Interview with Michter’s new Master Distiller Pam Heilmann

Recently, Michter’s Distillery announced that Pam Heilmann would be assuming the role of Master Distiller, and previous Master Distiller Willie Pratt would be taking on an Emeritus role, essentially retiring. Epic Bourbon had the opportunity to sit down and ask Pam some questions about her new role, the future of the brand, and whether or not there would be an Epic Bourbon private labeled Michter’s 20yr.michters-team

(Pam Heilmann – center)

 EB: Congratulations on your promotion. 

PH: Thank you very much.  I am very excited to take on the responsibilities of Michter’s Master Distiller.

 EB: First, please tell us a little about yourself. 

PH: I am originally from the Syracuse, NY area.  I am married with a son and daughter and also two grandchildren.  My husband, Marty and I moved to KY over 21 years ago on an employment transfer.  Obviously since that time I left the company that brought us here and changed my career path.  Started at Jim Beam 18 years ago as a Supervisor and worked my way to Distillery Manager of the Booker Noe Plant.  Left Beam 3 years ago and joined the Michter’s team and was part of design, build and startup of our new distillery in Shively, KY.    I enjoy fishing, motorcycling and am an avid reader.  I also enjoy spending time in Syracuse and Florida with family.

 EB: Some people feel that the best bourbon starts and finishes in a lab, using equipment to break down the individual components and quantify the flavor profiles.  Purists believe that the best bourbon was made in the “old way”, at facilities whose equipment, methods and recipes don’t even exist anymore. How do you approach making bourbon; do you lean towards science or history? 

 PH: I believe that making bourbon requires a combination of both art and science.  I have worked with many highly skilled scientists that were and were not distillers as well as many skilled distillers that had knowledge not derived from a science background.  I think that it takes some of both.  A good example of this is at Michter’s, to qualify whiskey, we use both a sensory panel as well as scientific equipment (Gas Chromatograph –Mass Spectrometer GC-MS).   In the sensory portion a lot of the senses are used i.e. smell, taste while the GC-MS gives us the breakdown of compounds in the whiskey.   Of course we are looking for certain profiles in both.    There are times when the GC-MS looks scientifically good but we will actually reject the liquid based on our sensory evaluations.

 EB: Marianne Barnes made news for being the first female Master Distiller of bourbon since prohibition. How important is it to you being the first female Master Distiller to actually have products on the shelf around the world?  Do you feel like this will open the door for more women in master distiller roles in the future?

 PH: Being named Michter’s Master Distiller is an honor and a privilege.   Regardless of male or female.  This industry, as others, has seen many changes throughout the decades.  There have always been women in the industry in various roles.  It is great to see women recognized and achieving previously predominately male held positions.  If in some small way I have encouraged and helped this along that is awesome.   I hope in that regard that my success encourages all people who are struggling to achieve their goals that they are indeed possible.   That being said I personally look at myself as a distiller, now Master Distiller.  A person doing the best job I can to perform the tasks required of me in this role.

 EB: What is your vision for the future of the Michter’s and how will you implement it? How quickly can we expect to see changes? 

 PH: I am proud of the quality of our Michter’s whiskeys and I don’t have plans to make any significant changes.   I am sure we will work on some innovations and special releases.   As for the future of Michter’s, I will continue to ensure that Michter’s continues Willie’s legacy of making the best quality whiskeys in the industry.

 EB: How daunting is the responsibility of taking the reins of a storied brand like Michter’s?  How important is it to be a good steward of the name, and how do you balance that with meeting market demands?  What kind of research will you do to understand what people want?

PH: It is a very important role and one that I take very seriously.  I have been working here at Michter’s for 3 years and am very familiar with what is expected.  I have already been representing Michter’s out in the marketplace for events, tastings and seminars where I get to interact with consumers, sales reps and others.   I will continue to uphold and promote the quality in our product.  That is of the utmost importance to me.

EB: If you are developing new products, will you look at what’s being done by the other distilleries, or will you push to come up with out-of-the box ideas that others will want to copy?

PH: We observe trends in the market but our focus is on unique innovations that we feel will contribute to quality and will appeal to our consumers.

