Guest post: Wild Turkey, Flying HighJune 22nd, 2011
Malt Advocate magazine’s managing editor, Lew Bryson, gives us a birds eye view of recent enhancements at the Wild Turkey Distillery.
If you’ve ever visited the Wild Turkey distillery outside Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, well, you’ll know I’m not being disrespectful when I say it looked a bit run-down. Big hulking buildings with rusty iron wrappings, a hodge-podge of structures clinging to a cliff over the Kentucky River: thank God they made excellent whiskey, because they for sure were never going to win a beauty contest!
Well…forget all that. As of today, Wild Turkey has the newest distillery in Kentucky, and it is a $50 million beauty. Sited across the road from the old plant, on top of the hill, the new plant is as planned and purposeful as the old one was…er, rambling. The capacity is greatly increased (11 million gallons a year, up from 5 million), the running gear is solid and slick, and there’s a fresh coat of paint on everything. They’ve even put new label designs on the iconic 101 bottling, matched by that on the new 81 proof bottling that was Eddie Russell’s project.
Thank Gruppo Campari. The new owners of Wild Turkey are rightly excited about this project that they inherited from former owners, Pernod Ricard. Their chairman, Luca Garavoglia, and CEO, Bob Kunze-Concewitz, were there for the occasion (as was Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear). Kunze-Concewitz spoke, and emphasized that GC is here for the long haul. “Rest assured,” he told a crowd of dignitaries and distillery employees. “Your beloved brand is in good hands. We are not going anywhere.” He got another solid round of applause when he mentioned that plans were being contemplated for a new visitor center.
Jimmy Russell, 57 year Wild Turkey employee and iconic master distiller, noted how proud he was of the production team that made the whiskey he’s so closely associated with. He joked with the crowd about the 90 dry counties in Kentucky, pointing out that he himself was a Southern Baptist. “We Baptists make bourbon for medicinal purposes,” he said…and paused to cough. “I try to keep a cough going all the time.”
To the best of anyone’s knowledge at the event – a group that included 87 years of master distiller experience and Kentucky Distillers Association president Eric Gregory – this is the first new, “greenfield” distillery built in Kentucky in decades, possibly as long as 50 years. That’s evidence of the turnaround in the bourbon industry in general.
It was a good day, with plenty of bourbon, barbecue, and bluegrass music…and the breeze, blowing across this hilltop distillery. Jimmy Russell told me once that he liked to have his whiskey warehoused on hilltops, where it can catch the breezes. That makes good bourbon, he said. Now he’s got his distillery up there too.
Photo: Jimmy and Eddie Russell prepare to “christen” a commemorative barrel made by Independent Stave Co. for the occasion – don’t worry, they didn’t break those bottles!