It is a fact of the spirits industry that just about any whiskey named after a deceased celebrity, sold by a non-distiller producer, should be treated with a high degree of skepticism. There is no small amount of charlatanism in the liquor industry, and no easier route to it than slapping the name of a beloved figure on a bottle of someone else’s whiskey. So you’ll forgive me for saying that I looked upon the idea of a “John Wayne bourbon” with more than my fair share of skepticism, when I first read about it.
Sure, John Wayne was known for his fondness for whiskey (and tequila, if we’re being honest), but as far as I know, he never expressed any interest in his life in owning a distillery, or he could quite easily have done it. Rather, the idea of a whiskey bearing Wayne’s likeness seems like something concocted in a board room to sell bourbon to your dad.
But hold on—not so fast, partner. Although I went into this tasting with some cynicism, I left it feeling a bit chastened, for a couple of reasons.
1. Ethan Wayne, the son of John Wayne, is one of the two founders of this spirits company, and reportedly attempted to seek out a modern spirit that accurately reflected the collection of spirits his father left behind.
2. The bourbon is actually surprisingly good.
So yeah—I was wrong! Rather than the shameless cash grab it could quite easily have been, Duke Spirits’ Kentucky Straight Bourbon is the real deal. And not only is it tasty, it even manages to be a bit unique in terms of profile as well.
But first, let’s get the basic information out of the way. This is a roughly 5-year-old, 88 proof sourced bourbon, made from a classic bourbon mash bill (75% corn, 13% rye, 12% barley), sold by Duke and bottled by O.Z. Tyler Distillery in Owensboro, KY. O.Z. Tyler is currently distilling future batches of Duke Kentucky Straight Bourbon, but that liquid is only a year or two old, tops. The current, “minimum of five years” spirit is coming from an undisclosed source, although bourbon blogs all seem to repeat the same rumor that it’s Wild Turkey. For what it’s worth, it seems like Duke Spirits could be a little bit more forthcoming on this point on their website, as it seems to imply that the spirit is distilled at O.Z. Tyler.
You may have seen an older label for this particular bourbon, which bore the image of John Wayne himself in his cowboy gear, which was a bit too on the nose, if you’re asking us. The current one is undoubtedly better—classier, certainly, although the signature sort of makes it look like a bottle of wine at a retired NFL player’s steakhouse. But still, much better than playing up the western cowboy imagery.
Now, let’s get to what’s actually in the bottle.
On the nose, this bourbon is surprisingly light and delicate. Floral, honeyed and a bit rye forward, it has pleasant notes of caramel, mint, fresh herbs and prairie grass. The floral notes in particular come across in a really interesting way, and give it a real “wildflower honey” impression. That, coupled with the slightly peppery spice, might actually make you think it was a high-rye bourbon or rye whiskey if you were tasting blind.
On the palate, I get rye bread, red apples, mint and dill, along with lighter caramel, honey and fresh grass, and some more of that peppery spice. It’s not quite like an MGP rye or anything like that, but there are a handful of similarities, not that this is a bad thing at all. Residual sweetness is moderate and alcohol heat is tactful and mild, which leads to a bourbon that drinks quite well on its own. You could try using this in some format of cocktail (it might make a decent old fashioned), but it’s certainly approachable enough where neat drinking would be my most obvious use. No ice necessary, certainly.
At the end of the day, you could easily slap the words “John Wayne” on a cheap bourbon of just about any quality, and there is a subset of American drinker who would be happy to buy it. These guys didn’t take the easy route. They went out and found a bourbon worth drinking, with enough individuality to make itself enjoyable. I definitely respect that. At around $40 in terms of MSRP, you’ll find a bit older whiskey for your buck, but you won’t be disappointed in yourself for giving this a try.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.