Heather Greene is the CEO of Milam & Greene Whiskey as well as the author of Whisk(e)y Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life. Greene got into the distilled spirits industry at a time when producers would openly worry about the influence of women in a traditionally male-centric product, and she has spent her entire career challenging the status quo and shattering glass ceilings along the way.
“I was in Edinburgh, Scotland, and I was the first American woman on the Scotch Malt Whisky Society tasting panel back in 2005-2006,” Greene recalls. ”I was in Scotland for two years, and I was really, really into Scotch whisky. I had tasted some of the unbelievably delicious historic best whiskeys in the world – this is before the advent of this mega craze for whiskey, if you will. It was a time where I had access to tasting some of the finest spirits ever. I'd sit around in a group and we would taste casks to decide if they were good enough for international distribution. They were casks from Macallan, Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Glenmorangie. There were even casks from mothballed distilleries that didn’t exist anymore. I had this incredible access and just fell in love with it there. And when I moved back to New York City, I ended up being a Scotch ambassador for five years and travelling, teaching people about Scotch. Then I felt like I was ready to do something else.”
But Greene would hit an unexpected wall in trying to pivot her whiskey career as a woman.
“I am an equal-opportunity whisky lover,” she says. “It was around 2012-13, and I was told behind the scenes that hiring a woman as an ambassador for a whisky company was a 'non-starter'. That was the word used, non-starter, for any other Scotch company, and at the time, a lot of the bourbon companies wouldn't either. At that time, they were so worried about 'feminising' products, they were worried about 'feminising' a brand. They were still hiring women in little black dresses behind the tables at conferences and trade shows, and I like a little black dress as much as anybody, but it was just a thing.”
The fear of feminising whisk(e)y had seemed to prevent Greene from finding an industry position.
“I've done all this work, I've been in the media, I have been in the papers, I travelled the world, I was a whiskey expert, and I didn't get a job,” Greene recalls. “That's when I left and I was like, okay, let me regroup. I started working at [New York venue] the Flatiron Room where my friend, Tommy Tardie, who is an amazing restaurateur, had this vision to create the best whiskey venue in the country. I joined right at the beginning of the Flatiron Room, which has now been around 10 years ago, and did whiskey school with him and just loved it. From there, I met incredible people, and that's when I got a book deal. When one door closes, the other opens. I couldn't get a corporate job for my life at the time, and then got an amazing book deal. I spent the next year and a half writing a book and it became a New York Times shortlisted book. I was all over the country.”
From that point, Greene’s career began to move in a different direction.
“From there I was a consultant and had my own business and really poured what I learned from writing a book and travelling the world into writing,” Greene says. “I wrote and consulted, blended batches, sat on different tasting panels, and judged competitions. I helped companies figure out how to maximise profits on the casks that they had collected or distilled and how to create good products. Around 2018 I took what I really felt like a passion for all the years all over the world in all these countries and poured it into this brand called Milam & Greene, and now I’m here.”
Marsha Milam founded Ben Milam Distillery in 2017 in Texas. The brand quickly earned praise for bottling excellent whiskeys sourced from Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee. Greene joined Ben Milam in 2018 as a blending and marketing consultant around the same time that Ben Milam hired Marlene Holmes, a Jim Beam alum, as master distiller. By 2019, Greene was hired as the CEO and the name was changed to Milam & Greene.
Today, Milam & Greene sources barrels, contract distils barrels, and distils at its Texas distillery. Barrels are often batched together from various sources to create the ideal blend of what is available to the team. Historically speaking, says Greene, this was a pretty standard procedure that got lost along the way. In her side of the business, having the barrels of whiskey to work with is the hardest part of her job. Blending them together to create new products is like pulling together different spices from the spice rack and giving them a different identity.
“I can create a beautiful whiskey out of these gorgeous constituents I already have,” Greene says. “That's what Milam & Greene is about, it's about working backwards. These are the flavours I like, I want it to be a reflection of certain environments, and then I back up and ask, how do I get there? How do I do this where it's of value and affordable and beautiful? I don't want people to over-pay, I don't want to have a brand with a feeling like you're overpaying. When people overpay for whiskey, especially with the new brands, it’s because the whiskey makers didn't source or contract or lay down barrels early enough. To me, having the barrels in the first place is the hardest part of the job.”
Milam & Greene uses all the tools available to produce what they feel is the best possible whiskey. They distil in Kentucky and Texas, mature barrels in Kentucky and Texas, and consider climate and maturation one of the tools in their toolbox for creating new and unique whiskeys. The newest Milam & Greene release, Very Small Batch, makes use of a lot of these differences in distillation and maturation climates.
“There's a type of whiskey that I thought has been missing from collections and from what's happening in the bourbon world, and that is a whiskey that has a lot of finesse and nuance and delicious flavour that feels lifted and a little bit more ethereal,” Greene explains. “We're missing that, and what's happening is a lot of the bourbons that I've been tasting, there's a sameness to it. There’s a lot of tannin, a lot of caramel, a lot of maple, all those wood characteristics. I wanted something like when you're looking at Scotch or Japanese whisky, for example, there’s more finesse, it’s more radiant, and so, how do I get there?”
The process of making the whiskey Greene had envisioned was very complicated and hands-on.
“This is the first distillate we actually had done at Bardstown Bourbon [Company] with malted rye, and the malted rye gives us a little bit of that nuttiness,” Greene explains. “I wanted those flavours that you get out of mashing and fermentation, so the nuttiness, the toastiness, the orange blossom, the apples, the fruit, more of the perfume, if you will, but with it not feeling young. It still had to feel like aged whiskey, so how do you do that? The malted rye helps.
"Then we had some traditional Tennessee whiskey that was vatted in Texas. We were vatting in Texas and small batches, and we still wanted something else in there, another layer, but we didn't want to put it in a barrel again and have it get too oaky. And there's a lot of evaporation that happens down here, which means that your whiskeys are getting older and tannic and richer, and I wanted it to still age, but also to highlight what we call the esters. So we took our French oak cask that had essentially just dried to a crisp in this drought-heated climate of last summer where we had over 52 days of over 100ºF weather and a complete lack of humidity and rain. But it dried out these barrels and then we chopped them up and then we alligator charred them on the outside, and we were able to put them in the vat to give it this beautiful, aromatic French oak sheen. We're able to get a little bit of that French oak without the evaporation and without it sitting in a barrel and getting too woody, and then we bottled it and that's why it's a really hands-on whiskey.
"We only could do it in two vatting tanks twice, and we have complete control over the process and what the result is. We also bottled it at 108 proof. It's not too high, not too low. We wanted to suspend those beautiful esters, and what we have is just this gorgeous whiskey. It’s exactly what we wanted.”
Greene stresses Milam & Greene's belief in transparency, and adds that the sourcing, contract distilling, and blending work the company is doing leverages the known history of the global spirits industry to deepen the flavour profile options for whiskey consumers. The latest release, Very Small Batch, retails for US$69.99, in accordance with the brand’s ethos of making whiskeys that are in reach for the average whiskey consumer. Batch two of Milam & Greene Very Small Batch will be out in the fall of 2023.