Review: Duke Kentucky Straight Bourbon


John Wayne wouldn’t let something as silly as being dead get in the way of drinking a good whiskey, and neither should you. Now you can drink just like John Wayne by drinking, er, the very essence of John Wayne — by swilling some Duke.

Duke Bourbon (sometimes called “The Duke,” but that’s not what the label says) is emblazoned with an iconic picture of Wayne along with his fabled nickname. Designed to celebrate everything about his Wayneness, it is said to have been formulated specifically to Wayne’s personal tastes “learned when his son, Ethan Wayne, discovered a private collection of his father’s liquor, letters and tasting notes dating back to the early 1960s.”

Read that again: John Wayne kept tasting notes, people.

Though producer Monument Valley Distillers laughably claims to be an artisan distiller “crafting small batches of superior bourbon, whiskey and brandy,” Duke is really (undisclosed) sourced bourbon from Kentucky (so not MGP) and is bottled without an age statement (and, of course, without mashbill information), but some have suggested it’s being produced by Wild Turkey (which would be unusual) and is a five to ten year old product (which would also be old for sourced whiskey). No one knows for sure, but does this whiskey have true grit?

The nose doesn’t give a lot of hints. The aroma is gentle and slightly corny with some lumberyard notes. It’s racy with alcohol but not particularly with spice — leading me to believe it’s got only a small amount of rye in the mash. On the palate, again it’s very easygoing — much more than its slightly overproof alcohol level would indicate anyway — very gentle with notes of candied almonds, dried apples, Cracker Jack, and some milk chocolate. A slight hint of smoke and a touch of mint add layers of complexity, but the finish is sweetness, a bit of baking spice, and gentle vanilla caramels.

Sure, Duke is a vanity bourbon project — God knows there are dozens of them on the market now — but I’d be remiss if I dismissed it as mere plonk served up in an overpriced bottle. I can’t weigh in on whether this resembles anything John Wayne would have actually consumed in real life — his persona seems like it would surely have preferred something more fiery and frontier-like — but if he was a man of discriminating tastes, he wouldn’t have been wrong in making this whiskey his go-to tipple.

88 proof.


Swords (and Glasses) Up to the Knights of the Single Oak Project!

SingleOakLogoRecently I ventured to Frankfort, Kentucky with a handful of other spirits writers to digest Buffalo Trace’s exhaustive Single Oak Project. We tasted the five bourbons from the project most highly rated by consumers and voted for the winner. That winner… Barrel #80, whose recipe will be recreated by Buffalo Trace and commercially bottled — in 2023!

The group of tasters were all christened with knightships while we there… Kentucky, style, that is. Raise a glass to my fellow Knights of the Single Oak Project, and get ready for a damn fine whiskey to hit the shelves in a few short years! Huzzah!

Many more insights about the SOP to come… stay tuned!

Here’s every barrel reviewed on one page

More insights from my fellow knight, Sir Gary Regan

Review: Ezra Brooks Kentucky Straight Bourbon


Let’s be clear: We’re drinking the bottom shelf with Ezra Brooks, a sub-$15 bourbon that got its start in the 1950s (not quite 1800 as the label would have you believe) and became part of what’s now the Missouri-based Luxco Corporation in 1993. In keeping with many ultra-cheap bespoke bourbons, Heaven Hill makes Ezra Brooks on Luxco’s behalf. This expression, colloquially known as “Ezra Brooks Black Label,” carries no age statement, but it is bottled at a slightly higher proof.

It’s not a bad whiskey. On the nose, there’s plenty of vanilla, butterscotch, and some gentle lumberyard notes. Basic and uncomplicated, but not unpleasurable. The body is soft and quite mild, with some initial notes of apple cider and a stronger vanilla character than the nose offers at first. As it develops, the apple notes fade into a more general citrus character, with a backing of baking spices, particularly cinnamon. A hint of chocolate on the back end takes things out on a slightly sweet note.

Bottom shelf it may be, but Ezra Brooks is nonetheless a well-made (if uncomplicated) bourbon that acquits itself admirably. While it may be designed for dumping into punch bowls or mixing liberally with Coke, it actually drinks just fine on its own. No shame there, folks.

90 proof.

B+ / $14 /

Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – French Oak Bourbons

French Oak Experiment 2015

In Bourbon country, American oak reigns. It’s long been tradition that America’s greatest whiskey is aged in American wood. Anything else and you’re lookin’ for trouble.

In keeping with its long history of experimentation, Buffalo Trace kicked tradition out of the rickhouse for this latest round of its experimental whiskeys. As the names imply, these Bourbons are aged not in American oak but in French oak. More specifically, one whiskey was aged in a full barrel made entirely of French oak. A second whiskey was aged in a hybrid barrel made with American oak staves and French oak heads.

