Get to know the nature distilled product of Maker’s Mark through Distillery Diplomat Thomas Bolton and their exciting new offerings
By Joe Daily
Photos by Andrea Hutchinson
Welcome, everyone! Thanks again for joining us here at the Daily Libations column! I had the pleasure of interviewing a long-time friend and Maker’s Mark Distillery Diplomat, Thomas Bolton. Thomas is a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. He’s funny, extremely witty and has a passion for bourbon like no other. He and Maker’s Mark do a tremendous amount for the surrounding community of the distillery, but also for our service industry as a whole. He is a lifer in the industry, right beside me.
This month, I had the opportunity of joining Thomas at the Maker’s Mark Distillery to discuss the many changes it has undergone and the new products they plan to release. It is astounding how Maker’s Mark continues to evolve yet stays true to form in their quality of products. It is truly some of the best bourbon in the world and these guys and gals know what they are doing. Without further adieu, let’s go headfirst and ask some hard questions!
Joe: So how did you get in the business, Thomas?
Thomas: That’s a long story, but let me give you the short version. I put myself through undergrad and grad school by bartending. I have met so many amazing people through my work behind the pine. One person I met was Jane Bowie who is now our director of innovation. We had a couple of classes together at Bellarmine. She was the Maker’s Mark Diplomat at the time. I told her I was looking to move on from the service industry after about a decade. She mentioned a tour guide position was open at the distillery and would try to get me an interview. That was February 2016 and I started working for Maker’s in April 2016.
Joe: Tell me about this amazing room we are standing in. It’s pretty chilly!
Thomas: This is one of my favorite rooms at our distillery. It’s our limestone cellar, the home of Maker’s Mark 46 and our original Private Selection tasting room. One of my favorite things about this room is the fact that it constantly hovers around 50 degrees. It’s a great refuge when you are taking groups around the distillery in 100-degree weather, however, it does serve a bigger purpose than cooling down tour groups. It’s built into the side of our hill and has a natural limestone back wall and living roof which helps keep the temperature cool enough for our finishing process. This is vital for meeting the taste vision of Maker’s Mark 46 and Private Select.
Joe: It looks like the grounds are extremely well kept and you have added a garden. What’s the scoop?
Thomas: I have worked at Maker’s for over five years and it seems the campus is always growing and changing. Now, when you walk to the Visitors Center, you will pass our Innovation Garden. It’s a beautiful garden where we focus on creating the most flavorful produce for our restaurant on site, Star Hill Provisions. Many of the things we are growing are from Row 7 Seed Company. Some of the produce hasn’t been grown in Kentucky before, so if we find something that thrives, we can share it with local farmers and hopefully give them another option of a crop to grow.
Joe: It seems that Maker’s Mark is huge on sustainability. Do you have a curated water source on the property?
Thomas: Sustainability is very important for Star Hill Farm and Maker’s Mark. As our Chief Distilling Officer Rob Samuels would say, “We are nature distilled.” At the end of the day, we are an agricultural product. Taking care of the land is our responsibility. When the Samuels family purchased this property back in 1953, it came with the 10+ acre spring-fed lake that we still use today as our water source. Throughout the years, we have slowly purchased the entire watershed that surrounds our lake. We believe we are the only bourbon distillery that owns its water source and the entire watershed that affects it. In the past few years, we acquired another piece of land that also has a lake. So, now we have two lakes on Star Hill Farm.
Joe: As we were riding through the property, I saw an apiary. What can you tell me about it? It was extremely cool to see and really does highlight the level of sustainability that Maker’s Mark is pushing towards.
Thomas: The apiary is a cool part of the property. Our Drinks and Education Manager, Amanda Humphrey, has spearheaded it using the property to its fullest in our cocktail program. I don’t know much about harvesting honey from the apiary, but I can tell you that it is delicious, and if honey is in a cocktail at the distillery, you should get it.
Joe: Not only is Maker’s Mark one of the most beautiful distilleries I have ever been to, it looks like the facility is expanding. I believe some portions of this will be available to the public. Is this correct?
Thomas: If you have been down to our distillery in the last six years, it would seem that there is always something new and exciting happening. This year is no different. New this year is our Innovation Garden, the pergola at our homeplace, our double barrel bridge and our apiary. When you come down to the distillery and take a tour, you will see a new project coming together in the heart of campus next to our bottling line. It will have offices, an event space and I hear a rooftop bar is in the picture too. I am very excited for these projects to finish so we can continue to show our guests what Maker’s Mark Distillery and Star Hill Farm have to offer.
Joe: We just had a couple of cocktails and a variation of the Manhattan. I know there is a backstory here.
Thomas: This is a very specific variation of a Manhattan. What I made for you is a “Bill Samuels Jr. Manhattan.” This cocktail and I have a funny history. I was making cocktails for a charity event at Bill Jr.’s house. He ordered a Manhattan and I made it the standard 2-1-2 method. Two parts Maker’s Mark 46, one part sweet vermouth and two dashes of bitters. Bill informed me I had made this wrong, and we had a spirited debate on how to make a Manhattan. We decided to call what he likes a “Bill Samuels Jr. Manhattan” and that’s what I made you today. Instead of bitters, substitute a bar spoon full of cherry juice. It’s a little sweeter than a traditional Manhattan but the bourbon is still the star.
