Ben Milan Whiskey’s head distiller, Marlene Holmes. (Photography by Andrew Reiner)

Kentucky whiskey expert Marlene Holmes has joined the team at Ben Milam Whiskey, an award-winning distillery in Blanco

Tammye Nash | Managing Editor
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They take the business and traditions of making whiskey very seriously in Kentucky. And now a Texas whiskey distillery is bringing in some of that Kentucky whiskey know-how to mix it with a lot of Lone Star pride to help continue to build a new tradition here with an already-award-winning bourbon.

Marsha Milam was already well known in Texas as a music festival producer when she decided to try her hand in the whiskey business, opening up Ben Milam Whiskey distillery in Blanco, Texas, just west of Austin. She named the company after Ben Milam, a hero of the Texas Revolution, who was her “first cousin, six-times removed,” as a way to “honor the Milam spirit of independence and action” and make “a whiskey as authentic as Texas.”

Ben Milam Whiskey has already made a name for itself. Earlier this year at the San Francisco Spirits Competition, Ben Milam won Double Gold for its flagship bourbon, the Single Barrel Straight Bourbon Whiskey, for the second year in a row. Ben Milam’s Barrel Proof whiskey and the Small Batch Rye also took home a gold medals this year. The rye won silver last year.

According to Gear Patrol magazine, more than 40 “food scientists, drink reviewers, bartenders and industry experts” serve as judges at the San Francisco competition. To win a Double Gold, “the spirit has be given Gold medal status by every single judge that tastes it — as you might imagine, very few are given out,” the magazine noted.

But Marsha Milam wasn’t done. She knew she needed the best people to make the best whiskey, so she went to the land of whiskey — Kentucky — to find a head distiller.
She found Marlene Holmes.

Holmes said her journey in the whiskey business started “back in the fall of 1990” and working with UPS when a friend suggested that look into a “unique” job opportunity at the Jim Beam distillery in Boston, Ky. The master distiller there was a guy named Booker Noe who was “always experimenting with things, with different ideas. He got this idea of using dried grain [used in the distilling process] as fish food. So he got these 1,000 catfish fingerlings and put them in a cage, and was looking for someone to go down once a day to feed this dried grain to the catfish.

“I lived near there, so I said sure,” Holmes recalled. “I could go by on my way home and feed the fish.”

As the time passed, Holmes said, she got the chance to talk to folks who worked at the distillery, and was impressed with the “really, laid back environment. I had been working at UPS for about eight years then. It was a very regimented environment with some really long days. Just not my cup of tea. So I left UPS and just kind of did my own thing for awhile” before starting work at the distillery.

There are two Jim Beam distilleries. The one in Claremont, Ky., “is the one you hear a lot about, the one where they do the tours and where the craft house is,” Holmes said. But the one in Boston, renamed after Booker Noe in about 2005, “is the workhorse. Today, it is the largest bourbon-producing distillery in the world.

“When I left last spring, we were making enough bourbon to fill 1,400 barrels in a 24-hour period,” she said. “We were putting out a lot of bourbon.”

Although she “just kind of fell into” the job with Jim Beam, it was a job she loved and excelled at. When she retired from Jim beam last April, she was the senior operator at the Booker Noe distillery, “running the still, making the mash, fermenting the mash.”

As much as she loved working for Jim Beam, Holmes said that “for the last couple of years — I just turned 62 — I’d been kind of anticipating doing something different. I even said to a guy who used to work with me, Randy, I’d love to go to a new, small craft distillery, get involved in a new product and help build something from the ground up.”

It wasn’t long before Randy gave her a call. He had been doing consulting work for a new distillery down in Texas, he said. They were looking for a new distiller, and he thought it would be perfect for her.

“At first I said yeah, sure. Then he said, it’s down in Blanco, Texas. I said, holy crap! Texas?,” Holmes laughed. “I had never thought about leaving Kentucky. I just thought I’d be somewhere else in Kentucky. I said, man, I don’t know about Texas. Tell me what you know about this place.”

So her friend gave her the rundown on what he knew about Ben Milam, and Holmes went home and did some research herself, googling Ben Milam Whiskey, Marsha Milam, Texas Hill Country, Blanco.

“I read about it and I thought, yeah, I need to check this out,” she said. Then she made a trip to Texas, met the owners and the investors and checked out the product. After that she said, “it was pretty much a no-brainer.”

Holmes said that during that first visit, she “tasted the mash, tasted the spirit run. Both were a lot different from what I had tasted before. The mash had a sweet taste to it, and the distillation just had a real pure, clean taste about it. So I knew then that these folks had a good recipe, a real good product.

“That’s a big part of the reason I came down here,” she acknowledged. Now she is Ben Milam’s head distiller, overseeing production and “making product every day. We are putting whiskey in barrels as fast as we can.”

When she talked to Dallas Voice earlier this summer, Holmes had been in Texas for about three months, and had spent most of that time, she said, looking for a house. “I want to get settled in so I can get my family down here as soon as I can. Between that and work I haven’t had the chance to really explore what Texas has to offer. I did see the bats at the bridge in Austin, and

I’ve been the Fredericksburg and saw the Green Dance Hall. I’m a real history buff, and I love what I have seen so far.”

Holmes said that her family consists of her spouse — they’ve been together 37 years — and their fur babies: a golden retriever, a German shepherd and two cats.

Holmes said that since she has been in Texas she has been “very transparent from day one” about being a lesbian, and “the folks down here have been wonderful, very open-armed. I met a woman who asked me what brings you from Kentucky to Texas. I told her about my job at the distillery. She came over and gave me a big hug and said, ‘Oh honey, we just love our whiskey here in Texas!’”

Back in Kentucky, Holmes said, it’s a bit different. “It’s a little more conservative in Kentucky, believe it or not,” she laughed. “It can be a little more rural there. But we [she and her spouse] never made an issue of it there. We just did our thing and didn’t talk about it.”

She said she is really looking forward to getting to know her new home in Texas, and is anxious for her family to join her. But she is also glad to maintain some connections to her old Kentucky home.

“There is history behind the name of Ben Milam whiskey, and there’s a Kentucky connection there,” she said. “The whiskey and the distillery are named after Marsha Milam’s sixth-cousin Ben Milam. He was a Texas hero, but he was born in Frankfort, Ky. So yeah. That’s kinda cool.”