If you didn’t know, you might look at the thin ashy-black line running through the center of the duck call as an imperfection, or a curious blemish in the wood. But once you learned the backstory, you might look to your bank account to see just how much you could afford to pay for one of the most intriguing duck calls ever to hit the waterfowling world.
This fall, Louisville woodworker Ed James and Mississippi custom call maker Josh Raggio are collaborating on a boutique line of duck calls made from charred whiskey barrel staves out of the famed Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, home of the cult-favorite Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. James, son-in-law of Julian Van Winkle III, and Raggio, one of the most highly sought custom duck call makers alive, hope the heritage behind their combined efforts produces a big win for conservation funding. In the inaugural year of the new Pappy line of calls, only ten will be produced, and much of the proceeds from their sale will support the conservation work of Ducks Unlimited.
That thin black line in the calls is a telling element. Since the barrel staves aren’t quite wide enough to construct a duck call, James laminated two of them together to produce a block large enough to mount in a wood-turning lathe. The finished product bears a distinctive “char line” where the staves meet.
James, who owns Four Board Woodworks, long mused on doing something special with Pappy Van Winkle barrel staves, but he knew any project had to have Julian’s blessing, and aspirations that matched the family story’s elevated reputation. “People make all kinds of things from barrel staves, and a lot of it is done very poorly,” he says. James tried his hand at turning a duck call with the staves, but he’s no call maker. “I knew I had to find someone special.” A friend of a friend put him in touch with Raggio, who recently opened a shop in downtown Raymond, Mississippi.
When Julian saw their prototype, he had no hesitation putting the Pappy Van Winkle imprimatur on the call. For starters, hunting has a long history in his family. His father, who he recalls drove a 1964 Oldsmobile with a Ducks Unlimited sticker on the back, was an avid hunter, especially when doves piled in to the corn and millet fields beside the Stitzel-Weller Distillery. And James and Raggio’s work spoke for itself. “Quality is number one for us,” Julian says, “and I could see that there were no shortcuts to what they were doing.”
On the lathe in Raggio’s shop, the spinning wood and the metal-turning chisels emitted an unmistakable aroma. “The whole shop smelled like Pappy Van Winkle for a few hours,” Raggio recalls. Each call will have a copper band that pays homage to its distillery heritage.
The approach to selling the calls is also distinctive. Each of those initial ten calls will rest in a leather-lined walnut box James made by hand. The first three made will be auctioned off at a gala conservation banquet in early November in Memphis. Call number 3 will be paired with a bottle of 15-year-old Pappy; call number 2 with a bottle of the 20-year-old spirit; and call number 1 with a bottle of 23-year-old. The seven remaining calls will be raffled through DU’s chapter network.
It’s hard to say what kind of home the duck calls will find. “These calls will be made from a very special piece of wood that has the stories of generations behind it,” Raggio says. But the guts are all Raggio, with his own custom tone board and reed. “Whether or not they get used in the field is up to the buyer, but I can tell you this: They’re going to sound like a duck.”
For more information, go to ducks.org/pappy