Both are ten years old, made with BT’s low-rye recipe. Here’s some additional production information:

Ten years ago, Buffalo Trace embarked on another French oak experiment, but this time endeavoring one step further – creating two different barrel types, one made entirely of French oak, and another using French oak heads, but American white oak staves. The barrels were both constructed with Buffalo Trace’s exact specifications as far as size, stave drying, and charring. The barrel staves were air-dried for six months and the barrels were charred for 55 seconds. Both of these experimental barrels were filled with the same bourbon recipe, known as Buffalo Trace Rye Bourbon Mash #1. After 10 years of aging, these two bourbons have been bottled as part of Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Experimental Collection, and referred to as 100% French Oak Barrel Aged Bourbon and French Oak Barrel Head Aged Bourbon.

Both are 90 proof. Here’s what you can expect if you try them…

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 10 Year Old 100% French Oak Barrel Aged Bourbon – Soft and very fruity on the nose, with notes of peaches, apricot, and citrus. Rather buttery on the body, with plenty of fruit — namely apple and apricot — to back it up. You’d be hard-pressed to find a gentler bourbon anywhere; this expression is all kid gloves and a quiet stroll through the orchard. Punchy lumberyard is wholly absent; there’s really just a bare hint of oak’s telltale vanilla here to remind you of its wood regimen at all. B+

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 10 Year Old French Oak Barrel Head Aged Bourbon – Clearly punchier and more traditional in structure — and actually a quite good whiskey all around. A nice level of baking spice hits the nose, which melds well with its sweet apple pie aromas. On the body, the fruit is still there, but it’s well tempered by more traditional notes of vanilla, cinnamon and cloves, and a little raisin character. This all works wonderfully (and unsurprisingly) well together, making for a bourbon that has grip and presence alongside uniqueness and restraint. A

each $46 (375ml) /

Review: Black Dirt Bourbon 3 Years Old

BD Bourbon w fire

Black Dirt is made in New York State’s first microdistillery, where an applejack and this bourbon are produced. Made from a mash of 80% local “black dirt” corn (hence the name), 12% malted barley, and 8% rye, it’s aged for three years in #3 char new American oak barrels. Let’s take a look under the hood.

The nose is appealing, showing light popcorn and breakfast cereal, then lumberyard notes, plus gentle vanilla and caramel notes. It’s youthful, but not too young, just a peeling back of the layers of the spirit to reveal its grainy underpinnings. The body largely follows suit, offering a touch of chocolate up front, then a modest dip back into the grain pool for another helping. Some baking spice and a bit of citrus come along before you reach a finish that returns to chocolate for a reprise.

Cereal-heavy whiskeys are often a bummer, but Black Dirt (the name notwithstanding) is surprisingly easygoing and balanced between its granary notes and its sweeter components. The finished product may still drink like it’s in short pants, but it’s nonetheless quite enjoyable on its merits. It’s rare to find a microdistilled bourbon that has balance and a unique character all its own, but Black Dirt is one of them.

90 proof. Reviewed: Batch #6.

A- / $38 /

Review: Jim Beam Black XA Extra Aged Kentucky Straight Bourbon

jim beam black extra agedWhile I wasn’t paying attention, Jim Beam quietly updated its venerable Black Label bottling. What was once bottled with an 8 Year Old (“Double Aged”) age statement now carries none. Beam assures me the product in the new bottle is the same as the old Jim Beam Black Label even if the exterior isn’t quite the same. Either way, we got a fresh bottle of XA to offer some 2015 perspective. Thoughts follow.

Jim Beam XA is, as the name implies, a seemingly well aged spirit. A bit of sawdust on the nose leads into notes of fruity apple, cloves, and vanilla ice cream. The palate offers a rich and creamy body, loaded with caramel, vanilla, and some charcoal notes. That lumberyard character sustains here, and some popcorn notes come along as a reprise. The finish is lasting and warming and a bit dusty, for the most part offering a tour of some of bourbondom’s most classic flavors without piling on a whole lot of distracting nuance. In other words: There’s nothing you won’t enjoy here, but it’s short of a standout, too.

86 proof.

B+ / $20 /

Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection – Brown Rice

brown rice

Four our fourth review in Jim Beam’s 6-whiskey Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection we’re finally checking out the Brown Rice release. This was actually released last year, so we’re late to the game, but our completionist streak compels a review regardless.

As a reminder, these are all bourbons, each made with one unusual grain in the mashbill. As with the others, Brown Rice is at least 51% corn and includes some amount of malted barley in the mix. All Harvest Collection bourbons are aged 11 years before bottling at 90 proof.

With the Brown Rice bottling, interesting tropical notes hit the nose immediately upon pouring, mingling nicely with well-rounded grain, burnt sugar, aged wine, and oak notes on the nose. The overall impression is one of significant age, with a lumberyard character eventually taking over duties on the nose. The body starts with sweetness — brown sugar, molasses, and crushed red berries — before handing some of the work off to the wood again. The finish takes things to a place of slight astringency, with the bourbon seeing a bit of sawdust and a lightly medicinal edge on the back end. I also get notes of brewed, sweet tea and some roasted meats as the finish eventually fades. Overall though, it’s got a light touch, and in the final analysis it comes across as a very pleasant — though oftentimes plain — bourbon.

For what it’s worth, Beam suggests looking out for notes of sweet potato on the nose.

