State Nature Preserve (east of Louisville), a job she took in 1985. For 20 years, Susan lived there, in a stone house built around 1790. She moved to her current dwelling in 2016; there she regularly hosts bourbon tastings. Susan is the immediate past president of Bourbon Women and president of the Kentucky Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier.
Look out for Susan’s upcoming book Which Fork Do I Use with My Bourbon? which will hit the shelves this April. Her co-author on this one is another grand dame of bourbon, Peggy Noe Stevens, cousin of bourbon legend Booker Noe (1929-2004). Before we parted, Susan briefly reflected on her life in bourbon circles and fondly remembered interviewing Booker one time at 10 a.m. in the morning, sippin’ some fine bourbons.
Well, a woman has to make a living!
The Whisky Couple