Female Master Distiller Sips Success in Spirits Industry

Starting out at Jim Beam

Holmes, now 64, is no stranger to bourbon. Rickhouses, or whiskey aging warehouses, dotted the rolling hills in central Kentucky where she was raised and were as much a part of the landscape as tobacco and horse barns. Holiday dishes included bourbon fudge, bourbon pudding, and bourbon balls with pecans. Summers brought glasses of iced sweet tea with bourbon.

Holmes entered the industry in 1990. Self-employed as a home remodeler, Holmes also owned a 30-acre farm with a lake and was considering raising catfish. She learned that the late Booker Noe, former master distiller of Jim Beam and the sixth generation of the Beam family to make bourbon, wanted to experiment with using the dried grain that was a byproduct of distillation as fish food. If it worked, he could boost company revenue.

Noe purchased 1,000 catfish fingerlings and, because of her shared interest in the fish, Holmes — who lived nearby — did the feeding.

The experiment didn’t go well, but Holmes got to know some of the Beam employees, and when an opening came along for a distillery operator she took the job.

“I didn’t know much about whiskey, other than the taste,” she recalls, “but I figured, if I like it, great. If I don’t, I’ll move on to something else. That was 30 years ago.”

A whiskey ‘dream team’ of women

In her current position, Holmes oversees the aging, blending, batching, proofing, sourcing, finishing and bottling of whiskeys sold under the Milam & Greene Whiskey brand, a flagship brand of Ben Milam Whiskey producer Provision Spirits. At the 2020 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the distillery earned double gold medals for its Milam & Greene Straight Rye Whiskey finished in port wine casks and Ben Milam Barrel Proof Straight Bourbon.

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