women in whiskey
Meet the women shaping the whiskey industry
From Grapes to Grain: Vin Social and
Milam & Greene Whiskey
March is Women’s History Month, and for this month’s Women in Whiskey we feature two women from female founded companies collaborating to celebrate Milam & Greene whiskey and the women that make it.
Meet Lily Styles, Chief Operating Officer of Vin Social
Founded by sommelier Sara Moll, Vin Social has curated wine education events for consumers since 2013. Their recent successful entry into both B2B (i.e., “business-to-business”) clients and whiskey has largely been due to Lily drawing upon her life experiences to help foster a personal touch to their program.
As the daughter of a single mother who waitressed in Kintnersville, Pennsylvania, she learned hospitality skills early to get a restaurant job at 14, working nights and weekends. At 18, she moved to New York City for college and quickly realized that being the star waitress covering a dozen tables at a small family restaurant wasn’t enough. She couldn’t legally drink but needed to recommend and serve alcohol to guests.
Lily studied seasoned staff members, peppered them with questions, and kept copious notes about backstory and flavor profiles. Hospitality paid the bills and she explored being an actress, a classical violinist, and an aerialist in Italy until she returned to New York to an events company where gifting whiskey to C-Suite professionals was common. After a 17-hour day at a Wall Street gala raising $2 million USD for a nonprofit client, she ordered a JW Black with ice for him, slid it over, and ordered one for herself. He was impressed that Lily knew his go to drink and was enjoying one herself; this small and thoughtful gesture created camaraderie and partnership.
But she felt that the world of wine and spirits was generally “stuffy and monochromatic” instead of inviting and inclusive. Lily had met Sara from Vin Social previously at a social gathering, who had established her company with the same mindset. She was asked if she could do some consulting which then turned into a full-time position where she could help shape a welcoming environment for all interested in spirits education.
Vin Social’s established culture of confidence with their clients led one client to ask them for a whiskey-based program. Now they just had to choose a whiskey maker.
Enter Milam & Greene.
Meet Marlene Holmes, Master Distiller, Milam & Greene
Marlene was in Kentucky and restless at UPS, wanting to do something different while looking for other ways to make money from her 30-acre farm. It turns out that [the late] Booker Noe of Jim Beam was also looking to do something different…with their spent stillage; he thought they could turn it into fish food and gain another revenue stream.
After chatting with Booker, she bought catfish for her pond and agreed to be his “fish feeder” for the summer. At that point, her only experience with whiskey was drinking it. As a teen on a camping trip, she had tried it and thought “How does anyone drink this stuff?” but changed her mind when she was older.
Later, an opening at the distillery came up, she applied, and got the job. But it would be her fascination with the equipment (the still, the doubler, the fermenter) that would drive her to learn as much as she could from the people around her with 20+ years of experience. Marlene volunteered for any task that was needed so that she could learn as much as possible. She was amazed that a small team of 6 people on each shift could produce 750 barrels daily.
One day she crossed paths with a retired maintenance manager from Jim Beam who had gone into consulting, and as she herself was near retirement, they chatted about what her future might look like. Marlene admitted that the idea of connecting with a small distillery to help them grow was intriguing, and this was the time when craft distilleries were beginning to gain momentum. There were 350 operating craft distilleries, 50 under construction and opening at a rate of 6 a month (Source: American Distilling Institute, 2012).
A few years later, he called her to see if she was still interested. She replied that she was, then found out it would be in Texas. Marlene had lived her entire life in Kentucky and hadn’t considered moving. After a quick Google search, Marlene decided to meet the team and spent three days with them; flying home Sunday, she knew she’d be back.
Pandemic Pivot & Whiskey Wishes
Previously, Lily had been tentative about entering what she thought was a saturated whiskey event market. But when looking to make their client’s whiskey wish come true, she followed a referral to Milam & Greene, and after one conference call, Lily was confident they could offer something unique.
She cited that many people don’t know that recent wine sales statistics are misleading because they don’t parse out that less than 4% of them are smaller brand names, and Vin Social helps to make those smaller makers visible. This was a value that they could bring to Milam & Greene, who fit their wish list: small batch whiskey, sustainability, and promoting inclusion and diversity.
Geek Fact: There is no legal definition of “small batch”; a Milam & Greene small batch usually consists of 5 to 7 barrels.
As other companies limited themselves to simply transferring their in-person events to a digital medium, Vin Social recognized the challenges of addressing people’s need for personal connection used to a typical “wining and dining” environment of restaurants and box seats through an impersonal screen.
When they first chatted with Milam & Greene, distribution was only in one state but expanded to 41 states before the first event. Lily created an organic and replicable format that could be used for both their short program, “Sip and Learn” and longer bespoke events. Unlike one of their wine-based events, working with Milam & Greene allows Lily to incorporate the personal experiences of each of the four people at the helm (3 of whom are women) into the program, so that while the whiskeys remain the same, each shared story connected to the whiskey is unique.
In addition to Marlene’s story, there are the stories of:
Marsha Milam, Co-Founder: Her first whiskey experience was in the oil fields where her dad and other men exchanged whiskey, while at home the love for music was encouraged. In addition to founding the Hill Country distillery in 2017, she has over 30 years experience in music events, including co-founding the Austin Film Festival.
Heather Greene, CEO & Co-Founder: The first woman on the Scotch Malt Whisky Society tasting panel was also New York City’s first Whiskey Sommelier at The Flatiron Room (2021 Best Whisky Bar in America, Icons of Whisky) and author of Whiskey Distilled, A Populist Guide to the Water of Life.
Jordan Osborne, Chief Brewer: Rounding out this “whiskey dream team” (often coined by Heather), Jordan spent several years brewing Texas beer and has been part of the distilling team since those first seven barrels.
Together, they total over 60 years of experience, more than any other current craft distillery.
L-R: Jordan Osborne, Heather Greene, Marlene Holmes, Marsha Milam
Grains: Corn (Texas); Rye (Washington, Oregon); Barley (Wyoming)
They use 2 different strains of yeast: 2 mashes with each strain, and then they put the 4 batches together for the distillate.
Stills: They distill on both a 300-gallon copper pot still in Texas, which hasn’t been named yet, with plans to expand to a second pot still. (It should be noted that their site mentions they also distill on classic column stills in Kentucky and have been transparent in media about blending sourced distillates from Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee.)
Wood Management: Marlene and Jordan go to Kentucky twice a year to lay down 900 barrels, with a bulk of them aged there in rick houses, and bring a small portion back to Blanco. Their char is 4. Their barrel partner has advised them that a year of aging in Kentucky is equivalent to 6 months in Texas.
Triple Cask Bourbon
Blend of their 2 to 3-year-old Texas bourbon (mashbill of 70% corn, 22% malted rye, 8% Wyoming barley and proprietary yeast), 3 to 4-year-old Tennessee whiskey, and 10 to 11-year-old Tennessee whiskey that receives committee input from both staff and investors. 47% ABV
Port Finished Rye
Indiana Rye whiskey batched in Texas and finished anywhere from 2 to 6 or 7 months in Port Wine Casks. 47% ABV
Single Barrel Bourbon
Each barrel yields approximately 280 bottles and the hand-written labels list cask number, proof, and alcohol by volume.
Marlene has been asked by guests at the whiskey program, “How do you maintain taste profile consistency?” and enjoys discussing the trend of how the nuances between each barrel is treated as a collector’s item. Heather has also received similar questions and likens it to following artists or chefs —you fall in love with their approach, whether it’s the same dish or not is irrelevant because you know you’re going to like whatever they put out.