Relishing the Rebel Spirit of Whiskey
Interviewed by Larry Perdido
Photos by Leslie Hodge
Public relations maven Marsha Milam may currently be best known for her Austin entertainment events like the Austin Film Festival and KGSR's Unplugged at the Grove, but that's about to change. Because now, when she isn't busy flooding our ears with music, she'll be saturating our taste buds with whiskey. After years spent doing PR for musicians like Jimmie Vaughan, Marsha fell deep down the bourbon rabbit hole during a trip to Kentucky. Now, Marsha's started her own company, Ben Milam Distillery, named after a distant cousin and rebellious fighter for Texas freedom.
Larry Perdido of Hopdoddy's is already her slow-sippinest fan. We asked him to have a conversation with Marsha about a topic they both love-U.S. distilled whiskey.
LARRY PERDIDO I How did you get into the whiskey business?
MARSHA MILAM I My father was in the oil business, so I grew up around alcohol. Dad always had a liquor store or bar. I grew up hearing him say, "Liquor is a good business. When people are celebrating, they drink. When times are hard, they still drink." It was like this recession-proof business to him. When I went to the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky, that's when it all really snapped for me.
After visiting, I almost moved there. Their grass is like velvet. They have those sprawling thoroughbred farms where the trees are big and green, the sky is blue, and there are horses everywhere. No people. It was just gorgeous.
Then I'd go into the distillery and get the smell of banana bread, walk into the rickhouses where the barrels are stored and smell the caramel, wood, oak, and the bourbon ...
That's not even the best part. I'd go into those rickhouses, which are the size of a gymnasium, nine stories high, and they're filled with bourbon, and ... nothing is going on in there. Nothing. Nothing is happening. But bourbon is aging.
That is what got me. To me, making whiskey flies in the face of modern life. It flies in the face of the way we live today. We're always in a hurry. We're always late, we're doing three things at once. Whiskey is not like that. Whiskey is aging. That is what it is doing, and you can't hurry it. You can try anything you want, but it just can't be rushed. Whiskey is a rebel in the way we live today. It's a defiant spirit. I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the culture, the vibe, the attitude, the pace. And I knew that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to make bourbon.
LARRY I Tell me about your team?
MARSHA I Jordan Osborne is our head brewer, he was previously working at Durango Brewing Company in Colorado. Rikk Monroe was the distiller at Deep Eddy Vodka, but he wanted to make whiskey. Now he's our head distiller.
LARRY I How did you set up the shop?
MARSHA I A friend of mine, Robert, owns KOVAL Distilling in Chicago. I went up there with my square footage and they laid it out for us. They were a big help.
Then, when I got the still in, which was a Kothe I'd gotten from Robert, Rikk and I opened it up and we couldn't read the instructions because they were written in German. Robert and his team to come down and helped us set up the still.
LARRY I Can you share your recipe with us?
MARSHA I Yeah, our bourbon is 70 percent corn, 22 percent rye, and 8 percent malted barley. I think that's why our bourbon is good, is because it's not 85 percent corn, which is too sweet.
Bourbon has to be 51 percent corn, but everybody always makes it a lot higher, and I think it's because corn is an affordable product.
LARRY I Yeah, rye is expensive. And barley's expensive. Are you sourcing local corn? I know we don't have rye here in Texas.
MARSHA I No. The whiskey that we have, I bought 3 years ago. It's from MGP of Indiana, right across from Kentucky. Half of Jim Beam's distillers now work there.
LARRY I It's some of the best whiskey.
MARSHA I Yes-I selected it with the help of some really knowledgeable people. That's what we are producing. Going back to sourcing, Rikk and Jordan can tell you, we are just trying to get the best corn that we can. That usually comes from the Midwest, because you get the best harvest and the best bushel. The temperature is right, the climate's right, the soil is right. Our rye comes from Minnesota because there's not a lot of rye in Texas.
LARRY I Do you have a specific recipe, patterned after the initial MGP?
MARSHA I Exactly. That's what we're doing. I don't cook all the time, but if I have a great recipe, I can make a great dinner. If you go by the recipe, and if you don't screw it up, you can recreate it. To me, the real question will be aging in Texas.
LARRY I Do you want to talk about the challenges of that?
MARSHA I Distillers say you get 50 percent of your flavor from the barrel. The barrel manufacturer, Copper Ridge, will tell you that you get 90 percent of your flavor from the barrel. Basically, all your flavor comes from the barrel and what the wood does in different climates. When it's warm, the bourbon absorbs the barrel's flavors. Then the barrel contracts in the winter and the bourbon has some time away from the wood. Then, as the weather changes, it seeps back into the barrel. That's the way it's made in Kentucky. Their seasons gave it that flavor profile. So in places like Scotland where it's really cold, it's aged much longer to get flavor. Kentucky isn't as cold as Scotland, but it has four seasons, and the highest temperature there in August is about 97 degrees, for one day. Here in Texas, we get that at night. So, in Texas, you get flavor faster because it's hot, and the bourbon seeps into the wood and stays there.
LARRY I There are a lot of regional distillers that use the smaller barrels and have found the four-year sweet spot, as we call it.
