In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with newsmakers, Duke Spirits founder Chris Radomski talks about the company’s tequila. The Fort Worth connection? Duke Spirits is the official spirit provider for the John Wayne family and the family runs the John Wayne: An American Experience exhibit in the Fort Worth Stockyards.

Wayne’s son Ethan Wayne, discovered his father’s lost memoirs, liquor collection and special blends sealed since 1979 and worked with vintner and distiller Radomski to create a collection of spirits in Wayne’s honor. 

For National Tequila Day on July 24, the John Wayne: An American Experience exhibit will celebrate with tastings of Duke Spirits tequila offerings. Business editor Bob Francis spoke with Radomski about tequila and Duke Spirits. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Francis: How did you get involved with Duke Spirits? 

Chris Radomski: I came from the exquisite fine wine industry and  co-developed one of the highest rated wine brands in the world out of Napa Valley. I met Ethan Wayne, John Wayne’s youngest son, many, many years ago. And Ethan shared with me the findings he had. Some of his lost archives of his father – memoirs, costumes, Academy Awards and his liquor collection. Included in that were a lot of notes and details about his love of bourbons, tequilas, blends he was working on. And at the time John Wayne was bigger than the president.

Radomski: Everybody wrote to him. He got access to everybody. And I was very intrigued, and we dug really deep in it. And we took the recipes and first came to market with a Kentucky bourbon, which emulated as close as we could make it to what we had found in the bottle from the archives dating back to the early ’60s.

Now we’ve been growing the bourbon brand and other elements of the bourbon brand under the mark Duke for a number of years now. But I’ve been wanting to for a long time kind of pay homage to John Wayne’s love of Mexico. He made most of his movies in Durango. He had a deep admiration of the Mexican people. He probably drank tequila more than bourbon from what I gathered from Ethan and everybody else that knew him. He had a really strong connection to the Latin culture in Mexico. So it was always kind of in our minds to see if we could replicate something and do something very special to honor his love of Mexico and tequila. 

One of John Wayne’s dying wishes was that his children would use his name to help raise money and awareness for fighting cancer. And they started the John Wayne Cancer Foundation. So the drive behind the tequila really was to do something very special, but to also raise money for the foundation.

So when we launched a very small batch of tequila last year, we in fact pre-donated the proceeds to the foundation. We gave them a check for $50,000, so that sort of kicked it off. It’s a very small production of  Reposado and Extra Anejo which added to the Duke line of spirits. People loved the tequilas. It was extremely highly rated. 97, 99 points. And so we’ve just released the second round. 

Francis: How did you find the connections in Mexico? 

Radomski: I have a very close connection to a distillery in Mexico through a good friend of mine who owns the facility and all the plantations. So we are able essentially to handpick the best pinas (the heart of the agave plant). And what I did with these tequilas is I actually used wine barrels from my winery in Napa that also aged some of our Duke bourbon to do a further aging or finishing process on these tequilas. So in fact the final resting place for these tequilas before they hit the market are in French oak wine barrels that came from my winery in Napa that went to Kentucky and actually helped age some of our older, high fruit bourbons. Then they went to Mexico, so they’ve kind of graced every element of what Duke does in the spirits industry.

So it’s a very unique process. I can say pretty definitely that no one else does something that way. Because they don’t have access to those types of barrels and it’s a bit of a logistical nightmare.

Francis: I bet. Particularly these days, right?

Radomski: Oh, let me tell you. Barrels. It’s actually harder for me to get wine barrels from Napa to Kentucky than it is Kentucky through Laredo down to Guadalajara. But these things do the whole round. It is very interesting. The master distiller that I work with in Mexico, he kind of thought I was crazy in this experiment. But once he tasted them, he said, “Oh my God. This is some of the best tequila I’ve had in my life.” So he could imagine the high alcohol tequilas that have already been aging grace these wine barrels that have also had amazing high proof 13-year-old bourbon in them.

The barrels obviously will impart a lot of flavors to whatever you put in the barrel. Right?

Francis: Sure. 

Radomski: And so if you have great French oak and it just had  an amazing 100-point Napa Cabernet resting in it as well as award- winning bourbon. You get a lot of really interesting mix of flavors and it comes together beautifully in these two tequilas.

