Drinks with Pat: The flavored whiskey boom

Pat Evans

This week, a pretty cool whiskey brand founder was in town.

Amani Macaulay, co-founder of Duke & Dame Whiskey, was in Grand Rapids showing off his salted caramel whiskey at restaurants and stores. The inspiration for Duke & Dame is Fireball, the weirdly syrupy cinnamon whiskey. Unlike Fireball, though, Macaulay is proud of the way the whiskey shines through the caramel. While it does taste a bit like Werthers Original, it does still taste like a whiskey.

Also of note, Duke & Dame is one of the few Black-owned, independent spirit brands on the market.

Pat: Why whiskey?

Amani: I was working on Wall Street for quite a while, but you get to a certain point (when) you have to ask yourself if what you’re doing is reaching the highest level of success with how you define it. Is it where I’m reaching highest levels of fulfillment of happiness? I got to the point (where it’s) not investment banking.

At the time, I don’t know what I was doing, but I knew I needed to build something, whether it was my business or helping a small business grow. I wanted to get out of the big firm. While I was trying to figure that out, I traveled a bit and ended up in Miami, where my co-founder, he threw out this crazy idea.

“Why don’t we make flavored whiskey that tastes like Werther’s Original?”

We started doing some research, and what we found is flavored whiskey is emerging, but options were too sweet, too syrupy and not the whiskeys you’d want to sit by the fireplace and sip. Maybe there was an opportunity to do something different. If we’re creating a whiskey flavor, it had to be whiskey-first with amazing aroma and flavor. We spent a visit at a distillery asking every question, different types of whiskey and flavoring. We had chemistry sets in our kitchen. We’re on the phone, and finally we got to a formula where, “Oh, wow. This is it.”

I make a batch in New York. He makes a batch in Florida. I’m having friends try it. He’s having them try it in Florida.

We decided to give it a go. Two weeks later, I moved to Florida. It’s been a great ride. Why can’t you have flavor with some complexity of scotch and bourbon? Why can’t you have the whiskey you enjoy drinking? We feel like we succeeded.

Pat: With whiskey growing and flavored whiskey growing, how does having a premium flavored whiskey fit in?

Amani: If you look at what’s driving the growth of the segment, you’ve got to go to Fireball. It not only is the highest-selling flavored whiskey, it’s a top-five selling spirit overall in the U.S., so when you think about that, the category is dominated by flavored whiskey that you would not consider premium.

For us, that’s a good thing. We can come into a new establishment and say this is not something you’ve experienced before. Do we feel there are other players in the space at our same level? We don’t believe so. But no good idea goes uncopied. We’ll start to see other players come into the market — smaller craft players.

We have friends in the industry. We hear all the time they want us to use neutral grain spirits and just put flavor and caramel coloring so we can sell more at a lower cost. That’s the model that works for a lot of brands, but that’s not for us.

For us, we want to play in the space where someone tries the whiskey and they can taste the quality.

Pat: How do you drink it?

Amani: When I do a tasting, I always wants folks to try it neat first. I want them to try it out of the bottle out of the car at room temperature. If you like it like that, you’ll love it on the rocks or mixed with mixers. And try two sips. It’s aroma-forward. Depending on the palate, some people get more vanilla, more butterscotch or more caramel. What they notice is there is no whiskey burn that turns off a lot of people. Then, in the second sip, the bourbon notes start to round out, it’s a 100% corn whiskey base, so you get the hints of oak and spice on the back end. Some palates get a little citrus. It’s amazing to see the faces light up. I call it magic. We made it so aroma forward, and that’s because 50% of taste comes from the olfactory. Then, the senses get adjusted, so you taste and you get the beautiful layered taste portfolio. Then, after that, I get into what to do with it.

Some Duke & Dame recipes

Amani said the whiskey should start showing up in more stores and restaurants across West Michigan but he said it’s already in Smitty’s, Rishi’s and Total Wine. He said some restaurants already ordered it, such as Gravity and Brick & Porter.

He said the drink is great neat but can be made into classic cocktails, more unique specific cocktails or even shooters. Here are some recipes:

Pineapple whiskey mule

2 ounces Duke & Dame

1 ounce pineapple juice

1/4 ounce lemon juice

2 ounces ginger beer

Shake ingredients in cocktail shaker. Pour into mule mug over ice and top with ginger beer. Garnish with rosemary sprig.

Minty Dame shooter

2 parts Duke & Dame

1/2 part coffee liqueur

1/2 part peppermint schnapps

Kiss the Dame

3/4 ounce Duke & Dame

3/4 ounce yellow chartreuse

3/4 ounce maraschino liqueur

3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice

Shake all ingredients with ice. Strain into glass. Garnish with lemon twist.

Espresso martini

2 parts Duke & Dame

1/2 ounce coffee liqueur

1/2 ounce Irish cream liqueur

1 ounce espresso

Shake all ingredients in cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into chilled glass. Garnish with coffee beans. (Pat’s note: I use chocolate covered espresso beans).

What’s Pat drinking

I’m in Boston for the weekend, so I’m trying out the local beers, like Jack’s Abby lagers and Trillium’s delicious array of beers. I’m also checking out the great beer pioneers, such as Boston Beer Co.’s Samuel Adams and Harpoon.

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