Let’s do something different, different for me at least, and talk Wild Turkey and about a single barrel not chosen by me.
Gathering together all of my Whiskey Wednesday posts, my personal whiskey collection, and the bottles I routinely stock at the bar a pretty glaring hole starts to emerge, and that hole is shaped like a damn Turkey. I couldn’t tell you why it’s there either. Wild Turkey seems like it should check all of the high proof, rough around the edges, old school bourbon boxes for me. And it’s made by Jimmy Russell! And yet it’s never close at hand for me. Let’s shake that up.
Wild Turkey was born as a Non-Distilling Producer in 1942. Austin Nichol’s & Co. were a New York based grocery wholesaler. They finally purchased the Ripy Brothers Distillery (then known as the Boulevard Distillery) in 1971 and renamed it the Wild Turkey Distillery. This purchase made sense since the Ripy distillery was where most of the Wild Turkey Whiskey was coming from but it was terrible timing as “white goods” started gaining steam and the bourbon market tanked. The brand and distillery, were purchased by Pernod Ricard in 1980 and then sold to Gruppo Campari in 2009. But through out all of those changes Jimmy Russell has been there, making whiskey.
Jimmy’s career has lasted over 60 years; he started at
the Wild Turkey distillery well before it was the Wild Turkey distillery. In fact,
his tenure at wild Turkey began 10 years before the 1964 act of Congress that declared Bourbon to be a “distinctive spirit of the United States.” He was named Master Distiller in the late 60’s and is the last living Elder Statesman of Bourbon. He, along with Booker Noe and Elmer T. Lee, were the first generation of rock star distillers. These were distillers that were forcibly evicted from the seat in front of the stills to go travel and spread the good word of Bourbon. And even into his 80s he’s still traveling and distilling. And it’s a family business these days, his son Eddie is the new kid on the block with only 30+ years of distilling experience.
Jimmy Russell is essentially old school Bourbon personified. Yet he doesn’t take himself seriously and no matter who his employers are he makes no qualms about who he is or his opinions. For the past several years when doing tastings and traveling Jimmy would tell everyone at the tastings that he didn’t like low proof young whiskey, while pouring them Wild Turkey’s low proof young whiskies. Guess what Wild Turkey doesn’t make anymore? Seeing the Wild Turkey 101 Rye return with a vengeance was transcendent moment amidst all of these brands lowering proof and dropping age statements. Yet for all of my love of Jimmy, and his rye, when I drink the Bourbon it’s usually me trying to figure out why I don’t drink the Bourbon.
So naturally the first time Ryan Wainwright plopped this single Barrel of Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit in front of me at Terrine (now The Ponte) my eyebrow rose skeptically. At 101 proof the Kentucky Spirit is essentially single barrel W
ild Turkey 101 Bourbon- so I was expecting an incredibly earthy, slightly musty, hard oak. Instead, it turned out to be a spice bomb of a bourbon, with a dark baking spice, a dark, overripe cherry, with a farm house quality the I feel is coming from the Wild Turkey yeast. The oak and caramel in the barrel are supporting players rather than the main attraction and the proof sits right where it should granting all of the flavor with very little burn. I was genuinely surprised.
But I don’t think I should have been. This barrel taste’s like Jimmy’s bourbon philosophy, chosen by a bartender with a very specific palette. What this barrel says to me is that although Wild Turkey is quite frankly in a slump there is still liquid gold in its warehouses. There is experience, and skill, and craftsmanship that seem to be producing a sometimes muddled bourbon, but when the sun breaks through, damn, does it shine.