Heather Greene has some very traditional bonafides in the whisky world… and some very non-traditional views about the future of American Whiskey. A longtime authority in the whisk(e)y world, Greene recently uprooted herself from NYC and looked to the literal frontier. She moved to remote, central Texas, assumed the CEO role at the fledgeling Milam & Greene, and started making some great juice—and maybe redefined the category in the process.
Elevating The Conversation
Greene describes her goal as “elevating the conversation” about American Whiskey, but one can be forgiven for describing her objective as a paradigm shift.
Located in the Lone Star State not the Bluegrass State (more on that later), Milam & Greene aims to be a sort of one stop shop for the spirit. “We’re taking the concepts of proofing, batching, blending, distilling, finishing, contract distilling, anything—you name it—and putting it under one roof here in Texas,” Green told Neat Pour.
To that end, Greene’s outfit is already flexing with an eclectic mix of expressions. M&G Triple Cask is a batch of M&G’s own 2-year-old Texas bourbon blended with 3 to 4-year-old Tennessee whiskey and a 10 to 11-year-old Tennessee whiskey. Their Port Finished Rye Whiskey is distilled in Indiana and then shipped to Texas where it is batched and finished in old Port wine casks. Then, there’s Blanco, an expression entirely distilled on site slated for release in the coming months.
“If it leads to a wonderful whiskey we’ll do it.”Greene
Blending is not often discussed in Bourbon circles, but Green sees the technique as a competitive advantage. “The blending portion allows me to find or contract or get to a place with our team that we can use it with our spirit to get to a place that’s unique, but can also compete with the best whiskeys in the world.”
After tasting M&G’s rage at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference, we can assure readers that the array of offerings can certainly compete with the best. The expressions are delicious, and seem to have something to please even the most discerning palates. Yet, the issue of those pesky rules does come into play.
“People say, ‘You can’t do that! You’re not grain-to-glass. It’s not legitimate’,” recalled Greene. “Well, yes, we are grain to glass, but we’re other things as well. If it leads to a wonderful whiskey we’ll do it.”
A Return To Tradition
Mind you, the M&G team is not breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules. To the contrary, the producers aren’t really breaking rules at all; they are actually returning to traditional practices.
“This isn’t reinventing the wheel, we’re just returning to something that we got away from for a while.”
For example, celebrated Scotch producers like Gordon & MacPhail have been blending whisky for generations. Greene, a veteran of the Scotch whisky biz, drew on these techniques when creating her outfit in Texas.
“I took the lessons I learned living in Scotland, consulting with distilleries in Japan. We’re not doing without historical precedence. Over here ‘sourced’ became dirty word, but over there, it’s tradition.” she explained. “How can I ensure that we’re making beautiful whiskey but still saying in the rules of American Whiskey making?”
Deep In The Heart Of Texas
Of course, the glaring split from tradition is geography. Milam & Greene is based in Blanco, a small town in Texas’ Hill Country.
“The whiskey markets in Kentucky and Scotland are so mature. Where else are you going to do something like this, something different and exploring? We’re not your usual demographic of whiskey makers,” espoused Greene. “Texas allowed all that. Maverick, renegade, wide-open, it’s literally a cowboy state. Spreading out of space and experimentation.”
Yet, Texas is not some lawless land of spirits. The young Texas Whiskey Association is currently working to define the category in the public eye. The task inevitably generated some soul-searching about the question of “what is Texas Whiskey?” Greene was forced to mull these issues in the context of her own range.
“It’s Texas Whiskey. It’s heart is in Texas. What is it exactly that makes it Texas whiskey, we don’t know yet. It’s a big philosophical question,” the CEO opined. “For a long time it was just ‘where was it distilled?’ But, that’s just one piece of what makes the personality of a great whiskey. It’s like a person, where you go to high school doesn’t make you.”
Greene believes that these labels can get murky and obstruct the point of the process, a great whiskey. Illustrating her stance, she referenced a recent project.
Her team recently took over a distillery in Kentucky and distilled whiskey—but, they did not barrel the juice until they were back in Texas. “What is that? It was distilled in Kentucky, but it can’t be a Kentucky Bourbon because it did not touch wood in Kentucky,” she posited. “We’re into getting beyond taxonomy and semantics and putting everything in a box and boom boom!”
Semantic debates aside, terroir does not end with the mash bill. For example, the Texas climate leaves a fingerprint on the whiskey.
“It’s really interesting what the Hill Country has done to our whiskeys because the temperature variance here is so great. One day it’s hot down here, one day it’s cold. One day it’s raining, one day it’s dry. It essentially acts like an accordion on the cask and infuses so much flavor.”
Greene’s push to American Whiskey’s geographic and metaphorical frontier is transforming the conversation about American Whiskey and the terroir of Texas. Yet, she ultimately finds time for joy from the the simplest parts.
“People stop me and say, ‘We’re glad you’re here making whiskey.’ That is everything to me!”