Joe: We always like to have cocktails in “Daily Libations” and I am having a Gold Rush. The honey is actually from Maker’s Mark’s apiary. What are your thoughts on the Gold Rush?
Thomas: A Gold Rush is quickly becoming one of my favorite cocktails. It is a modern classic with just the right amount of sweet, paired with the perfect amount of bourbon and enough citrus to make it a porch sipper for me. Add in honey from the onsite apiary and you have a perfect cocktail. I like to use classic Maker’s Mark for this. The 90 proof bourbon with its vanilla, caramel and baking spices makes a perfect pairing with the honey and lemon.
Joe: I hear you have some new products coming out, one in particular that definitely piqued my interest. Can you shed some light on it?
Thomas: Innovation and new products are not words that were often spoken at the Maker’s Mark Distillery from 1953 until about 2009. For a long time, we only made one thing: classic Maker’s Mark. It was the only thing we did and we still do it very well. Maker’s Mark 46 was our first innovation and we haven’t looked back since. FAE-02 is coming out this fall 2021. Our wood finishing series started in 2019 with RC-6, in 2020 with SE4 X PR5 and at the beginning of 2021, we had FAE-01. Every one of our wood finishing series focuses on a specific process in our bourbon making and highlights it. RC-6 focused on the flavors we get from our yeast strain. SE4 x PR5 focused on the seasoning of the oak we use for our barrels. The FAE series focuses on the flavors you get from non-chill filtering. At Maker’s, we split flavor into two camps: taste and texture. FAE-01 focused on the tastes you get from non-chill filtering. FAE-02 is focusing on the texture you get from leaving the fatty acid esters in your bourbon. I am very excited about this release and trying FAE-01 next to FAE-02 is going to be a really fun tasting experience.
Joe: To close it out, a question many of us have asked ourselves: bourbon is on a tear, do you think we will ever see a slowdown?
Thomas: Joe, you and I have known each other for a long time. We have probably had this conversation three or four times in our friendship. Eight years ago, I was saying this bourbon bubble had to burst and it had to burst soon. I was wrong then. I am happy bourbon is on a tear; it is great for business and it is great for the state of Kentucky. The amount of tourism bourbon drives is huge for our state and the hospitality industry in Kentucky. I think the spirit industry is cyclical and it will have its ebbs and flows. Selfishly, I hope it never slows down.
If your readers are interested in following the adventures of a Maker’s Mark Diplomat, they can follow me on Instagram @beardedbourbonboy.
Joe: Thomas, thank you very much for taking the time out of your schedule to meet with us! It’s always a pleasure.
As always, let’s talk about those recipes for you to make at home. Giving our readers the opportunity to drink what we drink is extremely rewarding for me. I hope you enjoy it as well. Thank you again for joining us this month at “Daily Libations”!
If you drink it. I study it.
Gold Rush Cocktail:
Tools required to tipple your senses:
• 1 oz to 2 oz jigger (A bartender’s tool to measure)
• Boston shaker (Tin to tin or glass to tin. I prefer tin to tin.)
• Hawthorne strainer (I prefer a strainer with a very tight spring to catch particles.)
• 8 to 12 oz (Rocks glass or Old Fashioned glass)
• Ice scoop (The tool everyone forgets, including me.)
• Paring knife for garnish
Where the magic happens:
• 2 oz Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon
• 1 oz honey syrup
• .75 oz lemon juice, freshly squeezed
• Garnish: ½ lemon wheel
• Ice: fresh ice
• Rocks glass
• Add liquid ingredients
• Fill with ice
• Clap tins together and vigorously shake for 12 seconds or until the tins begin to frost over
• Strain ingredients into a rocks glass over fresh ice, garnish and enjoy!
vHoney syrup 2:1
• 2 cups honey
• 1 cup water
• Warm mixture on low heat in a small saucepan until completely dissolved together. Bottle and refrigerate for up to two weeks.
“Bill Samuels Jr. Manhattan” Cocktail
Tools required to tipple your senses:
• 1 oz and 2 oz jigger (A bartender’s tool to measure)
• Yarai mixing glass (This is 90% of the time a glass vessel, but there are some metal versions as well.)
• Stirring spoon (This is a spoon designed to stir cocktails.)
• Hawthorne strainer or julep strainer(I prefer Hawthorne strainers for all applications.)
• Coupe glass
• Ice scoop (The tool everyone forgets, including me.)
Where the magic happens:
• 2 oz Maker’s 46 Kentucky Straight Bourbon
• 1 oz sweet vermouth of your choice
• 1 bar spoon of maraschino cherry juice
• Garnish: brandied dark cherries
• In the mixing glass, add Maker’s 46 and sweet vermouth together
• Fill with ice above the line of fluid (I usually fill almost ¾ up in the mixing glass.)
• Stir the cocktail moving the spoon to the outside wall of the mixing glass 37-50 times. We want smooth laminar flow. (Laminar flow is when we have layers of liquid moving in the same direction, and in return, supercooling the beverage.) Your ice should swirl in a seamless manner quietly. It requires a little practice!
• Strain ingredients using your Hawthorne strainer over fresh large format ice into a coupe glass
• Add 1 bar spoon of maraschino cherry juice
• Garnish with dark brandied cherries and enjoy!