Interview With Master Sommelier & Whiskey Maker George Miliotes

by Josh Galyean

You’ve heard of the rich and famous delving into the likes of alcohol production. You’ve got Marilyn Manson’s “Mansinthe,” a renowned absinthe used in some of the top cocktails bars worldwide, along with Francis Ford Copolla’s vineyards located in the heart of the NorCal wine country and establishing its beginnings 45+ years ago and then you have an endless supply of celebrities slapping their labels on pre-made grape blends, poorly made whiskeys, tequilas and more. But what of an army vet of the Gulf War whose story is told in the movie Black Hawk Down and a Master Sommelier, one of only 269 worldwide? Ok, this is getting interesting. How and why did they get into whiskey production?

To answer these questions, we’re going to chat with Master Sommelier, George Miliotes. Mr. Miliotes has partnered with the aforementioned army vet Norm Hooten and longtime friend, Tim Young, to create a 12-year-old American whiskey to “honor the brave men and women of the armed forces.” So how does one go about jumping from sommelier to Master Sommelier to whiskey distiller? Mr. Miliotes please:

How did your love of wine begin? And walk us through the tedious process to becoming a Master Sommelier.

I was lucky enough to work with my father from a very young age (starting around 13 or 14 years old). While I wasn’t allowed to taste initially, I was always around wine with people talking and selling in a retail and restaurant environment. By the time I was 16, I was helping to sell wine and was allowed to smell it and regularly talk with wine salesmen and knowledgeable people. My love for wine and career grew from there.

I personally didn’t consider anything about the process of becoming a Master Sommelier as tedious. For me, it was fun and interesting, it’s about as cool as it can get to get paid to learn about drinking. Part of the process is enjoying a lifestyle where you eat and drink very well.

Do you or do you not wear your tastevine medallion 24/7? And do sommeliers get nervous serving you? 

While I do own a tastevine, seldom does it see the light of day. It may be part of another Sommeliers repertoire (to each his own), it is not part of mine. LOL.

That happens sometimes, but I try to keep that to a minimum and be as approachable as possible, but yes sometimes other sommeliers do get nervous. I’d rather they not recognize me and just be themselves though.

How did you and Norm meet? And who’s idea was it to create a whiskey when you yourself are in fact in the wine business?

As a Master Sommelier we are required to know not just about wine, but beer, sake and spirits as well. All throughout my life I’ve made a point to be in both the restaurant and wine business. The restaurant business makes you interested in things that taste good and whiskey tastes good when made and chosen correctly.

Norm and I met through Tim, he is the one that brought us together. Tim has a love of good wine, whiskey and cigars, the three of us coming together has been really great.

Can you tell us about how the three of you decided on which grains to use, what type of casks you’d use and how long the aging process would take? It was determined by arm wrestling, right?

Norm was part of Delta Force, so Norm automatically wins any physical test. Norm is slow to anger, but not the guy to mess around with on physical strength, even still today.

We wanted to get a product to market quickly, so aging something ourselves for 12 years wasn’t particularly feasible. We went to MGP, one of the largest distillers in the world, who has stocks of lots of interesting things. We did spend a long time in the run up talking with MGP about what would be of interest. Everyone wanted bourbon at first, but my inclination was to have something that is fully differentiated. When we went to MGP we tasted a large number of barrels and we did look at bourbons and different mash bills. In the end it loops back as a Master Sommelier though, I wanted something that tasted really, really good and that was different. I felt that this 12-year-old American whiskey was unique and allows us to ultimately have a beautiful spirit.

The uniqueness of our whiskey can be attributed to the 12 years of aging, as well as the second fill barrels instead of using the first fill. This way, you get more of the maple syrup, vanilla and baked apples opposed to something that is more overtly spicy and smoky. You can’t fake aged whiskey, much like you can’t claim wines are from old vines if they are new. Being able to find this aged American whiskey that is relaxed and different brings something new to an overcrowded whiskey market. After countless hours blending, evaluating proofs and tasting, we are thrilled with the final product.

Are you planning to produce more Hooten Young American Whiskey or does your team have other plans in mind? What can we expect from Hooten Young in the future?

We are constantly looking at other opportunities, that is kind of the fun of using our model as opposed to having our own distillery. For right now we are really happy with the spirit we have, but don’t expect us to slow down anytime soon.

Last but not least, as a Master Sommelier who’s accustomed to pairings and tasting, our readers would love to hear your preferred way to enjoy Hooten Young American Whiskey. Any serving or pairing advice you can offer us? 

A couple things, I typically drink Hooten Young American whiskey neat (meaning just an ounce or two on its own). I’ll have some distilled water nearby and [slowly] add to my drink in small amounts. This allows for the whiskey to open up and makes the bouquet and flavors more evident. If you don’t want to deal with adding in teaspoons of water, you can also put your whiskey over one block of ice and let it slowly melt into your drink.

Living in Florida year-round, The Hoot cocktail (which we also serve at Wine Bar George at Disney Springs), is just about as delicious as it gets. Here’s the recipe:

1.5 oz. Hooten Young American Whiskey – Aged 12 Years

0.5 oz. G.E. Massenez Crème de Cassis

0.5 oz. Fresh Squeezed Lime Juice

Shake and Pour into a Collins Glass

Topped with a Splash of Ginger Beer

Garnish with Lime

Hooten Young is great in cocktails and it’s also a beautiful spirit on its own. I like to enjoy The Hoot cocktail in the late afternoon or at the start of meal. Then end with an ounce or two on its own at the end of a meal.

I also think whiskey and steak is about as fun a pairing as one can have if you’re not into wine. Our whiskey in particular is mellow enough that it complements the pairing. Having an Old Fashioned with Hooten Young American Whiskey and a New York Strip Steak is just about as American and delicious as it gets.

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