News of the massive cash injection into the Wild Turkey brand and facilities signals not only new intentions for owner Gruppo Campari, which intends to expand the whiskey’s reach into Europe and Asia, but also marks the first major new build in Kentucky.
“The Wild Turkey Distillery has a distinguished history with the Commonwealth. This expansion will not only bring the potential of more jobs to our Kentucky families but will also bring continued stability and longevity to this remarkable business,” said Kentucky governor Steve Beshear in his speech.
Local dignitaries attended the recent unveiling of the multi million dollar expansion plans, including governor Beshear and Lawrenceburg mayor Edwinna Baker. Long-time Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell spoke, as did his son, associate distiller Eddie Russell.
Bob Kunze-Concewitz, CEO of Gruppo Campari, was on hand too. Campari has owned Wild Turkey since 2009. “I was surprised to learn that no major distillery expansion had occurred in Kentucky for several decades,” said Kunze-Concewitz.
The new Wild Turkey plant is, in fact, the first new-from-the-ground-up distillery completed since Bernheim in Louisville fired up its stills in 1992. Most producers in Kentucky and Tennessee have enlarged their distilleries and added maturation capacity since the current Bourbon boom began about 10 years ago, but Wild Turkey’s expansion is the most ambitious.
The company issued specification sheets for the new distillery, but its numbers don’t add it. They say capacity has increased 120 per cent (from five million to 11 million proof gallons a year) but the distillery’s new beer still and doubler are the same size as the old ones. Diameter is the critical capacity metric for beer stills and Wild Turkey’s is five feet, a common size.
The increase in capacity has to come, therefore, from more and bigger fermenters to keep the stills busier. The specs show a 47 per cent increase in fermenter capacity. How can you more than double output from a less than 50 per cent increase in capacity?
They also cite an 88 per cent increase in daily capacity. Neither number jibes with the claimed 120 per cent increase in annual capacity.
There also appears to be some room in the sleek, 134,000 square foot building for additional growth.
The new distillery has better emission controls, an improved water recycling system will allow it to reuse more of its own process water, and renewable wood chips are used to heat the boiler instead of coal.
Bottling is not done at the distillery and won’t be until 2012 at the earliest, when the current agreement to use Pernod’s bottling house in Fort Smith, Arkansas, expires. Jimmy Russell has urged the company to return the bottling operation to Kentucky. “It’s just not the same whiskey after that trip,” says Russell.
Wild Turkey was bottled at the distillery until about 10 years ago.
The expansion at Wild Turkey is long overdue. The Russells have been urging it since 1997. The previous owner broke ground in 2007. Then Pernod acquired Absolut and had to shop Wild Turkey and other brands to help pay for it. Little was accomplished beyond initial site prep until the sale to Campari was finalised in 2009.
Although 11 million gallons was always the goal, Pernod’s original plan had been to leave the old distillery in operation and build a second, identical one next door.
This is how Maker’s Mark, in Loretto, has handled its expansions.
Campari rejected that plan and decided to build an entirely new distillery instead. The cost rose from $30 to $50 million.
After distillery capacity, the other choke point for whiskey-makers is maturation capacity. Wild Turkey has 23 warehouses at three different locations where about half a million barrels are aging. There are five rackhouses at the nearby Four Roses Distillery and six more about 25 miles away in Jessamine County.
The rest are at the distillery, including several new 40,000-barrel giants. Although Wild Turkey had to wait several years for its distillery expansion, it had an active warehouse building program continuing even under Pernod.
Wild Turkey lost a 20,000-barrel warehouse to fire in May of 2000.
Wild Turkey Hill is located a few miles east of Lawrenceburg. Its 800 acres are perched scenically atop a high bluff overlooking the Kentucky River. Limestone is what makes Kentucky’s water so prized for whiskey-making and it is so thick around the distillery, the next door neighbour is a limestone quarry.
The first distillery at that location was built in 1869 by James Ripy. He called it Tyrone after his home county in Ireland.
Subsequent whiskey distilleries there continued to be owned and operated by members of the Ripy family, both up to and following Prohibition. The plant now being replaced largely dates from 1905, but was significantly rebuilt after Prohibition and updated several times thereafter.
The Ripy family gave up ownership in 1952 but continued to run the place for many years thereafter. The last of them, Ernest, died in 2002.
Jimmy Russell, the present master distiller, started at Ripy Brothers in 1954 and worked for Ernest Ripy for his first 24 years. He grew up nearby, in a community where distillery employment was common. His father and grandfather both worked at distilleries, though not as distillers.
Eddie Russell’s wife is descended from Rev. Elijah Craig, one of Kentucky’s legendary early distillers.
As was common until the 1980s, the Ripy Brothers Distillery produced a few of its own brands but mostly sold whiskey in bulk to non-distiller producers. One such was Austin Nichols, a New York company that packaged and sold it as Wild Turkey Bourbon beginning in 1940.
Wild Turkey didn’t have its own exclusive distillery until 1972, when Austin Nichols acquired Ripy Brothers. Pernod bought it in 1980. References to 1855 as an origin date refer to the founding of Austin Nichols as a grocery wholesaler.
Today master distiller Jimmy Russell is involved primarily with distillery operations, and in his role as brand ambassador. Son Eddie, who joined the team in 1980, has primary responsibility for maturation and selecting barrels for bottling. He also performs brand ambassador duties. Both Russells are members of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.
Wild Turkey has been quiet since the new owners took over two years ago. Unveiling the new distillery coincides with the release of new packaging for the whole line in the U.S. and Australia, new advertising in both markets, and a new lower-proof expression for the U.S., Wild Turkey 81, whose creation is credited to Eddie Russell.
The new expression is quite good, more mature and much better than the present brown label 80° proof version. The company has not announced if the 80° proof will be discontinued.
Although its expansion has been the industry’s boldest, Wild Turkey also has the most untapped potential.
Its new owners are still enamoured, its distillers are universally respected, and its whiskeys range from very good to exceptional. It should be fun to see what they do with their shiny new tools.
Wild Turkey sells about a million cases a year. About half of its sales are in the U.S., Australia represents another 35 per cent, and Japan accounts for most of the remaining balance.
Gruppo Campari plans to expand distribution into Europe and Asia. There are several expressions of Wild Turkey bourbon, including the iconic 101° proof flagship. Wild Turkey also makes Wild Turkey Straight Rye Whiskey, and Russell’s Reserve bourbon and rye.