90 proof.

B+ / $50 (375ml) /  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: J.R. Revelry Bourbon Whiskey

jr revelryBased in Georgia, distilled in Indiana, bottled in Tennessee, and launched in New York, J.R. Revelry is a funky new whiskey with quite a tale behind it. It’s the brainchild of Rick Tapia, a Peruvian native laying claim to the title of the only Hispanic American making whiskey in the States — instead of tequila or pisco.

J.R. Revelry is distilled by Indiana’s MGP (nee LDI) — though J.R. calls this “the old Seagram Distillery” as a bit of light subterfuge and an attempt to sound a bit more austere. Fact is, they’re getting some pretty young stock — less than four years old according to the bottle — and pricing it awfully high. (No mashbill information is provided.)

I’m not overly concerned with provenance, though. Let’s see how it tastes.

J.R. Revelry is young and it shows. The nose is dense with lumberyard notes, burnt popcorn, and heavily charred malt, with just a hint of fruit underneath it all. Has this seen some extra-charred barrels, I wonder? The body follows the nose in lockstep, offering a surfeit of wood plus notes of leather saddle, cloves, and some mushroom. Fruitier notes make a welcome appearance late in the game, with a touch of apple pie spice, raisins, and cherry (more pits than fruit, though). The finish is very drying, leaving behind just a bit of that lingering fruit, but it remains quite tannic and a bit too rough-and-tumble for a bottle priced at 35 bucks.

90 proof.


Review: Blade and Bow Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

blade and bow

Diageo’s latest Bourbon project arrives with, as usual, plenty of confusion surrounding its provenance. The basic story is that Blade and Bow is launching in two versions, but both are a “tribute” to the famed Stitzel-Weller distillery.

I won’t try to digest how these two expressions are made myself, so here’s the relevant PR on the matter, first the NAS expression, then the 22 year old:

Born from some of the oldest remaining whiskey stocks distilled at Stitzel-Weller before it ceased production in 1992, Blade and Bow Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey … is made using a unique solera aging system to preserve the original stocks. This solera liquid is then mingled with other fine whiskeys, aged and bottled at Stitzel-Weller. The 91-proof bourbon is priced at $49.99 for a 750ml bottle.

Blade and Bow 22-Year-Old Limited Release Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is comprised of whiskeys distilled at both the distillery historically located at 17th and Breckinridge in Louisville, Ky. and the distillery historically located in at 1001 Wilkinson Blvd. in Frankfort, Ky. The limited release offering was most recently aged and bottled at Stitzel-Weller. At 92-proof, you can purchase a 750ml bottle for $149.99.

Only the “base,” NAS version was made available for review at press time, but it sounds like a markedly different product than the 22 year old — and thanks to its solera process, is a departure for bourbon in general. How’s this new whiskey come across? Bend an ear and draw near.

The nose is restrained for bourbon, with hints of citrus, some mint, and mild wood notes. Initially quite alcoholic, these harsher aromas blow off with time — so let it air out before diving in in force. On the palate, it’s racy with heat, then punchy with fruity notes — orange, apricot, cut apples, and a touch of lemon. There’s more mint here too, plus a nice lacing of wood-driven vanilla and chocolate notes as expected. The finish keeps the fruit rolling right along, fading out with a touch of caramel apple that makes for a pleasant way to wrap things up. It starts off as a bit of an odd duck, with its strangely heavy fruitiness setting it apart from the typical bourbon profile — but I found this ultimately grew on me as an evening of tasting wore on.

Give it a whirl.

91 proof.


Review: Hooker’s House Sour Mash Whiskey 7 Years Old

hookers houseIt’s been a couple of years since I first encountered Hooker’s House, and I’ve remained a fan since then. Now the company is back with its first new release in two years, Hooker’s House Sour Mash. This is a single barrel release made from 100% corn that spends 7 years in new, charred white American oak barrels before being finished in used premium French oak barrels at the Hooker’s House Sonoma distillery. The French oak barrels were formerly used for aging Carneros Pinot Noir.

Hooker’s House, like Angel’s Envy, sources its older whiskeys, then finishes them to give them their own unique spin. That’s not a bad thing, but it is a choice that takes HH’s whiskeys in a unique direction.

Case in point is this “Sour Mash,” a curious name for an aged and finished corn whiskey, but what’s in a name?

This is quite a spirit, lush but powerful from the get-go. The nose is sweet and offers lots of bakery notes — fresh doughnuts, Nutella, and raisins. On the palate, this silky-smooth spirit goes down easy, with gentle notes of vanilla and caramel starting things off. The corn underpinnings are notable, melding to give this spirit something of a caramel corn character, which is surprisingly enjoyable in liquid form. But you can’t fight off that Pinot Noir finishing for long. In time as the finish develops, there’s a burst of raisin, dark cherry fruit, dried figs, and chocolate notes. These are flavors that are rare in straight-outta-Kentucky bourbons, but which are minor wonders in Hooker’s House Sour Mash. Really great stuff that’s worth seeking out.

90 proof.

A / $40 /