Spirits of the Old West: John Wayne’s son, Ethan Wayne, introduces The Duke Spirits, a new series of liquors based on rare bottles from the film icon’s private collection.
By Chris Gill | Photos by Sean Murphy
September 6th, 2013
One doesn’t have to look far to find an image of John Wayne enjoying a good, strong drink. Scenes of Wayne drinking were common in his films, from westerns like Rio Bravo and True Grit to comedy-dramas like The Quiet Man. He also was often photographed at Hollywood social events, at his home in Newport Beach, and on excursions on his private yacht, the Wild Goose, with a glass of strong liquor in his firm grip. Wayne allegedly quipped, “I never trust a man that doesn’t drink,” and it’s rumored he requested only a fifth of bourbon as payment for making a guest appearance on The Beverly Hillbillies.
Wayne’s youngest son, Ethan, was only 17 when his father passed away on June 11, 1979, so Ethan never had the chance to legally share a drink with his dad. However, Ethan does fondly remember chipping ice from an Alaskan iceberg that the Duke and his friends kept aboard the Wild Goose.
“That ice doesn’t melt,” Ethan recalls. “It may have been frozen for a million years. One piece would last all evening. My dad worked hard, but at the end of the day he wanted to have a laugh and a good time. He’d relax by having a steak and a drink, then go to bed and start all over again. It was the same whether he was on the set or on the boat.”
As part of an ongoing tribute to John Wayne’s rugged, individualistic character and taste for the finer things in life, Ethan Wayne recently joined forces with Jayson Woodbridge and Chris Radomski, who produce Napa’s esteemed Hundred Acre wines, to form Monument Valley Distillers.
“We met through Rich Howell, who is a mutual friend,” Wayne says. “Chris and Jayson invited me up to Jayson’s place in Calistoga, California, to enjoy some food and wine. We started talking and playing music, and by the end of the evening we agreed it would be a great idea to work together on a distilling project. I could see that Chris and Jayson shared the same ideals as my dad. The guys at Hundred Acre are craftsmen in the same sense that my father was a craftsman of film and story. It was cool to find someone who shared a similar dedication to quality. I knew that this was a great opportunity to do something unique for my dad. This is an appropriate product for him, something he would have enjoyed. Everything we do raises money for the fight against cancer, which is a fight my dad was passionate about.”
Earlier this year, Monument Valley Distillers introduced The Duke Spirits, a new line of fine spirits inspired by bottles from John Wayne’s personal collection and his writings and notes. The first offering is the limited-edition Duke Special Reserve 24-Year-Old brandy, made from a blend of the last two remaining 24- and 30-year-old barrels produced by a 12th-generation master distiller.
The initial inspiration for The Duke Spirits started in 2011, when Ethan was preparing to auction off items belonging to his father that had remained locked away in storage for almost 32 years after his death. While going through the containers stacked in the storage unit, Ethan came across his father’s liquor stash.
“The crate contained bottles that were in the house at the time of his death and the collection he kept for his travels and for gifts,” Wayne explains. “It was everything that he liked to drink—whiskey, bourbon, tequila, champagne, and fine wine. There were cases that were labeled, ‘Bottled especially for your pleasure aboard the Wild Goose,’ and there were cases of the finest red wine in the world from the Sixties. Unfortunately, it sat in storage without air conditioning for more than three decades, so it had turned. My father entertained lots of people, so he always had to be prepared.”
A few bottles of rare American whiskeys and bourbons among that collection inspired an American whiskey that The Duke Spirits will introduce this fall. “We used what John Wayne actually drank, along with the notes he had kept, as a formulation for our blending,” Radomski says. “He had a few whiskies and bourbons that he drank all the time, but one flavor profile in particular stood out from the rest. Those bottles were distilled in the Sixties, and I believe that the whiskies and bourbons were quite a bit different from what is made today. Distilleries used to make whiskey similar to the way a single vineyard wine is made.
Production was much smaller and handcrafted. Some of the legendary distillers who were making whiskey or bourbon back then are still with us, so we approached them to learn about the techniques and recipes they were using. We did a lot of research when crafting the blend to make sure it replicated the flavor profile as closely as possible, and we experimented with different types of aging and finishing. It had to be authentic to what John Wayne actually drank.”
Radomski says that The Duke Spirits’ next release will be more readily available than the limited-edition brandy. The whiskey comes in an oval-shaped bottle (“It fits into a saddle bag,” Radomski says, “like the bottles cowboys used to carry”) that features a special cork closure with a cap based on the headstamp of a .44-40 Winchester cartridge, the round of choice in the Old West. The label is designed to look like vintage nickel, and the glass is embossed with The Duke logo in fire-engine red.