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Duke* Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Review: Duke* Kentucky Straight Bourbon    77.5/100
a review by Chip Dykstra (AKA Arctic Wolf)
Posted on June 17, 2015

Monument Valley Distillers call themselves artisan distillers who craft small batches of bourbon, whiskey and brandy. The genesis for the company was a conversation over dinner between founders Ethan Wayne, (son of the epic movie actor, John Wayne) and Jayson Woodbridge and Chris Radomski (vintners of Hundred Acre Wines) in Calistoga, California. The company they created as a result of that conversation (Monument Valley Distillers) is based in California, and it spawned DUKE Spirits which is now tasked with preserving the legacy of Ethan’s father, John Wayne, by creating authentic products bearing his name.

According to the DUKE Spirits website, DUKE* Kentucky Straight Bourbon was inspired by the whiskey bottles in John Wayne’s personal collection which had been preserved and recently rediscovered. To quote from the website:

He (John Wayne) saved his writings, he saved his scripts, he saved everything of importance, and, naturally, he left crated up for over 30 years his favorite drinks and his tumblers standing still in time and waiting for his son to open the crate and let all of the words come back. He left an archive, a message, and a reserve of bottles dating back to 1963. Literally, a message in a bottle.

We went to the crate with our friend, Ethan, unsealed it after so many decades, and then we picked up the tumblers he had left for us and tasted the DUKE’s favorites.

DUKE* Kentucky Straight Bourbon is distilled in Lawrenceburg Kentucky, and (again according to the website information) is blended from small batches of hand crafted five to ten year old whiskeys which have been aged in new heavily charred American Oak barrels. The resulting bourbon whiskey is bottled at 44 % alcohol by volume.

duke-bourbon-bottle-shot-front-webIn the Bottle 4.5/5

DUKE* Kentucky Bourbon is housed in the medium sized (perhaps just a little stubby) whiskey bottle shown to the left. The label is dominated by a picture of John Wayne holding his rifle and wearing a sheriff’s badge, and this image immediately captures your attention when you see the whiskey on the shelf. This is a product which seeks to capitalize upon the celebrity which ‘the Duke’ achieved, and by first appearances it is doing so very well.

I like that the whisky features its 88 proof bottling strength prominently, and I like the straight sided cork topper. This is a solid whiskey presentation.

In the Glass  7.5/10

The DUKE* is a light caramel coloured whiskey with a hue which sits squarely between the yellow and orange hues of a young whiskey and the copper and brown hues of a well aged whisky. When I poured a sample into my glencairn and gave it the customary tilt and swirl, I saw the stubborn crest which formed on the inside of the glass release a few medium droplets which turned into legs that ran somewhat slowly back into the bottom of the glass.

The initial aroma from the glass revealed spicy oak sap and a dry grassiness which was pushed forward by a firm alcohol astringency. At 44 % alcohol by volume, the spirit is expected to have a bit of an alcohol push so I waited a few minutes to let that initial rush of alcohol pass. When I returned to the glass, light butterscotch aromas and bits of vanilla had revealed themselves; however, a sort of peppery grassy aroma of green tobacco was still dominating the breezes. There was also some spicy orange citrus peel and a few almond scents.

My overall sense from the nose is that the whiskey blend features more young spirit than old, and a spirit which seems to lack the balance and the richness of character which should have come with age.

In the Mouth 46.5/60

The delivery reflects that same green grassiness which I had I noticed in the air above the glass. There is also a bit of a harsh bite which is perhaps a reflection of the bottling proof of the whiskey but is also perhaps a is reflection of a predominance of youngish bourbon within the blend. Flavours of dry tobacco and fresh spicy poplar sap tend to dominate the sweeter flavours of butterscotch and vanilla. For me the combination of the perceived youth I taste within the spirit, and the dominating grassy flavour means that I will be relegating this particular bourbon to my mixing shelf. I did add some ice, but the whiskey seemed to become slightly bitter in the mouth which did not improve matters.

I began to experiment with a few recipes. I mixed a Bourbon Smash which is a cocktail I have been favouring lately, and an Old Fashioned. I decided that my preference was definitely for the Smash as the mint seemed to work well with the grassiness of the spirit. Then I mixed a standard Bourbon and Cola and decided that this was probably the best destiny for the DUKE* Bourbon.

In the Throat  11.5/15

This is not the roughest bourbon I have tried; but neither is it the smoothest. I suspect some of this ‘roughness’ is by design as it suits the western theme of the whiskey for it to have a bit of bite that will scrape the dust from your throat. Some of  this ‘roughness’ is also due to the bottling strength. After you swallow, the spirit leaves the palate puckered with a dry somewhat bitter grassy flavours lingering. It is the lingering grassiness which brings down the score more so than the roughness of the spirit.

The Afterburn  7.5/10

If you are a fan of John Wayne it might be cool to own one of these bottles, especially if you also happen to have a western theme in your home bar. Understand, if you do want to purchase this whiskey, that you are purchasing what I would call a ‘collectible’ not a sipping whiskey; and that’s okay as that certainly is how the spirit is being positioned into the market place. If the destiny of your bottle is to be opened and enjoyed rather than to be kept sealed, then perhaps you should purchase some cola as well. That way you can mix a few Buckeroos for yourself and your house guests.

You may read some of my other Whisky Reviews (click the link) if you wish to have some comparative reviews.


As always you may interpret the scores I provide as follows.

0-25     A spirit with a rating this low would actually kill you.
26-49   Depending upon your fortitude you might actually survive this.
50 -59  You are safe to drink this…but you shouldn’t.
60-69   Substandard swill which you may offer to people you do not want to see again.
70-74   Now we have a fair mixing rum or whisky.  Accept this but make sure it is mixed into a cocktail.
75-79   You may begin to serve this to friends, again probably still cocktail territory.
80-84   We begin to enjoy this spirit neat or on the rocks. (I will still primarily mix cocktails)
85-89   Excellent for sipping or for mixing!
90-94   Definitely a primary sipping spirit, in fact you may want to hoard this for yourself.
95-97.5 The Cream of the Crop
98+        I haven’t met this bottle yet…but I want to.

Very loosely we may put my scores into terms that you may be more familiar with on a Gold, Silver, and  Bronze medal  scale as follows:

70 – 79.5    Bronze Medal (Recommended only as a mixer)
80 – 89.5     Silver Medal (Recommended for sipping and or a high quality mixer)
90 – 95         Gold Medal (Highly recommended for sipping and for sublime cocktails.)
95.5+            Platinum Award (Highest Recommendation)

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