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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.
"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.