As a boy, Ethan Wayne kept his aging father company, accompanying "The Duke" to movie sets, fishing the Alaskan coast in a WWII minesweeper, and riding around the range in a 1968 Ford F250 pickup. Most of the time, Ethan’s job was to enjoy himself, but he had a few responsibilities, including stocking his father’s trailer with booze.
“When I was about eight, one of my chores was to carry cases of whiskey out to the trucks that were heading to Durango,” he says, referring to the Mexican town that served as the set for The Sons of Katie Elder and The Train Robbers.
Ethan grew up, logged some time in Hollywood himself, working as a stunt man (he crashed cars in The Blues Brothers) and actor, both in movies and on TV. But the work was less about drama than about reliving his fond early memories. That’s why, when Ethan took over John Wayne Enterprises, which licenses his father’s name and controls the estate, after the death of his older brother, he thought about those days in Durango.
Ethan returned to the house he’d been forced to leave at age 17 when his father died and spent some time taking inventory, eventually making it down into the cellar. “I see the bourbons I used to carry out, along with the Irish whiskeys, the California wines, the French ones, the Dom Perignon ’69,” he recalls. “Among Dad’s correspondence, I find detailed tasting notes, including what he liked in a whiskey.” Ethan collected the scraps of paper and a had a think. He remembered his father as a guy “who got up early, worked hard all day - on set or on the range - and liked to have a good drink.” He decided to make his father’s ideal whiskey, Duke Whiskey.
Ethan teamed up with Mountain Valley Distillers and used the tasting notes as a sort of last testament. Per the senior Wayne's orders, the whiskey had to be heavy on the vanilla but not too sweet and with a decent amount of spice. The final blend, which incorporates rye, had to be on the dry side with an expansive nose. The result of Ethan's work is a lighter whiskey with strong caramel notes and the warm mouthfeel of a Canadian whiskey like a Seagram’s VO Gold. The liquor isn’t overly complex: Duke is mellow enough to sip neat or on the rocks. Sure, you could pour it into a mixed drink, but a cowboy would never do that.
There is a certain bitterness in creating a whiskey for a man who will never drink it, but it’s a way for Ethan to remember - a way for a son to bring his father one last drink.
Duke, which just hit the shelves in the northeast, is now available in limited release. To find the outlet closest to you, check the locator on their website.