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A new blend: Austin-area distillery redefines Texas whiskey

Arianna Auber
aauber@statesman.com
The makers of Ben Milam Whiskey have come up with a new line, Milam & Greene, that launches with a bourbon and a rye that stray from the "grain-to-glass" model. [Arianna Auber / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

There's no doubt Texas has been in local entrepreneur Marsha Milam's blood for several generations. She named her whiskey brand after ancestor Ben Milam, a hero of the Texas Revolution. But Texas isn't completely present in the brand's newest whiskey products, and she's OK with that.

In her quest to make the best whiskey possible, she and the employees of Blanco's Provision Spirits aren't afraid to venture outside of the state. Milam's first step after the initial launch of Ben Milam Whiskey was to hire an all-star team: former Jim Beam master distiller Marlene Holmes, CEO and master blender Heather Greene, and head brewer Jordan Osborne.

Together, they have launched a new flagship label, Milam & Greene, that they hope will take the brand to the national level. One of the initial offerings is Milam & Greene Triple Cask Straight Bourbon Whiskey, the other Milam & Greene Port Finished Rye Whiskey. Neither one has been completely distilled at the Blanco facility where rows of barrels filled with darkening liquid age in a large warehouse lacking temperature control.

Instead, Blanco-made spirit has been "batched" with whiskeys sourced outside of Texas. Batching is a common practice for the makers of Scotch, cognac and other types of hooch. With bourbon and rye, it has become a bit of a lost art, Greene says.

The just-launched bourbon, for example, includes the grain-to-glass whiskey that Osborne and Holmes have made and aged for two years. But it has also been batched, or mingled, with 10- to 11-year-old and 3- to-4-year-old Tennessee whiskey, sourced by Greene, and aged for an additional amount of time in old bourbon barrels. Combining these together has created "gorgeous flavor," she says.

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Sourcing liquid from another state to combine with their own hadn't been part of the original plan for Ben Milam Whiskey, but it's a direction Milam is glad she pursued with Greene's guidance. Greene became CEO of the company earlier this year.

"I thought, we will make this mash bill, and we will make this mash bill for the rest of our lives. We’ll be consistent," Milam says. "But I thought that felt a little boring. And then I met Heather, and she was talking about getting these casks from, you know, Portugal, or do this from Kentucky, or grab this cask from here. It took us out of Texas. It just opened the world up."

A whiskey producer who distills his or her own product, having a hand in it from start to finish, is held in high regard in the U.S. There's no doubt the grain-to glass philosophy has its merits — after all, Holmes and Osborne wouldn't have jobs without it. But Greene also believes in the importance of batching to produce a well-rounded spirit "even better than the sum of its parts," she says. Additional casks can come from within the distillery's own warehouse or sourced from elsewhere.

Have in mind the profile of the whiskey you want to make, the aroma and flavor notes; then, build what you need to achieve that profile, finding the casks and aging the spirit accordingly. The whiskey-making process doesn't always happen that way, she says.

"In bourbon and rye, the role of the blender has really been diminished in favor of touting the distiller and (act of) distilling all in one place," Greene says. "And yet, distilling is only one piece of what makes a spirit really wonderful. What I am trying to do is celebrate and bring back the beauty of blending and bringing in elements from all over America to Texas to make something wonderful. Texas adds its character in many ways."

The bourbon Holmes created using Osborne's mash is at the heart of the new triple cask whiskey, lending both a creamy texture and elegant floral notes to the finished product. The Tennessee additions round it out.

Future versions of the triple cask bourbon may, actually, come from a number of new barrels. In November, the Ben Milam production team plans to take over the Bardstown Bourbon facility in Kentucky, working with a much higher capacity than the 300-gallon Blanco pot still can provide. And it will lead to an interesting experiment: Some casks of Ben Milam bourbon will remain there, and others will move down to Texas.

Here, spirits like whiskey tend to age much faster than they do in the bourbon heartland because of the heat. In fact, the rye that matured in port wine casks from Portugal appeared ready in less than two months. But in a massive state like Texas — where the climate, such as temperature and humidity levels, can vary widely — Greene suspects the aging process ranges, too. Houston's high humidity, for instance, might be extra-friendly to cask aging.

"There may not be one single way to define Texas whiskey. Maybe there's a Hill Country whiskey and a West Texas whiskey. A North Texas whiskey. We're going to explore that once and for all," she says.

Some casks with Bardstown liquid will be stored in the Ben Milam distillery. Greene intends to find homes for the others that head down to Texas, in cities such as Marfa, Waco and Fort Worth, and see how the bourbon inside them matures and develops over time.

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She recognizes that some people may question whether a bourbon featuring Tennessee liquid would really be considered Texas whiskey. It was the subject of a philosophical discussion she had in Kentucky a couple weeks ago, she says. (To be clear, she adds, there is nothing in the rule books saying bourbon and rye must be made entirely in one place. Batching from other states is perfectly legal, if misunderstood.)

"What if I distill a whiskey in Oregon, and then right off the still I take a cask and ship it off to Texas for four years? Is it a Texan or Oregonian whiskey?" she says. "By just defining things by distillation, you’re not giving credit to the processes that happen afterward. (Cask-aging) is an interaction between nature, the sun and the people who create it. The heavy lifting, the heavy work of whiskey makers, begins — yes, with distillation — but so much happens after. As much as 50 percent. That’s a lot."

Part of the reason there will likely be questions about the provenance of the Milam & Greene Triple Cask Straight Bourbon Whiskey is because of what the U.S. government requires such a whiskey to be called: a blend of straight bourbon whiskey. U.S. regulations also define blended whiskey, and it's not the same thing at all.

A blended whiskey, according to American standards, is a mixture that contains no less than 20% and can have up to 100% whiskey; the rest of it can be made up of neutral grain spirit (such as what's used in vodka) and other flavorings.

"If I used a bunch of casks from within Texas, it would be called a straight bourbon whiskey," Greene says. Just sourcing one cask from another state or country "means I have to add the word 'blend.' As such, I think that many distillers are really afraid to do this."

The Milam & Greene label intends to help kick-start a new chapter in American whiskey-making — one in which distillers take chances and are up front about each one.

"We’re extremely honest about what we’re doing. We’re not trying to hide anything," Milam says. "We got the corn, the rye and the barley where they grow best. Only the corn is from Texas. Some of our casks come from other places. But the product is fabulous. It’s undeniable."

The Milam & Greene Triple Cask Bourbon retails for a suggested price of $42.99, and the Milam & Greene Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Port Wine Casks retails for a suggested price of $47.99. Find the bottles in all major metropolitan areas around Texas and at the Hill Country distillery at 208 Carlie Lane, Blanco.

For more information, visit benmilamwhiskey.com.