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Marlene Holmes is Master Distiller of Milam & Greene Whiskey in Texas, but before that she worked for Jim Beam at the Booker Noe Plant for more than 30 years, where she worked with Booker Noe himself as well as Pam Heilmann and many others. So how is making whiskey in Texas different from making whiskey in Kentucky?
BW: The bulk of your career (30 years!) was at the Booker Noe plant. What was it like working with Booker?
MH: Booker Noe was old-school both in distilling and managing. What you saw is what you got. He was a robust Kentuckian character, who put everything he had into his product and process. He was not afraid of perfecting his perfection, when it came to taste and aging the product. He hosted celebrities, workers, and friends together to evaluate his product’s likes and reveled in its effects. He produced some of the first small batches and specialty bourbons before it became a norm. He highly prized his grandfather’s jug yeast recipe, and I had the privilege of making that recipe to the highest of standards at Beam’s largest distillery, the Booker Noe Plant.
BW: Did you work with Michter’s Master Distiller Emeritus Pam Heilmann, too?
MH: Yes, Pam joined the distillery about four years after me, as the relief supervisor on third shift. I consider her a mentor. She was really hands-on and quickly learned the distillation part of the business. Pam later became Senior Supervisor, then Distillery Manager at Booker Noe and oversaw the largest building expansion at that time. I caught her bug, questioning every variant, and wanting to find solutions to age-old and current challenges in running such a large distillery operation. She was tough, but fair to all who worked with her and I respected that. To this day, I speak with Pam about any aspects of making whiskey.
BW: How is making whiskey in Texas different from making whiskey in Kentucky?
MH: The first thing is the weather! First, the weather in Texas is hotter and the hot “summer” lasts longer than it does in Kentucky. The challenge this presents is in the cooling capacity of your chillers, which means improved refrigeration or cooling capacity on your fermentation and distillation processes. Second, the weather. It also affects your warehouse aging process. During the aging process, whiskey is drawn out of the wood as it contracts in the annual cold winter periods, only to be reabsorbed in the staves in warmer, hotter weather, which gives whiskey its color and flavor. Here in Texas, with no distinctive winter temperatures means the whiskey stays in staves longer pulling in a wealth of flavor and color, and speeding the aging process up. And third, the weather. The challenge is in finding ways to reduce the loss of volume due to the Angel’s share.
BW: What products are you most proud of from Milam & Greene Distillery?
MH: That’s like asking a parent what child you are most proud of. To respond accurately, I’d have to say our Milam & Greene Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Port Wine Casks at 94 proof. In 2020 it won double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. It is a blend of different aged Rye whiskeys with a deep ruby amber color with chocolate, burley, and fig flavors that takes the sharp edge off the spice and pepper of the rye and rounds it out a bit. We make sure it still has a nice rye pop. and flavor enhanced. Notes: chocolate, figs, raisin, blackberry. I would be remised if I didn’t mention the Milam & Greene Triple Cask Bourbon, a 94 proof blend of three aged deep gold bourbons with delicious vanilla, spice, and floral notes with a medium warm finish.
BW: What advice do you have for women who want to become distillers?
MH: Do it! Our distillery crew is comprised of mostly women. We’re led by Marsha Milam, founding owner, and Heather Green, CEO and master blender, and many of our most important sales and operational positions are held by women, making up two-thirds of the company.
BW: Tell me about your perfect Texas whiskey weekend.
MH: Pre-Covid: Checking out all the active Dance Halls around the area, listening to good local music and sipping fine bourbon. Post-Covid: Hanging out on my patio around the fire-pit, listening to good music, petting my German Shepherd, and sipping fine bourbon!
Photos Courtesy of Milam & Greene