Francis: That’s got to be unusual. 

Radomski: So they’re very unique, so we only do aged tequilas. We released a Reposado and an Extra Anejo. The Extra Anejo is a five-year-old tequila before we put it in the wine barrel. All of the Duke spirit products have received 97 to 99 point ratings. They’re not crazy priced, but they’re fairly priced and people love them.

Francis: So you’ve applied some of what you learned in the wine industry to the spirits industry? 

Radomski: I learned a lot through what I did with my old partner. And one of the greatest things is … I think it’s like building a race car. If you have great tires, great engine. If you put on crummy breaks, you’re not going to do well.

And with great wine making, I think you have to start with phenomenal fruit, great terroir, farming. But if you use a substandard barrel that’s not as good or that doesn’t have the flavors in the oaks that you want. And of course there’s a lot of different variations. American oak, French oak. There’s barrels that come from a number of different countries. But each of those countries, the forest gives you a different flavor profile. And it’s very important, I think, how that all comes together.

So other companies do use wine barrels. I would probably say that highly unlikely from the same source or of the same quality we use. I know these French Oak wine barrels are about $2,000 each to begin with when we buy them at the winery.

Francis: I had no idea they were that expensive. 

Radomski: And that compares to a couple hundred bucks of an American oak barrel they use to age bourbon. So you’ve got a big variance. We had to use the best components we could possibly find, and it’s actually graced everything that we make, so I think it’s very unique. 

Francis: For my readers who may not be familiar, can you describe a little bit about the fact that tequilas basically have to be made in Mexico. In these places. And why that is?

Radomski: Correct. Tequila’s a very interesting product. By law, and it’s highly regulated by the government, the tequila has to be made and produced from agave in the region of Jalisco. And that’s sort of a central region. And the main city is Guadalajara. So you have a couple different main growing regions within Jalisco

The other criteria is to be pure tequila you have to use what they call Blue Weber Agave. Weber was a German-American scientist who discovered the specific … varietal of agave. There’s lots of different kinds of species of agave, but to be tequila it’s got to be Blue Weber produced in Jalisco.

Francis: Interesting. 

Radomski: Now once you do that, that’s where the wheels kind of fall off, in my opinion. In the sense that no one really regulates what happens to tequila after that. We are unique in the sense that we’ve been certified additive free in Mexico. If you smelt the nose on the Reposado of ours, even if you’re a neophyte, you would say, “Wow, that really smells of vanilla.” And what I can tell you is that many, many brands, and the biggest brands you find in America, put in added sugar, vanilla, honey. To give it a sweeter taste. Thinking that’s the palate of the American public.

Francis: What more have you learned about John Wayne since working with Duke Spirits? 

Radomski: It’s interesting hearing all the old stories of Ethan Wayne because Ethan traveled with his dad quite a bit before his dad passed away. And he told stories of sitting around the bonfire in Mexico with movie stars. They’re drinking bourbon and tequila out of tin cups. And also he was very close to Ronald Reagan and he’d be at the White House drinking out of fine crystal. So those days they didn’t have bartenders making mixed drinks. There weren’t fancy mixologists. It was, “Here’s a glass. Here’s a… Here’s a spirit. Here’s ice.” If you don’t have ice, you would drink it anyway.

Francis: I think tequila’s popularity sort of came probably after John Wayne was gone probably, too. 

Radomski: Tequila’s really blown up as a segment. 

Francis: When did Duke Spirits begin production? 

Radomski: We first released the bourbon about seven years ago. Very small production.

Francis: They’re having a tequila tasting at the museum on Sunday, during National Tequila Day. 

Radomski: Yeah. They have a little bar there in the facility. We’ve been working with them to build out a bigger Duke Spirits presence. 

If You Go …

Where: John Wayne: An American Experience

 2501 Rodeo Plaza, Fort Worth 76164

When: Sunday, July 24, 1-6 p.m.

Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at bob.francis@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Bob Francis

Bob Francis is business editor for fortworthreport.org. He has been covering business news locally and nationally for many years. He can be reached at bob.francis@fortworthreport.org