Marsha Milam is changing the whiskey game.
By Lydia Gregovic, Photos by Brooke Taelor
Whether she’s promoting a new musical group or founding a whiskey distillery, Marsha Milam has never been one to sit on the sidelines.
“I like to start things,” the Austin-based entrepreneur says. “I’m never going to be the person to show up somewhere and get a job. I need to build something.”
Milam’s adventurous spirit has seen her through a number of successful business ventures, from co-founding the acclaimed Austin Film Festival to creating music-production-company Marsha Milam Music and, finally, to her latest venture, Texas-based distillery Ben Milam Whiskey.
Although Milam was never an artist herself, she was strongly influenced by her musically inclined parents.
“My parents would go into Chicago and visit blues clubs and jazz clubs, and my mother always had music playing in the house,” Milam describes.
Raised on Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, Milam was quick to follow in the family tradition and develop a passion for music. But while others were interested in the notes on the page or the lyrics in a song, Milam was fascinated by music’s power to bring people of every background and age group together.
“I think that [music]can carry a person away,” Milam says. “It can spirit you off to another place in a way that nothing else can.”
While she felt the art form’s appeal was universal, she noticed only a select few had the opportunity to hear it played live. With the majority of shows taking place late at night, and many venues only allowing those who are 21 or older to enter, Milam recognized for many working Austinites, as well as those with young children, watching a live performance was simply not an option. Her desire to extend this experience to a wider audience led to the creation of Unplugged at the Grove, which is now the longest-running free concert series in Austin.
But despite her success in the Austin music industry, Milam began to fall in love with a different type of art altogether. After traveling Kentucky’s bourbon trail, she grew fascinated by the patience it takes to make whiskey. She began touring storehouses.
“The nothingness of it was deafening to me,” she says of the storehouses. “I mean, there was nothing going on in there. It flies in the face of the way we live today: always in a hurry, always trying to do two things at once.”
After briefly considering selling all her belongings and moving to Kentucky right then and there, Milam realized she could share her new passion with those living in Austin, and thus, Ben Milam Whiskey was born.
Although new to the world of distilling, Milam can trace her love of whiskey back to when she was a child. She recalls growing up around the oil wells her father worked and observing how the men there would give one another bottles of whiskey as gifts for a job well done. But when she opened up her own distillery, Milam wanted to expose the age-old drink to a new demographic.
“Whiskey is always thought of as a man’s drink, and it’s just not,” she argues. “Women are drinking whiskey too.”
To counter the masculine lifestyle the drink is often associated with, Milam utilized her creative talent to craft what she describes as a yin-yang approach to her product, one that balances masculine and feminine aspects.
“Whenever I’m at [our tasting room,]I always bring flowers,” she laughs. “My distiller and my brewer always say, ‘Oh, there’s Marsha with her flowers again.’ ”
When searching for a name for her distillery, Milam didn’t have to travel far from home. Ben Milam, the Texas revolutionary hero Ben Milam Whiskey is named after, is a distant cousin of Milam herself. An addition to sharing the same genes, Milam believes the two have similar appetites for adventure.
“I think if anybody lived their life with gusto, it was Ben Milam,” she says. “He fought alongside Santa Anna in the war against the Spanish, and then eventually fought against him in the Texas Revolution. He had a silver mine in Mexico. He founded a colony in Texas. … I mean, he said he had been a tenant of every jail between Texas and Mexico. It blows my mind when I think about how much life he packed into his life. He was passionate for adventure and enterprise, and I think that’s what our whiskey is all about. I’m proud to remind people of him.”
With a booming business and a critically acclaimed product—Ben Milam Bourbon recently won the exclusive Double Gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition—it’s safe to say Milam has more than lived up to her ancestor’s legacy. And with her passion for adventure and her knack for building something out of nothing, there may just be one more Milam added to the list of Texas heroes.