Distillery Focus

A rare breed (Wild Turkey)

Wild Turkey is an old-fashioned American spirit, full of character, with an ability to seduce all-comers. Stuart Maclean-Ramsay pays his respects.
By Stuart MacLean Ramsay
Brand ambassadors for premium Scotch and bourbon in America come in all shapes and styles.There’s the youthful ambassador, handsome and unencumbered by the experience of actually working in a distillery, designed by advertising agencies to appeal to the all important market of stockbrokers in Manhattan or whatever career the young and the upscale have chosen to pursue in New York. If it is Scotch they are selling, the well-schooled ambassador will be dressed in a kilt, no matter that they are devoid of an ounce of Highland blood, and accompanied by a skirling bagpiper, still the quintessential attention-grabber in any crowded bar around the world. And then there is the old-fashioned, traditional brand ambassador, the one who has matured, like his spirit, in its place of origin, and who has spent 20 or 40 years making the stuff. They are not always pretty, they prefer their job description to read ‘distiller’ rather than ‘ambassador’, and they don’t particularly like their lifework being designated a ‘brand’.The bourbon makers in Kentucky favour the old-fashioned ambassadorial method to bring attention to their whiskey. I had the pleasure last autumn of meeting Jimmy Russell, master distiller of Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Bourbon, and perhaps the finest ambassador, in the true sense of the word, to represent the Commonwealth of Kentucky. He was in town, Portland, Oregon, to talk about his whiskey to a flock of faithful Wild Turkey drinkers. At my table, a pierced and tattooed bohemian lass in her early 20s sat next to John Kitzhaber, Oregon’s current governor. “It’s awesome,” was all I could coax out of the tattooed bohemian, but the governor was more forthcoming, “I’ve been drinking Wild Turkey 101 ever since college and it’s the official, and only, whiskey I allow in the governor’s office down in Salem (the state capital). I’ve tried the other bottlings from Wild Turkey, the Rare Breed and Kentucky Spirit, but I’ll always stick with the original 101. It’s the best.” A democratic whiskey indeed. There’s not many spirits with the character to lubricate the wheels of government and turn on Generation X at the same table.Jimmy Russell talked about how sinful Kentucky is, with its preponderance of whiskey, horse-racing, tobacco and a type of illegal grass that grows so well alongside the fertile bluegrass in the state. Imbued with Kentucky spirit, avuncular and downright nice, Jimmy led us through the whiskey tasting, then sat down for a chat. When it was time for law-abiding Oregonians to head home for the evening, he suggested we go on a tour of Portland’s finest bars. The governor had flown in from Europe an hour before Jimmy’s talk, so we lost him early on, but the rest of us accompanied the Kentucky legend into the damp streets of the Rose City. At four in the morning, Jimmy was discussing the merits of his traditional, full-bodied bourbon with a captivated audience of twenty-somethings, in the tattooed bohemian’s favourite basement dive, the
Shanghai Tunnel.The next day, my head feeling decidedly shanghai’d, I called Jimmy at the distillery in Kentucky, to see if he had caught his 7am flight. “I only need four hours of sleep a night,” he told me, “and besides, I needed to be back to taste the whiskey. I have a great job, you know. I taste whiskey all day long and then go home and have a drink.”Home is Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, population 5,500, where Jimmy spends 90 per cent of his time. The remainder is spent on the road, chatting about Wild Turkey and the state he loves with governors and wee bohemians. Jimmy, in his mid-60s now, has made whisky at Boulevard, the distillery that produces Wild Turkey, for 45 years. He was born and raised just five miles from the plant, and is married to Joretta, his childhood sweetheart.When he’s not making and tasting whiskey at Boulevard, he’s taking visitors around the place – 250,000 of them stopped in last year to see how uncompromised, old-fashioned, Kentucky bourbon is made. In his spare time he grows roses and referees kids’ softball games, or hangs out in a down-home Lawrenceburg café. But his heart and soul is in Wild Turkey. “We have around 150 employees at the plant,” he informed me, “and everything is done there, from the whiskey making to the maturation and bottling. Most of the folks working here have been here 25 years and there are several generations of the same families.” Jimmy’s son, Eddie, has been training under his father for the past
17 years.The distillery itself is not the prettiest in Kentucky, but the plain and functional plant buildings make a serious and traditional, full-bodied Kentucky dram. The plant sits on Wild Turkey Hill, in the little town of Lawrenceburg in Anderson County. It perches dramatically atop a gorge that plunges down 300 feet to the Kentucky river below. Around the distillery the landscape is a bluegrass tapestry of fertile green fields, dotted with black-painted barns and criss-crossed with plank fences. It is perfect bourbon country, but don’t expect to order a Wild Turkey at a down-home café in Anderson County. Thanks to Kentucky’s southern Baptist influence, this is a brown bag county – you can buy the whiskey in a store but not in a restaurant. The best bet is a 25-mile drive east to Lexington, where the laws are more liberal. You can visit racehorse stud farms along the way, or stop in at Kentucky Horse Park, which showcases everything equine.Jimmy was taught the craft of bourbon making by Bill Hughes, the master distiller who made whiskey at Boulevard Distillery before Prohibition in 1920, and was hired back after its repeal in 1933. Jimmy started work there in 1954, when Ernest Ripy Jr was the manager. The Irish-
