- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
For one owner of a Texas distillery, making whiskey isn’t so different from making music.
When Marsha Milam took her first distilling class four years ago, she began to notice the similarities between her new passion for whiskey and her ongoing one producing and promoting live music shows.
“What struck me about whiskey is that everyone uses the same ingredients — corn, barley, rye — and follows the same process to make it,” she said. “You cook it, and then you ferment it, and then you distill it and age it. But it’s the nuances that makes one bourbon unique from another. In the music business, everyone has a guitar and six strings on that guitar. And they all plug it into an amplifier. But if they’re really good, they can get a certain sound out of it that if they play, you know just from the sound who it is.”
People are certainly starting to know her distillery: Ben Milam Whiskey recently won a double gold at the prestigious San Francisco International Spirits Competition for its 86-proof single-barrel bourbon.
Ben Milam Bourbon and Ben Milam Rye are among the newest spirits made in Texas, in a small Blanco distillery not far from Real Ale Brewing. Owner Milam wanted to make them as true to their style as possible, the bourbon in particular: with at least 51 percent corn and matured in new charred oak barrels. Bourbon can be produced anywhere in the U.S., not just its birthplace of Kentucky, and it’s the spirit that captivated Milam and inspired her to branch out from the music industry.
She opened Ben Milam Whiskey earlier this year as a tribute to her first cousin six times removed — a hero in the Texas Revolution, the war that won our freedom from Mexico in 1836. Her ancestor, Ben Milam, motivated a small army of 300 men to take back San Antonio from Mexican troops in the final skirmish of the Siege of Bexar.
The Texas colonist originally hailed from Kentucky. But that’s not why Marsha Milam decided to make bourbon rather than simply a Texas whiskey with looser regulations. She was moved by the lifestyle bourbon has produced in Kentucky.
“I did the bourbon trail in Kentucky, and I’m not kidding, I almost moved there. It’s beautiful and more slower-paced,” she said. “The thing that got me was that you go into 200-year-old warehouses that are just stacked with bourbon, sitting in a barrel, aging. There is nothing going on. I was just seduced by that whole unplugged, unaffected lifestyle. What got me about whiskey is that you cannot hurry this. It’s a defiant spirit. It’s not going to be fast.”
That’s alluring for a woman who, like many of us, moves at a breakneck speed: Milam is one of the co-founders of the Austin Film Festival (although she does not organize it now) and is also a producer of the free Unplugged at the Grove shows that play every summer at Barton Springs restaurant Shady Grove. She still books those concerts and others. She is also on multiple boards.
Her new big project is as owner of Ben Milam Whiskey, where head distiller Rikk Munroe and head brewer Jordan Osborne (whiskey, after all, starts as beer sans hops) are in charge of transforming her vision into an award-winning company.
She was inspired to go full steam ahead on the distillery — finding just what she was looking for, an already constructed building and two acres of land, in tranquil Blanco — when she traced her genealogy and discovered her link to the Texas Revolution and one of its unsung heroes. Ben Milam had moved to Texas when it was still a province of Mexico (and, in fact, held a land grant near his namesake’s headquarters). During Texas’ fight for independence, he pushed the other colonists to battle for San Antonio when they wanted to retreat because of the encroaching winter.
“He didn’t live to see victory,” Marsha Milam said, noting that Ben Milam was killed by a sniper’s bullet. “But it was his impatience and can-do attitude that made that happen. Otherwise, they would’ve waited until the spring.”
Ben Milam’s habit of taking risks (he was the first, she said, to bring a steamboat to Texas) clearly runs in the family: Marsha Milam’s father, who was in the oil business and also owned a couple liquor stores, had a similar personality. So does she.
Rather fittingly, the rustic tasting room at Ben Milam Whiskey opened on Texas Independence Day (March 2) this year, furnished with items “raided from my house,” Milam said. There, visitors can try the sweet, silky bourbon and 80-proof spicy rye neat or in cocktails like the Manhattan, although both are intended to be sipping whiskeys undiluted by other ingredients. She encourages guests to let the whiskey sit for 10 to 15 minutes, so that it will open up like a good red wine.
The distillery just ordered a new still that will allow for increased production of both whiskeys. She’s delighted at how well her boozy project has done so far — namely, with the double gold win at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
“When I saw the email, I started jumping around my dining room,” she said.