It was on our way to Nashville for a weekend with family that we “took the scenic route” and stopped in Lawrenceburg, KY to visit the Wild Turkey Distillery and pay homage to Master Distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell.
Today, the brand and distillery are owned by Italian beverage company Campari Group, whose brands include Grand Marnier, SKYY vodka, Glen Grant Scotch and Forty Creek Canadian Whisky. While Campari’s purchase in 2009 marked its largest acquisition, it wasn’t the first time the Wild Turkey Distillery, or its predecessors, had changed hands.
You may recall from our review of W.B. Saffell that this whiskey baron had established a distillery in 1889 in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky not far from the current operations of Wild Turkey. Two years later, Thomas Ripy built the Old Hickory Distillery on the former site of the Old Moore Distillery near Lawrenceburg. While shuttered during Prohibition, operations began again and the Ripy’s began selling their spirits to wholesalers who bottled and marketed their own brands.
Enter wholesaler Austin Nichols. If you’ve seen vintage Wild Turkey print advertisements or one of their lovely porcelain turkey decanters (I shared one with a friend who is “wild” about Wild Turkey), you’ll recognize the name Austin Nichols. You may recall from the story of Rare Breed that it was an Austin Nichols executive – Thomas McCarthy – who is attributed to the “Wild Turkey” name. McCarthy took some samples on a turkey hunting trip in 1940. The bourbon was a hit and his friends asked for more samples of “that wild turkey bourbon”. The name stuck and Austin Nichols began bottling Wild Turkey in 1942. For decades after bringing Wild Turkey to market, Austin Nichols was a non-distiller producer, bottling bourbon purchased from others and marketing it under the Wild Turkey name.
In 1971, Austin Nichols purchased the former Boulevard Distillery (renamed from the Old Ripy facility) and began distilling its own bourbon. The brand was subsequently purchased by French spirits company Pernod Ricard in 1990. Two decades later, we’ve reached the end of our historical insight with the current owner, Campari Group
We began our tour in a recently renovated Visitor’s Center overlooking a cantilever rail bridge spanning the Kentucky River. Some have called the Wild Turkey Center the “cathedral” of the bourbon industry – a nod to the high ceilings and exposed church-like wooden trusses. While we waited for the tour, there was plenty to take in, including a well-stocked gift shop and several large walls adorned with the history of the distilling operations and its key players – Jimmy and Eddie Russell.
A short bus ride took us to the front door of the distillery. Grain silos greeted us, stocked with the corn, rye, and malted barley that comprises the mash bill. Inside a video was played that provided the history of bourbon and introduced us to the Wild Turkey brand.
We followed our tour guide into the mash tub room that held 20 or more 30,000-gallon tubs. All of the tubs were in various stages of operations – either busily bubbling and converting starches to sugars or in the process of being emptied to begin the distillation process. Around the corner was the huge Vendome column still. Even on a chilly winter day, there was plenty of heat coming off the brassworks.
We could also peek into the command center that resembled a nuclear power plant control room. It’s amazing to consider how much is now automated in the production process that was once a tedious manual effort of turning wheels and valves depending on how the still was working on any given day. Behind another large glass window lay the sensory lab with a dizzying array of glassware and test bottles of distillate. Can I again ask the question, “Where was this job at Career Day in high school?”
Next, it was back in the bus for a drive over to the now-shuttered former bottling building and on into a rickhouse. Wild Turkey’s state-of-the-art bottling facility isn’t generally open to the public, but it’s worth noting that many other products are bottled at WT’s facility, including SKYY Vodka. After a few photo (and sensory!) worthy moments, it’s time to re-board the bus back to the Visitors Center for the tasting.
A visit to Wild Turkey is worth it if for no other reason than the incredible view from the tasting room that sits atop the palisade overlooking sky-high bridges crossing the Kentucky River hundreds of feet below.
We are greeted with a barrel adorned with 4 premier spirits: Kentucky Spirit (a single-barrel version of the traditional Wild Turkey 101), Rare Breed, Russell’s Reserve 6-Year Rye, and American Honey. The mash bills at Wild Turkey are pretty basic – there are two: the traditional bourbon carries a 75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% malted barley blend, and the rye whiskey carries a 51% rye, 37% corn, and 12% malted barley.
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit: When we visited, Wild Turkey still honored this expression in a wild turkey feather fan-shaped bottle; today, Kentucky Spirit and Rare Breed carry a more modern, though less unique looking bottle. Oh, how I wish I’d hung on to an empty bottle of two of the old Kentucky Spirit. In the glass, this carries a reddish-copper hue. On the nose, there is vanilla as well as gentle leather and leaf tobacco. The palate there is spice, woody oak and sweetness after it lingers. The finish is smooth and balanced.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed: This is a barrel-strength version of the traditional Wild Turkey 101. The bottle we sampled clocked in at 108 proof. In the glass, it is dark copper, and when nosed, carries a hefty dose of vanilla. There is more vanilla and light fruit notes on the palate with a medium, smooth finish that was unexpected when considering the higher proof.
Russell’s Reserve 6-Year Rye: If you’re a fan of the Russell’s lineup at Wild Turkey, this rye won’t disappoint. With a hefty dose of corn (similar to Old Forester’s Rye Whiskey), but a lower 90-proof, you’ll find this smooth, easy drinker a very approachable rye. On the nose is rye followed by vanilla and a dash of butterscotch. The palate is dazzled with sweet caramel, more vanilla, oak and a generous amount of rye spice. Overall, this is a soft and gentle rye, with a typical Russell’s well-rounded palate and balance.
Wild Turkey American Honey: At a dinner with Jimmy Russell a few years ago, he shared the story of Wild Turkey’s innovation with the launch of the first honeyed product. Many a Kentucky youth with colds and sore throats were introduced to this sweet elixir. Suffice it to say the number and length of cold season has dramatically increased for those exposed to Honey. Introduced in 1979, before flavored whiskeys were a thing, American Honey is a liqueur, blending bourbon and honey. I’ve tried some of the competition’s honey products and they are teeth-tingling sweet. Wild Turkey’s rendition that combines lemon zest, honey, butterscotch and spice dresses up a cocktail or hot toddy on cold nights.
The family loved the tour, as there was something for everyone. The scenery, history, and spirits produced at this distillery tour make for a solid visit. And, with a wide variety of flavor profiles offered in the tastings, there was something even for your non-bourbon drinker to enjoy. The addition of a complimentary Wild Turkey rocks glass for visiting made the trip even sweeter.
While we didn’t tie another visit into our Wild Turkey tour, note that Four Roses is nearby and is easy to pair into an afternoon visit.