If you’d offered Amani Macaulay and Chima Burey a flavored whiskey six years ago, they probably would have given you some serious stink eye. But these days, the Miami-based friends have made flavored whiskey their business, and it’s paying off.
The pair are the founders of Duke & Dame, a salted caramel whiskey brand with only 1 gram of sugar per serving. Now, a hard-core whiskey snob might be hesitant to try the brand. But for me, the idea of a whiskey that tastes like a Werther’s Original candy sounds like something that could only exist in my dreams. So I jumped at the chance to sit down with Amani and Chima – and taste the whiskey, of course – to learn more about the story behind their brand and how they are winning the fight for shelf space in a market full of big name brands.
Macaulay and Burey don’t come from a spirits-making background. But the pair, who previously worked in corporate finance, consider themselves “whiskey guys” who know what they like – and what they don’t. “A lot of the [flavored whiskey] offerings were not something you would sit at home by the fireplace and sip,” Macaulay said. “They tend to be overly sweet, syrupy and have an artificial element to the taste.”
In a market that already included flavored offerings from well-known brands like Fireball, Jack Daniels’ Tennessee Honey and Crown Royal Apple, the pair saw the competition as a sign that their idea had potential. And they set out to make their dream a reality.
“We’re guys who enjoy real whiskey, good whiskey. So we thought if we’re going to enter this category, let’s offer something that will be respected by hardcore whiskey enthusiasts for the quality and the complexity, but that also has amazing aroma and flavor that can bring in people who may not like whiskey,” Macaulay said.
So they turned their kitchens into chemistry labs and got to work on their prototype. And after sharing samples with everyone they knew – including one very lucky cable guy—they realized they had something special on their hands.
After finding a distillery partner, the next step was distribution. Starting in Florida, they’ve since expanded their reach to bars, restaurants and liquor stores in Michigan, NY, DC and the Caribbean as well as every ship in the Carnival Cruise Line fleet. And they’re showing no signs of slowing down.
That’s a nice story, but is the whiskey any good?
Enough about their backstory: I’m sure you really want to know if this stuff is any good, right? I’m not great with all of the adjectives, but I can tell you that it was damn good. So good that I didn’t want to add anything – including ice. But I’ll let Chima describe it for you.
“It drinks like a whiskey with a little hint of flavor,” he said. “It’s like a work of art, everyone experiences it differently. Traditionally, most people can’t drink spirits neat out of the bottle. We sample it like this at all of our liquor stores and even people who say they don’t like whiskey are surprised by how much they like it. It’s so approachable that you don’t have to be a hard-core whiskey enthusiast to say, ‘I can enjoy this neat.’”
How has the industry received the whiskey brand?
“We’re very accustomed to environments where we’re the only ones. I used to work for Lehman Brothers,” Macaulay laughs. “For us, we never saw this as an impediment. You just get in there and create something good and then work hard. We knew it was going to be a grind. So we just have to hit the pavement every day.”
Burey adds that they’ve received a lot of support from some unlikely places. “We’ve had a lot of people in the industry who don’t look like us give us advice and connections. Overall, we feel like we’ve been well received,” he said.
What’s the deal with the name?
As they were testing their prototype, Macaulay and Burey couldn’t help but notice how much both men and women enjoyed it, so they wanted to make sure the name was something everyone could relate to. “Everyone was loving it. People weren’t cringing when they drink it. Women and men both had great reactions,” Burey said. They wanted the name to evoke royalty and speak to both men and women.
Macaulay and Burey know they have a long road ahead of them before they reach total whiskey domination. But say they’re down for the challenge. “We have so many people who’ve told us that they are proud of us for just getting our idea off the ground. And that means a lot,” Burey said.
If you want to experience all of this whiskey deliciousness yourself, head to the Duke & Dame website to find out where you can get it near you.
I loved it neat. But if you want to try Duke & Dame in a cocktail, Chima and Amani gave me a few recipes to get you started:
Make Me Blush
- 2 oz Duke & Dame
- 1 oz Fresh Grapefruit Juice
- 1/2 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
- 1/2 oz Red Wine
- 1/2 oz Agave
Shake ingredients in cocktail shake with ice and strain into coupe glass.
Duke & Dame Espresso Martini
- 2 oz Duke & Dame
- 1 oz Coffee Liqueur
- 1/2 oz Irish Cream Liqueur
- 1 oz Espresso
Add all ingredients to a shaker tin with ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a chilled Martini glass and garnish with coffee beans. Alternatively, strain into chilled Shot glasses to serve as a Duke & Dame Espresso Shot.