New Life for Duke Spirits

Photo courtesy of Duke Spirits

Photo courtesy of Duke Spirits

Written by Constance Dunn

When John Wayne’s youngest son Ethan became manager of his father’s estate, he discovered about 30 wooden vaults that had been sealed by executors after his father’s 1979 passing. Among the contents from the icon’s Newport Beach, California house were Wayne’s Academy Award for True Grit (1969)—wrapped neatly in a bath towel—and an entire vault dedicated to Wayne’s liquor collection. “It was like an Indiana Jones thing. The vaults sat quiet for all those years,” says Chris Radomski, who co-founded Hundred Acre Wine Group in the 1990s (Layer Cake Wines and the hit-making Hundred Acre Cabernets are among their offerings) before launching Duke Spirits with Ethan Wayne in 2013.

Among the trove were French wines. Brandies and tequilas. Whiskeys. Bourbon. “John Wayne had a passion for spirits,” says Radomski. Also found in the vault were Wayne’s personal notes and bottles containing the Duke’s tequila and bourbon. “We had the treasure map,” Ethan says of the collection.

Radomski and Ethan Wayne set out to reproduce John Wayne’s personal blends and determine dominant taste patterns of his favorite spirits. “We reverse-engineered the recipe based on the evidence that we had, and went forth,” says Radomski. They found a Kentucky distillery where they could custom blend the bourbons, all in keeping with John Wayne’s preferred taste profile, which Radomski describes: “Very balanced. Very smooth. With just the right amount of pepper and oak on the finish, and not a lot of sweetness. More scotch-like than a traditional bourbon.”

The result is a Duke Spirits lineup that contains the flagship Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, retailing for approximately $40 per 750 ml. It’s distilled from a recipe of corn, rye and barley and aged in American Oak barrels for a minimum of five years. The pair’s more exclusive offering is Duke Grand Cru Kentucky Reserve Bourbon (about $125 per 750 ml), which features the 9-year-old Kentucky Straight finished in French oak barrels—a unique touch. “To my knowledge, no one has used this type of French oak barrel to age bourbon” says Radomski, who used his winemaking bona fides to source the rare barrels, used in the production of award-winning wines.

Rounding out the Duke portfolio is a forthcoming Double Barrel Rye, aged in the wine bottles that previously held bourbon, hence the “double barrel” label, and a tequila—another of Wayne’s favorite spirits. Currently in production at a boutique distillery in Mexico, Duke Spirit’s tequila is set for a limited release of approximately 500 cases by the end of the year.

Given Wayne’s legacy of no-nonsense determinism, it’s no surprise that the contents of a personal vault would reveal that an area of personal interest was something of a pursuit, complete with a world-class collection. “The hallmark of John Wayne is that, whatever he did, be it acting or directing, drinking or fishing, he did it to the utmost level of perfection and craftsmanship,” says Radomski. It’s with this in mind that Radomski and Ethan Wayne have created Duke Spirits: to not just honor the man and one of his most enduring passions, but to do so at a level that would make him proud.