MARSHA I With a smaller barrel you have less product and more wood, so your product absorbs the woody tones more strongly. I was talking to somebody from Balcones the other day, and they said their distiller opened up a barrel that had been there four years and three months and had
to throw it away, because it was too much. Too woody. It's really interesting. It's like, will something aged five years in Kentucky only need three years here? Or do you try and replicate Kentucky's climate? That's what we do and, every month, Rikk checks on product. It's not like you put it away and come back in five years. In Kentucky, they'll rearrange it. They say some distillers know where the sweet spots are in their rickhouses.
LARRY I There is nothing like the smell of a rickhouse.
MARSHA I It is a totally sensory experience, because you're looking at it, you smell it, you can touch it.
LARRY I It's a living creature, isn't it?
MARSHA I Yes, and aging is just one of the challenges we've faced with this. In the beginning, everything was a challenge because I didn't know anything. I had a glossary of terms, and if somebody said something I didn't understand, I'd go "Well, wait a minute. What does that mean?"
Another issue was permitting. You can't get a permit until you have your property. It took forever just to find our property. Then, the equipment. You do a budget, and you think you've accounted for everything you need, but you don't realize that every time you get a piece of equipment in, you have to go buy 10 more things. It's just like, when are we ever done putting this thing together? The mechanical stuff went on forever.
LARRY I The packaging is beautiful.
MARSHA I When I first had a meeting with Southern Glazer's, I said, "I know. You're thinking one more Texas whiskey." And they said, "You're right." I brought out my bottle, and the head purchaser said, "Oh." Because it was beautiful. I spent a year on the label. Nobody else would do that, but I wanted it to be beautiful. We sent that to the World Whiskey Competition and won double gold in San Francisco.
LARRY I Can you talk about the marketing and branding a little bit more?
MARSHA I This is the exact opposite of anything I've ever done. Usually, my job is to promote. I tell people to come to this music show, come to this film festival, come to this restaurant, it'll be great. This is the exact opposite. This is me having to go touch this barn or touch this liquor store. It's me going to them. The other thing that's really different for me is having to be on all the time, every day. Before, I always had this rhythm of on-off. On 120 percent, and then boom, it's over, and I'm off. The other thing that's so cool is every day I get positive feedback because people like it. I love doing tastings in the liquor store because people taste it and they go "Oh, this is really good. This is smooth." Sometimes they get really excited.
LARRY I Do you think that's the key to making the bottle stand out against all the competitors, continual taste testing at the store level?
MARSHA I That's what everybody has told me. That's what Tito did. We're in this wonderful liquor store in Fort Worth that's been family-owned for 80 years. They picked us up, and they're just so cool, and they really love what they do. I did an event in Fort Worth on a Monday. Tuesday I went over to meet them and see the liquor store, and they ordered our product. Wednesday they got it in. It was either Thursday or Friday, I texted a friend of mine up there and asked them to buy a bottle of bourbon, and it was gone. The store was out. Because they loved it and they know how to market it.
LARRY I If someone is reading this and isn't a whiskey aficionado, how would you tell them to approach drinking whiskey?
MARSHA I I was a red wine drinker before this, but I've learned how to drink whiskey. What I've discovered, is that whiskey will open up just like a good red wine. So, when you first get it, you blow on it to get the ethanol away. Then, have a sip. The longer your whiskey sits there, the more it changes. A new study proved if you put a couple of drops of water in whiskey-
LARRY I It just opens up.
MARSHA I Exactly, it opens up. Or put a couple ice cubes in it. Then go have a conversation and come back to this glass in 10 minutes, it'll be almost like a totally different product. It'll smell different, taste different. To me, part of the fun of drinking whiskey is to see how it changes.
Just like aging it, drinking it takes time, so take your time with it. We'll do these tastings, and I'll see these guys come up and tip it back and say, "It's really good." I'm like, "You didn't even taste that. How do you know it was good?" Whiskey can't be rushed.
LARRY I Why Ben Milam? Are you related?
MARSHA I Yes! Like bourbon whiskey, Ben Milam was born in Kentucky. He came to Texas as a colonizer, but in the war for Texas independence, he became a freedom fighter. He led 300 men to march on the stronghold of San Antonio, where Mexican forces surrendered the town.
As distant family of mine, I chose to honor his spirit of independence. That's why each bottle says "Here's to the bold, the true, the gallant."
LARRY I Do you have any advice for would-be entrepreneurs out there?
MARSHA I My advice to people is: if there's something you really want to do, do it. And also, talk to as many people as you can and ask for help. Always ask questions. Never think you know everything. It's impossible, so just get that out of your head.
If you're really passionate about something you want to do, just do it. For me, I have to take the leap of faith all the time. I step off, believing that I'm going to land on my feet.
In the music business, I tell young kids, "If you want to manage a band and you feel you have some business sense, find a new band that you like and say, TH be your manager. I'll make sure you get paid after the show. I'll divide everything up.' Or if you want to do PR for a band, go find a new band and say 'Hey, I'm going to be a publicist. I want to be your publicist.'" You just have to start, because you will learn so much in doing it. You can read, and read, and read, but there is no knowledge like first-hand knowledge.
Responsibly enjoy Ben Milam Whiskey by visiting the distillery and tasting room in Blanco, Texas. Check out benmilamwhiskey.com for more information today.