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A Career Change? I’ll Drink to That!

Marsha Milam at her distillery in Blanco, Tex. Making whiskey has forced her to downshift

from the fast pace of the entertainment business. (Credit Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times.)



BLANCO, Tex. — Marsha Milam’s father struck gold drilling in oil patches in Illinois back in the day. Ms. Milam also struck gold when the 86-proof, single-barrel bourbon whiskey she makes under the brand name Ben Milamwas awarded a coveted Double Gold at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

The accolade was a breakthrough for her upstart distillery an hour southwest of Austin, in Hill Country, an area flush with breweries, wineries and other distilleries. Ben Milam — named for her first cousin six times removed, a hero of the Texas Revolution — opened its tasting room last March and was fielding 10 phone calls a day from stores trying to stock its product a month later, after winning the award.

“It was nuts,” said Rikk Munroe, the head distiller. Ms. Milam was unaware that he had entered the competition with the single-barrel bourbon, which had been distilled and aged in oak barrels in Tennessee, aged in Kentucky and then brought to Texas for additional aging and bottling. Ben Milam now distills this same mash bill on site, but it requires at least two years of aging before it can achieve status as straight bourbon.

“I was like, I can’t believe you submitted to that,” Ms. Milam said. “I told Rikk, don’t tell anybody. And man, a few weeks later we get this email at 8 o’clock on a Monday morning.”

Making whiskey has forced Ms. Milam to downshift from the fast pace of the entertainment business. After graduating from the University of Texas in 1979, she managed publicity and event promotion operations, mostly in the music business, and in 1993 she co-founded the Austin Film Festival.

Now, at 60-something, Ms. Milam has joined a growing contingent of female distillers and whiskey enthusiasts. In addition to the single-barrel bourbon, she sells a 90-proof rye and a 114-proof barrel-proof bourbon in bulbous French bottles. The labels are masculine (bearing an image of Ben Milam with a musket) yet elegant (the label design on the barrel-proof bourbon was inspired by Coco Chanel perfume).

Ms. Milam said a young woman approached her at a recent tasting. “She said, ‘I think for women, drinking whiskey is the last frontier of equality,’” Ms. Milam said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I love you.’”

Ms. Milam switched gears after she had a “mountaintop experience” in 2015. One of her V.I.P. clients, Jimmie Vaughan, the Grammy-winning Austin blues guitarist and singer, called to ask for a favor. He wanted Ms. Milam to help with his speech inducting Stevie Ray Vaughan, his deceased younger brother, into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and to lend emotional support at the ceremony.

“She has a smooth class about her that makes everything cool,” Mr. Vaughan said. “I’m sure that she’s going to do great in the whiskey business because whatever she does, works.”

 Ms. Milam’s brand, Ben Milam, is named for a relative who was a hero of the Texas Revolution. (Credit Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times.)

Ms. Milam said she figured she would never do anything in the music business to top that, and it freed her to pursue other ventures. She had been taking distilling classes at Koval, which operates out of Chicago’s first distillery, and booked a trip to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

It was all so seductive — the bluegrass and the beautiful horses, but especially the big, old rick houses, where the whiskey reels in the years in wood barrels.

“I really thought about coming home, selling everything I have, and moving to Kentucky and getting a job there,” Ms. Milam said.

She continued apprenticing at Koval, and in June 2016 acquired property in Blanco about 100 yards off U.S. 281, behind an auto parts shop.

Inside Ben Milam, a modest bar area is accented with periwinkle boots, a typewriter, a cow skull, and a canvas bearing two old photographs, of her mother, Rosie, and her father, Merle. The Austin artist Bob Wade, known as Daddy-O, had spliced the photos together to appear as one, which he then tinted by hand.

Mr. Munroe, the head distiller, visited with South African tourists, while Jordan Osborne, the head brewer, tended to the mash in a production space decorated with a giant Texas flag. Ms. Milam will not disclose how much she has invested in Ben Milam, saying only “mucho grande.” She said her “trends are good,” in financial terms, but she contends that she has never pursued money, only experience.

Still, she is riding a national trend toward profitability. Fifteen years ago, the United States had roughly a dozen distilleries. Today it has more than 1,700, said Dan Garrison of Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, Tex., a board member of the American Craft Spirits Association.

“It’s a great, clean industry,” Mr. Garrison said. “It’s creating a number of good, high-paying, well-qualified, well-educated jobs.”

Ms. Milam recognizes that ultimately what she is doing is paying tribute to her father, whom she regards as the driving force in her life. An only child, she savors the memory of being 6 and having him wake her after midnight to drive to the oil patch to watch the roughnecks work their magic.

She realized that it was physical, dangerous work, but that it came with great rewards.

“In the oil business, whiskey was currency,” she said. “Somebody did you a favor — get him a bottle of whiskey.”

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