John Wayne has a whiskey. It can be enjoyed after a long day of fending off various sinister tycoons from your land, or next to a crackling campfire after a long day of cattle driving across Missouri. Or, as is the case with your father, it can be enjoyed in a smudged glass, slumped on the couch while a classic John Wayne Blu-ray plays on the 55-inch TV, finishing off a long day of raking leaves in the yard.
Called Duke Kentucky Straight Bourbon (what else?), it was first released in 2013 by Duke Spirits, a company started by Wayne’s son John Ethan Wayne and Chris Radomski. This year Duke Spirits came out with what Radomski calls a premiere bourbon with a new label and a longer aging process—at least five years spent in charred, new American oak barrels. But the recipe remains, pulled from John Wayne’s own brain.
When Wayne passed away in 1979, his belongings were put into storage. Control of the estate was passed to Ethan a decade ago, and he started digging through it all. Among handwritten letters, costumes, and Wayne’s Academy Award for True Grit, Ethan came across his father’s impressive liquor collection, as well as a few unlabeled bottles of bourbon. Wayne was passionate about spirits, and had spoken of making his own tequila and whiskey. Ethan figured those four unlabeled bottles were his dad’s experiments. He and Radomski tasted and tested the bottles, doing some “reverse engineering” as Radomski called it to recreate the flavor with their own bourbon blends.
“What it produced was a very beautifully balanced but strong bourbon,” Radomski said. It was a bourbon to be drank straight or on the rocks. He and Ethan knew they could build a spirits company around it while doing Wayne’s legacy proud.
“[Wayne] talked about how it had to be balanced and smooth enough to drink out of a tin cup by stage hands in the middle of the dessert, or out of a nice tumbler with President Reagan,” Radomski said. “Clearly he had a preference of how he wanted to produce it, which I think we really reflected in the bottle.”
Duke Kentucky Straight Bourbon is thin and sweet, with light vanilla and caramel notes on the tail end. It might not stand up to an expert whiskey palette, but it won’t disappoint either. It’s accessible, though a little steep in price, retailing at $40. (You can shop the earlier iterations of the bourbon here, or check your local retailer for the new stuff.) It’s what the Duke, a noted perfectionist, thought whiskey ought to taste like. And it is, above else, a perfect gift for dads.