Kicking off our coverage for International Women’s Day 2021, Millie Milliken talks to Nicole Sykes, who has worked in some of the UK’s most revered bars. Now, she takes on the challenge of representing one of Kentucky’s most famous bourbons, Maker’s Mark.

Nicole Sykes was aware of whisky from a very young age. Having spent many of her childhood summers with her grandparents in her hometown of Lanark, Scotland, she was surrounded by people who were proud of their Scotch whisky heritage.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and Sykes, as of January 2021, is the UK Diplomat for Maker’s Mark. It’s her first role brand-side, having spent her career so far behind the bar of some of the UK’s best-known cocktail bars: from Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms, to London’s Lyaness and most recently east London’s Satan’s Whiskers as its general manager.

And while Sykes has enjoyed success in both Tequila and rum competitions (Patron Perfectionists and Bacardi Legacy), it seems whisky has ultimately stolen her heart. “When I got into bartending, bourbon, Scotch, any kind of whisky was my spirit of choice,” she tells me. “I started bartending during the gin boom, so consumers weren’t asking about it as much and I think that really drove my love for it.”

Nicole Sykes Patron Perfectionist winner

Nicole Sykes, Patron Perfectionist

Time to represent

So, what does being the Maker’s Mark UK Diplomat involve? “Sharing the unique, handcrafted story of Maker’s Mark with bartenders and bourbon enthusiasts, being the face of the brand, and supporting people and bartenders through education,” she said.

That story starts in Loretto, Kentucky, 1953, when Bill Samuels Sr recreated a 170-year-old family recipe, creating his own pioneering mash bill (via the method of baking several loaves of bread with different grains) and swapping the traditional rye for Maker’s trademark red winter wheat grain. The bottle shape and design are the work of Margie Samuels. The first woman to be inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame, she was responsible for the name, the recognisable rectangular-bottomed bottle and the signature red-wax seal.

It’s this story, the liquid and Maker’s Marks ethos of working (a lot by hand) that drew Sykes away from the bar. “The decision [to leave Satan’s Whiskers] was based solely on it being Maker’s Mark,” she explains. “It’s a brand I’ve followed and loved in my career and something kind of sparked inside of me… I wanted to continue the work that Amanda has done.”

Maker's Mark label

Each Maker’s Mark bottle is labelled by hand

Women in whisky

Amanda being Amanda Humphrey, who held the position prior to Sykes, before moving to Kentucky to take on the brand’s education and drinks program. It’s encouraging to see the position remain in the hands of a woman – the whisky category continues to grapple with its representation of women, something that has begun to be reported on more widely this side of the pond.

It’s a reflection of our times: The Guardian reported in 2020 that women in the UK now drink 40 million more glasses of whisky a year than in 2010. More female distillers are rising through the ranks too, but the industry still has a way to go to shake off the ‘boys club’ image.

Thankfully, Sykes hasn’t come up against any stigma in her whisky journey so far. “I haven’t had to think about it. We’ve had a really good response and there is a really good representation of women working for EBS [Edrington-Beam Suntory, the brand’s UK importer] and for Maker’s Mark as a company – having their support has been great.”

When it comes to other women championing the industry she cites Georgie Bell (now hat Bacardi and serial whisky ambassador) and Becky Paskin (IWSC Spirits Communicator of the Year) who co-founded the Our Whisky initiative to challenge whisky’s perception as a man’s drink back in 2018. She also vividly recalls meeting EBS’ Terri Botherston and Lucy Morton for the first time when she was bartending. “They were the first women who had ever hosted a whisky tasting for me” – they clearly left an impression.

Nicole Sykes, Maker's Mark bourbon

You need excellent balance to be a bartender

Liquid dreams

When I speak to Sykes, she’s only been in the job for five weeks but she admits that she’s already fallen for the people that surround the whisky industry. She describes a real sense of community, especially in bourbon, from distillery to distillery, something she finds refreshing to see.

She should have also spent her first two weeks of induction at the Star Hill Farm distillery in Kentucky – having never been to an American distillery, once Covid allows, she’ll be on the first plane over.

Until then however, she’s having fun playing with her new toy: “With my classic cocktail background I love putting Maker’s Mark into those kinds of drinks, especially bourbon Espresso Martinis.’ She also likes to bake with it – her bourbon butter pancakes recipe on Instagram brought a tear to my eye.

She’s looking forward to bringing the passion that emanates out of 3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto, Kentucky, to the people of the UK: “I can’t wait to continue to proudly share the great liquid, the genuine story behind the brand and the passion of the people behind it. It’s in their veins – they grew up with it and are so passionate about it.” Perhaps Loretto and Lanark have more in common than meets the eye.