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World-renowned whiskey expert joins small Texas distillery in CEO role

Arianna Auber
Whiskey expert and author Heather Greene joins the Ben Milam Whiskey team, in Blanco, as the new CEO. [Contributed by Sarah Baumberger Photography]

Ben Milam Whiskey founder Marsha Milam has assembled what might well be the most all-star team of whiskey experts in Texas to take her small Blanco distillery to a national level.

The whiskey producer announced today that Heather Greene, author of a well-regarded book on whiskey, is now CEO at Ben Milam. At the company, she joins head brewer Jordan Osborne — as well master distiller Marlene Holmes, who worked for Jim Beam in Kentucky for 27 years. It's Greene's first time to live in Austin, although she has local connections that helped to lead her to Ben Milam Whiskey, where she saw Marsha Milam's vision for the burgeoning brand.

"I worked as a brand ambassador for William Grant & Sons, one of the foremost producers of Scotch whisky in the world. I've acted as a consultant as part of my own business. I've been a bartender, a manager, a sommelier. I've participated in tasting panels," Greene said. "Really, this is taking all of these facets and doing it under one roof. It was an opportunity I just couldn't refuse."

People might know her best as the author of the book "Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life," which serves as an introduction to whiskey in all its forms and also dismantles the notion that whiskey is for the boys' club. (Women, she writes, actually have terrific olfactory centers that make us well-suited to detect the range of aromas and flavors that whiskey can have.)

At Ben Milam, one of her main goals is to introduce a wider audience to the award-winning whiskey. Currently, the Hill Country distillery makes a single-barrel bourbon, a barrel-proof bourbon and a small-batch rye. But a new line of equally premium whiskeys, as Greene calls them, will debut this summer under the Milam & Greene label, starting with a straight bourbon (the "straight" delineation means that it's been aged, at minimum, for two years).

Milam & Greene, Greene said, explores an area of whiskey production that Ben Milam Whiskey hasn't dived into yet: that of blending and batching. The straight bourbon releasing in a few months includes both the "grain-to-glass" whiskey that Osborne and Holmes have made and aged for two years. But it has also been blended with 10-year-old and four-year-old Tennessee whiskey and will age for an additional amount of time in old bourbon barrels.

The 10-year whiskey, according to Ben Milam, was used for "structure and richness, 4-year-old Tennessee whiskey for the vanillas and spice, and our two-year Texan spirit for a burst of wood and spice."

Whiskey producers tend to make whiskey one of two ways, Greene said. They might distill whiskey from grain that was first fermented in-house — the grain-to-glass model that Ben Milam Whiskey had previously followed. Or, as many large distilleries do, they might source it from other places, blending it and batching it for a consistent product.

"Or you can function as someone who does both," she said. "You do grain-to-glass, but you also seek out other whiskeys to blend with what you have in-house. A good example of that is High West in Utah."

With the Milam & Greene line specifically, Ben Milam Whiskey plans to distribute nationally starting in 2020. It's an ambitious goal that Greene is enthusiastic to take on. In the meantime, she aims to increase Ben Milam's fan base and awareness of it across the state. Here, the single-barrel and barrel-proof products the distillery has become known for will remain available; those aren't going anywhere no matter how big Ben Milam grows.

RELATED:Blanco's Ben Milam Whiskey makes rye, bourbon steeped in Texas history

"What is really important to us is that Texans get all the Ben Milam whiskeys they want," Greene said. "The demand for bourbon is tremendous. We don't want the premium single-barrel whiskeys to go national and then for the local consumers not to be able to get it anymore."

Marsha Milam, a former music promoter who helped to create KGSR's popular Unplugged at the Grove series, founded Ben Milam Whiskey a couple of years ago. She named the distillery after her ancestor, who was a hero in the Texas Revolution.

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