EB: What do you look for in bourbon and rye?  What are the olfactory signatures that you key in on? 

PH: Basically I am open to many different experiences.  The sweetness of the vanilla, citrus, caramels are always nice.   I like complexity and richness as well, some chocolate, spice, toffee, stone fruit or citrus depending on the spirit.

 EB: Many bourbon enthusiast felt there was a large shift in the flavor profile of Michter’s 10yr bourbon from 2014 to 2015.  Do you plan to make a return to the pre-2015 profile?

PH: We feel that we have a pretty consistent profile.   There will always be subtle differences and nuances in each release that makes it unique.

 EB: Do you have any special releases planned?  Can we expect any more special releases, aside from the 20yr bourbon, 25yr rye, and Celebration?  Are there any plans to put the Barrel-A-Day still into production towards this purpose?

PH: We are always experimenting with the various factors involved in distillation and in maturation.  There are many experiments for innovative special release that have been discussed and explored, and some of them will likely come to fruition.  We are currently in the final planning stages of completing the distillery installation in the historic Fort Nelson Bldg. on Main Street in Louisville.  This will be a Michter’s visitor educational experience where the original Michter’s equipment (“Barrel-A-Day still and cypress wood fermenters”) from the Pennsylvania Distillery will be installed and operational.   We were lucky enough to be able to purchase all of the original equipment which is now in storage until it can be installed at the Fort Nelson Bldg.  So you never know…..

EB: Given your experience in the field, is there another master distiller that you admire or model yourself on?  Assuming master distillers are like poets or song writers, who are your influences?

PH: I was most definitely influenced by many of my teachers.  I have worked with many people through the years (Master Distillers, distillers, operators, peers) that have influenced me in great and small ways.  Some of those distillers and peers have gone on to become Master Distillers or are in other significant roles at other great distilleries.  I admire all of them and each of them have taught me something whether it be about distillation techniques, selections of grains/barrels or just troubleshooting day to day issues in the mechanics of running the distillery.   All of those have in some way have influenced my style or thought processes.

 EB: How does your palate and taste differ from Willie Pratt?

PH: No two palates are identical but Willie and I are very similar regarding the profiles we prefer.  I like the full bodied mouth feel and warmth (without burn) of Michter’s whiskies that comes from the 103 entry proof.  The flavors are so much more intense.  If you have ever tried our Barrel Strength rye you know what I am referring to.

 EB: Willie Pratt was famously known as “Dr. No” and holding on to batches beyond their expected release date.  Will you follow in that same vein?

 PH: Yes most definitely.  A critical aspect of my job as Master Distiller is my assuming Michter’s “Dr. No” position as the ultimate gatekeeper of Michter’s quality.   I will always make sure our whiskies are released based on quality and full maturation rather than a particular age.   We will not release any whiskey for bottling until it meets our flavor profile.

 EB: Of all of the bourbon you have ever tasted, is there a particular bottle or vintage that stands out for you?

PH: There are so many great bourbons and ryes but I do believe that our 2013 Celebration was an especially unique whiskey.

EB: What would people who are fans of Michter’s and bourbon in general be surprised to learn about you?

PH: Probably that this bourbon fan has been converted to a rye fan as well.  I love our US #1 Single Barrel Rye Whiskey in cocktails.  I think the balance of Michter’s rye makes great cocktails.  Our rye is what we call a Kentucky style rye with some corn in the mash bill.  It gives it a little sweetness and is very smooth.  The Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye is one of this bourbon lover’s all-time favorite Whiskeys.

 EB: What advice would you give someone looking to get into the industry?

PH: Be prepared to start at the entry level.  Sometimes a step back helps us more than we know.   Be open to learning from everyone.  Operators and techs have lots of knowledge to offer.  I gained so much knowledge from some 40 year veteran operators that were willing to teach me everything they knew.  You may not find a position in the area that you ultimately want to be in but be open to starting somewhere else and working toward where you want to be.

EB: And finally, can Epic Bourbon private label our own 20yr barrel? 🙂

PH: Unfortunately no.  We do not have the inventory levels to be able to support a barrel program right now.  But never say never!!!!

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