Marsha Milam was raised by an oilman who also owned liquor stores, who early on taught his daughter that liquor was a solid business choice, with stable demand in good times and bad. She went on to pursue careers loosely affiliated with alcohol: music and marketing/PR. You may be familiar with some of her accomplishments if you’ve enjoyed a KGSR Unplugged at the Grove concert.
But on a trip to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail five years ago, she decided there had to be a better way. The laid-back, slow pace of life she experienced there called to her, along with the enticing aroma of the elixir itself. She decided to throw caution to the wind, move over into the slow lane, and devote her life to making whiskey. The result is Ben Milam Whiskey in Blanco, Texas.
Along the path to realizing her dream, Marsha discovered that, like the bourbon which inspired her, building the business would move at a slower pace than anticipated. But, with the gift of hindsight, she realizes now it was really a blessing in disguise. Just as whiskey needs time to age, so too did her knowledge of the industry and the product. She learned so much during the long search that she was able to build a better business and create a better bourbon.
Marsha also found that her background in music prepared her pretty well for creating a product that requires time and artistry to perfect. In both industries, everyone starts with the same tools and basic ingredients, and everyone follows a reasonably similar process. But just as a Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar solo is distinct from a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo, so too does the personality of each whiskey shine through, distinct from one another based on the unique technique and craft each distiller brings to the table.
The result of all this preparation and time is a distillery specializing in just two spirits: bourbon and rye. The name honors Marsha’s forebear Ben Milam, a leading figure in the Texas Revolution, and his “spirit of independence and action.”
To find the right team to build her dream spirit, Marsha looked somewhere you may not expect: Beer. The process for brewing beer is surprisingly similar to crafting bourbon, and she wanted the creativity of the modern beer scene to influence her whiskey. Enter Jordan Osborne, Head Brewer, straight out of an award-winning brewery in Durango, Colorado. She also tapped Rikk T. Munroe, a veteran of Dripping Springs Vodka here in Texas (as well as a “prolific and enthusiastic musician”) as Head Distiller and General Manager.
Marsha’s fondness for her staff was as evident as her love for the product, and there is no doubt that having an enthusiastic and talented team has paid off with both a quality product and an excellent company culture.
In the time I spent with the group, their enthusiasm for the product and the company shone through, from the details of the ingredients and the process through their favorite ways to enjoy the finished product. I was able to sample some of the precursor distillates, and was astonished at the flavor and complexities present even at such an early stage in production. Where an aged bourbon may be smoky and complex, the precursors are bright and exciting, with floral and fruity notes shining through. The “white dog,” as the starter distillate is called, gave me hints of popcorn and vanilla, while the distillate after six weeks in the barrel added notes of candied sugar and caramel to the mix.
The finished whiskey adds the mellowness and richness familiar to whiskey drinkers. As characterized by the makers, the bourbon provides a smooth finish, with brown sugar and caramel on the nose and flavors of vanilla and cinnamon. The rye is a spicier spirit, finishing with hints of black pepper, oak, and leather. The nose has more vanilla and mint, with similarly spicy aromas, with more of a honey, cane sugar, and nutmeg flavor. I also noted vanilla, lemon, blueberry, and grain in the bourbon, along with a hint of mint in the rye. Both were exceedingly drinkable neat and held the promise of excellent cocktails.
The Milam Whiskey website quotes its founder, “’Bourbon is defiant in the face of the world we live in today.’ It is not bigger, better, or faster. It takes its time. It will not be rushed.” While that may be mostly true, I find I disagree about the “better” part. Bourbon may not be bigger or faster, but it can sure as shootin’ be better and Ben Milam Whiskey proves it.
Where to buy: The company has been warmly welcomed by its peers in the industry, such as fellow whiskey producers Garrison Brothers, who called to congratulate them on their success and welcome them to the neighborhood after Milam’s single-barrel bourbon won double gold in the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Milam is distributed by Southern Glazer’s, and you may be able to find them in your local Twin Liquor. If not, the distillery is open for tasting and purchases in Blanco, Texas.
Before you go: Check ahead to be sure the tasting room is open, and be aware that Google Maps may lead you astray (they are located across from the Blanco Best Western, right on the main road). You may also want to make plans to visit other nearby brewers or distillers, and find some barbecue nearby to complete the day.