A Whiskey with John Wayne

John Wayne’s latest leading role has him gracing the cover of Duke Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

The makers behind this product include the actor’s son, Ethan Wayne. He says the bourbon is based on recipes created decades ago by The Duke himself.

Ethan and John Wayne

Ethan Wayne with his father.

John Wayne was a connoisseur who would blend whiskeys in his downtime, his son recalls, seeking just the right combination to suit his taste. It was likely more difficult to satisfy a nuanced palate in the 50s and 60s, when the bourbon category was not as large or diverse as it is today.

We recently connected with Ethan — along with Chris Radomski, Duke Spirits master craftsman — to chat about their bourbon that’s carrying on the spirit of John Wayne.

BD: How’d this whiskey come about?

EW: When my dad was onset shooting, it was my job to unpack and pack up his car. He’d bring cases of bottles of alcohol with him.

After he passed away, much of his estate was locked away into storage. I didn’t see anything from his house for 35 years. When I finally got the chance to go back and try to find some of the things I carried from his car, in my father’s belongings I discovered two giant vaults of alcohol.

These included unmarked bottles of bourbon that he had blended, along with his tasting notes about what he preferred. So I took those bottles and notes, and working with Chris — with whom I’d become friends — we tried to reverse engineer this bourbon to bring it back to life.

CR: When we tasted the unmarked bottles, what really stood out to me was the smoothness. A lot of bourbons tend to overpower me. But this was balanced and smooth.

Duke Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Duke Kentucky Straight Bourbon

BD: So that’s how John Wayne preferred his whiskey?

EW: My father had a sophisticated palate. With whiskey, I think he preferred more of a pleasant experience, a balanced bourbon, rather than something that’s been sitting in wood for 20 years and will knock your head off.

Although Duke bourbon is 88 proof, giving it a bold presence, it doesn’t scream or yell any one thing. It reminds me of my father. Yes, he was the most famous cowboy onscreen. But he didn’t have gold-plated diamonds.

Remember, his workday ended after 13-14 hours riding horses in the Mexican desert. And then the next day he’d be in the White House sipping out of the finest crystal. So I think he wanted something that was pleasant whether he was out in the desert or someplace beautiful. That’s why this whiskey feels authentic to me.

BD: How’s Duke taste?

CR: There are subtle charred oak notes, along with roasted nuts and hints of vanilla. On the mid-palate you will get more of that charred oak and complex flavors. And then in the finish comes that 88-proof. It’s very similar to what we found in those original bottles.

There’s no age statement on this whiskey. It’s a blend of bourbons aged between six and ten years in American Oak.

BD: Promotional materials for Duke include food recipes incorporating the bourbon, like The Duke Baked Beans and a wild mushrooms and popcorn recipe.

CR: I originally come from the wine side, so I’ve worked extensively with pairing and cooking with chefs. I looked similarly at the great flavors present in bourbon. There are so many permutations that can use bourbon in cooking. And I wanted to do something a little different, to create some different opportunities and synergies for the brand. So we came up with those recipes.

Duke Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey has a suggested retail price of $34.99 and is available in 35 states.

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