American Ripy family can trace their bourbon heritage back to 1855, when their ancestors founded a distillery in Lawrenceburg on what is now called Wild Turkey Hills. In 1893, bourbon made by Thomas Ripy was selected from 400 whiskeys to represent Kentucky at the World’s Fair. Thomas died in 1905, and his sons modernized the current site after Prohibition in 1933, and began distilling again a year later with Bill Hughes running the stills.In 1855, the same year that the Ripys arrived in Lawrenceburg, a food importing and distributing company began business in New York under the direction of Friend Fitts. Mr Fitts had made his fortune in the California Gold Rush and his good luck continued to glitter on the east coast. After Prohibition, the president of the company, Thomas McCarthy, made the decision to expand into the liquor and wine business. McCarthy, under the company name of Austin Nichols, imported wines and spirits and began domestic production of its own line of liqueurs, gin, blended and straight American whiskies. (A straight whiskey contains no neutral spirits.)According to distillery sources, Wild Turkey originated in the early 1940s when McCarthy selected some straight, 101 proof bourbon from his company stocks as his contribution to a wild turkey hunting trip in North Carolina. The hunting partners who joined McCarthy for this annual shoot, all well-to-do businessmen from New York, were so impressed with the whiskey that they asked for it in following years. A canny marketing man, McCarthy named it Wild Turkey to commemorate the gatherings and introduced this private bottling for gentlemen sportsmen as an Austin Nichols brand in 1942. After years of success with the feisty Turkey, the company bought the distillery in 1970. Austin Nichols, in turn, was taken over by the French drinks company, the Pernod-Ricard Group, in 1980.Like all the Kentucky distilleries, Boulevard Distillery, the home of Wild Turkey, sits on a limestone shelf. The limestone serves as an ideal purifier for the creeks and springs that filter through it. Wild Turkey does not disclose its mashbill recipe, but according to Jimmy Russell, “Of all the distilleries, we use the lowest amount of corn for our bourbon recipe. There’s more rye and malted barley and all the grains are premium. The rye comes from North Dakota, the barley’s from Montana, and the corn is from Kentucky mostly and the plains of Indiana. We’re looking for about 40 gallons of beer per bushel from the grains. We use more rye and malt to get more flavour and body in the whiskey, and when we’re finished with it, the spent grains go to the catfish and shrimp farms down here, and to keep the cows of Anderson County happy.”Fermentation of the mash at Wild Turkey takes place in large, open cypress and stainless steel fermenters. The distillery cultivates its own yeast strain for the fermentation and the formula, once again, is a closely guarded secret. Jimmy is one of a few who know it. “The formula has been handed down through the generations,” he says. “Yeast cells from a refrigerated pure culture are added to a mash of rye and malted barley in the Dona tub. This yeast mash is added to the fermenters, and every few months we clean the culture by streaking cells from it and looking at them microscopically. We then choose the smallest, purest cells to start the growth of new cultures.”Wild Turkey’s beer ferments out at around 6.5 per cent alcohol by volume, and is pumped into a 40-foot high continuous still. “Both our stills are copper,” continued Jimmy. “The column still has 19 stripper plates and the beer is fed onto the 18th plate. The first distillation is the low wines, and this goes into the doubler (the second, pot still) as a liquid. Wild Turkey is distilled at a low proof, around 112 to 115 proof, so we get more flavour and body congeners coming over.”Wild Turkey is one of the heaviest, full-bodied drams of bourbon on the market. In addition to the grains and the distillation techniques, the white oak barrels in which it ages add their own signature. The staves, from oak trees in the Ozark Mountains of eastern Kentucky and Missouri, are air-dried for eight to nine months before assembly into barrels. Most importantly, they are given a heavy char at the cooperage. This process is more expensive, but the deep layer of char gives the whiskey the character Jimmy wants. “There’s more caramels and wood sugars going into the spirit with a heavy char,” he explained, “and it enhances the sweetness and vanilla in the whiskey.”After the barrels are filled with new spirit, they are transferred to one of the 24 open-rick, unheated warehouses, to let the oak and the climate of Anderson County work their magic. The 440,000 barrels of Wild Turkey rely exclusively on natural ageing. There are seven floors to each metal-clad warehouse, and the barrels are stacked three high on wooden ricks. About one third of the spirit evaporates in this warehouse system. According to Jimmy: “We have a tasting panel which checks each day’s production of whiskey before it is put in the barrels. Most of the tasters have worked around new whiskeys for 25 to 30 years and have a lot of experience. We also have a different panel of experienced tasters for our ageing whiskey. Beginning at two years of age, the whiskey is tasted every year to its full maturity. Complete records are kept not only on its taste, but also on its ageing proof and aroma.“The new make spirit is grainy with a hint of sweetness and clean in the finish,” he continued. “In the mature Wild Turkey 101, I’m looking for the vanilla and caramel in the nose and taste. I want flavour and body in Wild Turkey, and nobody’s questioned how it’s made in the 45 years I’ve been here. If they did, I wouldn’t believe in what I’m doing.” A worthy sentiment from a real ambassador.