The Wild Turkey brand is a relatively new brand. It was created by the Austin-Nichols company in the 1940s. The story goes that one of their executive officers brought a bottle of whiskey with him to a turkey hunt. Everyone liked it so much they asked him to bring another bottle with him on the next hunting trip. It was an unlabeled bottle he pulled from the tank before it was processed for bottling so he had to check the records to see it what it was. It turned out to be an eight year old Bourbon at 101 proof from J.T.S. Brown distillery. That distillery was in Lawrenceburg Kentucky on the Kentucky River. The Filson Historical Society has a letter from Creel Brown to his friend Taylor Hay stating he had just signed a deal with Austin-Nichols that would keep the distillery busy for many years. Creel Brown was the President of J.T.S. Brown and the grandson of J.T.S. Brown Jr. who founded the company. Brown purchased the distillery from the Ripy family and a Ripy was the distiller in the 1940s. The Bourbon is a traditional Bourbon made with corn, rye and malted barley.
The brand caught on and grew in popularity. So much so that by the 1970s Austin-Nichols decided to purchase the distillery that was making the whiskey for them. With the distillery came its distiller, Jimmy Russell. Jimmy has retired as the Master Distiller but his son Eddie continues on as the Master Distiller making Wild Turkey. The Russells have resisted the pressure from the accountants to change their distilling process more than most other distillers at the major distilleries. They have not done so completely and changes have been made, but they still make their whiskey as much as they can as if it was that original Wild Turkey Bourbon.
The fact that the Bourbon was only 101 proof in the processing tank shows that the whiskey had a very low barrel entry proof. Jimmy has always been secretive as to what that proof was but I suspect in the 1940s that it was between 103 and 105 proof. That was the entry proof of many distilleries of that period. In fact the maximum of that period was only 110, but this was still a very low entry proof. The brand has always been considered a “full bodied” Bourbon with lots of flavor from the grains coming through the distillation process. That indicates a lower distillation proof as well. Over the years the barrel entry proof has risen but it is still well below the 125 maximum.
The distillery itself is located on the Kentucky River, on the east side of Lawrenceburg, Ky. It is on the hills above the river next to what is known as “High Bridge”. A beautiful setting for a distillery. The distillery was one of the few that actually had a visitor’s center and tours in the early 1990s. It consisted of a quaint little cottage across the road from the distillery that contained some gift items such as t-shirts and glassware for sale. The tour would take the visitors across the street and through the distillery, into a warehouse and then the bottling line. They would often have a chance to talk to Jimmy in the distillery.
In the 21st century this changed. The distillery needed to expand and upgrade. It had been a long time since the stills had been replaced and the decision was made to build a new distillery at a different location on the site. With this construction came a more modern visitor’s center and a design that was more tourist friendly from an OSHA point of view. It is still a good tour but it lacks the charm of the original distillery tour I took in the 1990s.
Wild Turkey is a great Kentucky Distillery. They are making a full bodied Bourbon in a way that is very similar to the way they made it in the 1940s. First the Ripys and then the Russells made this whiskey and the flavor profile has drifted very little under their stewardship. In the early 1990s the eight year age statement was removed. The brand was growing quickly overseas and in Japan in particular. They changed the label to “Wild Turkey No.8” in the United States in order to distinguish the domestic product from what was being exported to prevent the “Grey Market.” Soon though, even the “No.8” was dropped and the whiskey became younger. I am sure growing popularity and demand created the need to do this but I would love to see them do a yearly release of the old label “Wild Turkey 101, 8 years old”.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller