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Female Master Distiller Sips Success in Spirits Industry

The pandemic hasn't stalled Marlene Holmes' rise in the craft whiskey trade

spinner image Marlene Holmes - master distiller
Sarah Baumberger Photography

Marlene Holmes grew up in Kentucky and never planned on leaving.

But when a new career opportunity came her way at age 62, she ditched retirement plans to hike and garden more and instead moved to Blanco, Texas. She couldn't pass up an offer to work as master distiller for Milam & Greene Whiskey.

"Somebody told me years ago that you don't retire ‘from’ something, you retire ‘to’ something to keep you going,” says Holmes, who worked as a distiller for Jim Beam for 27 years. “I thought it would be pretty cool to get in with a new upstart and help build it from the ground up."

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Starting out at Jim Beam

Holmes, now 64, is no stranger to bourbon. Rickhouses, or whiskey aging warehouses, dotted the rolling hills in central Kentucky where she was raised and were as much a part of the landscape as tobacco and horse barns. Holiday dishes included bourbon fudge, bourbon pudding, and bourbon balls with pecans. Summers brought glasses of iced sweet tea with bourbon.

spinner image Marlene Boxing Milam & Greene

"Somebody told me years ago that you don't retire ‘from’ something, you retire ‘to’ something to keep you going.” 

— Marlene Holmes

Holmes entered the industry in 1990. Self-employed as a home remodeler, Holmes also owned a 30-acre farm with a lake and was considering raising catfish. She learned that the late Booker Noe, former master distiller of Jim Beam and the sixth generation of the Beam family to make bourbon, wanted to experiment with using the dried grain that was a byproduct of distillation as fish food. If it worked, he could boost company revenue.

Noe purchased 1,000 catfish fingerlings and, because of her shared interest in the fish, Holmes — who lived nearby — did the feeding.

The experiment didn't go well, but Holmes got to know some of the Beam employees, and when an opening came along for a distillery operator she took the job.

"I didn't know much about whiskey, other than the taste,” she recalls, “but I figured, if I like it, great. If I don't, I'll move on to something else. That was 30 years ago."

A whiskey ‘dream team’ of women

In her current position, Holmes oversees the aging, blending, batching, proofing, sourcing, finishing and bottling of whiskeys sold under the Milam & Greene Whiskey brand, a flagship brand of Ben Milam Whiskey producer Provision Spirits. At the 2020 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the distillery earned double gold medals for its Milam & Greene Straight Rye Whiskey finished in port wine casks and Ben Milam Barrel Proof Straight Bourbon.

The distillery is owned and run by women, an anomaly in the male-dominated spirits industry. CEO and master blender Heather Greene is a world-renowned whiskey expert, the first woman to serve on the Scotch Malt Whisky Society tasting panel in Edinburgh, Scotland, and a current judge on other prestigious tasting panels. Entrepreneur and partner Marsha Milam helps create expansion plans for the company and is an integral member of what she calls the “whiskey dream team.”

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The fact that women lead the distillery has been an advantage, Holmes says. “Women are generally very detail-oriented. They're very organized. They follow through,” she says. “We keep each other on our toes."

But that doesn't mean it's easy to be a woman in the industry. Holmes purposefully uses her initials instead of her first name in her email address because she doesn't want to reveal her gender.

"I like to surprise people when they walk into the distillery and find out the head distiller is a lady and not a guy,” she says.

The distillery world was a patriarchal one before craft distilling burst onto the scene in the early 2000s and more women became head distillers. It's an evolution that doesn't surprise Jake Norris, a Denver-based distillery consultant and founding head distiller for well-known Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey.

"The industry was always headed up by rebels and nonconformists,” Norris says. “People who are attracted to this industry tend to like to do things their own way. They don't necessarily wait for someone else's permission."

spinner image Marlene Holmes writing on a barrel
Courtesy of Marlene Holmes

Pandemic not curbing business

For Holmes, the transition from Jim Beam to Milam & Greene has been smooth. She already knew about fermentation and the need to start with high-quality grains and could speak the lingo. The only difference was switching from continuous distillation to batch distillation.

Not long after Holmes was hired at Milam & Greene, she took a whiskey-blending class for in-house staff, taught by Greene. With input from Holmes and the rest of the participants, including others on the company payroll, Milam & Greene's 94-proof Triple Cask Straight Bourbon Whiskey was born.

While many craft distilleries have been hit hard by the pandemic, given closed bars and massive unemployment, Milam & Greene Whiskey is entering new territory. As of October, the company sold products in its home state of Texas as well as California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma and Washington, D.C. The brand expects to be in at least one more market — and add more labels — by the end of 2020.

Holmes does get to travel back to her home state of Kentucky: Milam & Greene is aging some of its whiskey in a distillery there to bump up inventory. Holmes recently helped make 300 barrels in a week's time at the Kentucky site to get a better understanding of how heat affects the aging process differently than in Texas.

The job demands strength and fortitude. The barrels Holmes rolls, once full of whiskey, can weigh as much as 500 pounds. “I'm banking on it keeping me in good shape,” she says.

The business is also experimenting with different mash bills (the grain mix used to make whiskey) and different barrel sizes and char levels (barrels are toasted and charred before they hold whiskey, influencing taste and aroma). Holmes loves the variety of flavors that can be created. One new wheated whisky from Milam & Greene smells like banana nut bread.

"It's in a barrel now,” she says, “doing its thing in the rickhouse."

A Beginner's Guide to Drinking Whiskey

Not sure what to do? Take this advice straight from whiskey connoisseur Marlene Holmes:

1. Start with a low-proof product, 40-43 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) or 80-86 proof.

2. Let the whiskey sit in a rocks-type glass for 3-4 minutes so the alcohol fumes escape.

3. Raise the glass to your nose, keeping it 2-3 inches away so as not to fry out your sense of smell.

4. Take a small sip and roll it around in your mouth as different parts of the mouth pick up different tastes — sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and so on.

5. The next taste will be very tasty. You're off and running now. Add a drop of spring water — maybe two or three — to bring out additional flavors.

6. Everyone's palate is different, so don't hesitate to explore and experiment. There are lots of ways to drink whiskey: neat, with ice, with a drop or two of water, or in your favorite cocktail, like an old-fashioned, a manhattan or a whiskey sour.

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