When Marsha Milam first stepped into a rickhouse—a storage space for whiskey to age in barrels—on the Bourbon Trail, she was an established talent buyer in Dallas, and she was deeply embedded in a multitasking world. “Coming from that world, I was deeply struck by the singleness of purpose in that place,” she said. “I smelled wood, and dirt, and bourbon of course, and I was taken by the notion that in the stillness, work was happening. Bourbon was being made.” Milam went on to launch the Ben Milam line of whiskeys, but more recently, she’s gathered a team of remarkable women—and men—to produce Milam & Greene Whiskies. The Greene is Heather Greene; she’s the CEO and a well-known whiskey expert who published one of the definitive guides on the spirit, Whisk(e)y Distilled. (Side note: as a general rule, whiskey with an “e” is from countries with an “e” in their name; whisky without it is from countries without.) Greene’s book was the first one on whiskey Milam read.
Milam also brought Marlene Holmes on as the head distiller. Holmes was the first woman hired to work on the distillery side of the business at Jim Beam, but she first worked for master distiller Booker Noe as a catfish feeder.
“I had a farm at the time with a small lake,” Holmes said. “I guess you’d call it a catfish farm, and a guy at the distillery wanted to try to use spent stillage (the grains left after distillation) as catfish food.”
Holmes said her curiosity about the business was piqued when she saw several of the distillery team grilling by the lake during the day. “I was wondering how you get a job like that,” she said. “I chatted with Booker about the whiskey business—I knew nothing about it at the time—and that fall they were looking for more help.”
There were very few women in the industry at the time, except on the bottling lines or in administrative roles. Holmes remembers a photo in the conference room from that time with “about 20 people, and only one was a woman.” That woman was in accounting. Holmes went on to work for Jim Beam for 27 years, becoming a master distiller in the process. She and Greene are the dream team behind Milam & Greene Whiskies, three of which are available in Oklahoma.
The three products—single-barrel bourbon, rye, and a triple cask bourbon—highlight one of the necessities in craft whiskey distilling: Whiskey takes time. Years, in fact, so a new distillery has to buy whiskey while its own ages in barrels. The rye in the Milam & Greene line comes from MGP of Indiana, one of the biggest distilleries in the world.
“MGP makes good whiskey,” Kris Kettner, a local enthusiast (expert, really), said. “They are among the best in the world, aged or otherwise.”
Milam & Greene also uses whiskey from Texas and Tennessee in its bourbons. The single-barrel is Tennessee, and the triple cask is a blend of Texas and Tennessee. Blending whiskeys from different regions does little to affect flavor, according to Kettner.
“There might be very subtle differences, but the major differences in flavor come from the grains selected for the mash, and the aging, which is probably the largest difference: what kind of barrel, for how long, that sort of thing. Yeast is a contributor, too.”
Kettner said one of the master distiller’s main functions is to replicate a flavor profile, and in the case of many whiskey producers, that’s done by blending. “The master distiller tastes all the barrels, and notes the differences in flavors—floral, fruity, spicy, etc.—because every barrel is different.”
Where Greene excels is in the process of blending whiskeys from different barrels to create a consistent flavor profile for the Milam & Greene products. The combination of her blending expertise and Holmes’s distilling expertise has led to an excellent line of products available for a remarkably good price.