Whisky Advocate

Guest post: Wild Turkey, Flying High

June 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!

19 Responses to “Guest post: Wild Turkey, Flying High”

  1. WhiskyTimes says:

    I wonder if that new building is why I got charged £10 a shot for it in London? No. Wait, I bought a double for under 3 pounds just a week before in Newcastle (or near enough).

    Seriously though, Wild Turkey 8 years is massively under rated in my opinion. Stick a bit of water in and bobs your uncle, you have a very nice drop.

  2. Michael Shoshani says:

    Things like this make me nervous; in some cases even moving a distillery across the street has changed the product, and not always for the better. Guess we’ll know in six to eight years, won’t we?

    I hope Jimmy has enough sway to keep the distilling and barreling strength at their historic low levels, rather than bumping them up to the 120s that almost every other distillery uses these days.

    • ps says:

      I’d imagine a doubling of output would lead to quality issues. We’ll see though!

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Definitely still distilling and barreling at the lower proofs; they made a point of that. Judging from the experimentation they did when they switched from cypress to steel fermenters, I’d guess they’re pretty sure of the quality.

  3. Steve says:

    Lew,

    Thanks for the post. Your description of the events almost made me feel like I was there and could see the differences between the old distillery and the new one, which I’m sure I’ll visit soon. Looks like Campari has done right by WT and should be applauded for their investments in WT’s future.

    Congratulations to WT and the Russells. I look forward to many more bottles of their whiskey.

    Steve

  4. Louis says:

    Back in 2007, my wife and I went down to Kentucky for the first time, and Wild Turkey was the first distillery that we visited. It was a truly breathtaking sight to see the distillery loom up right in front of us as we crossed the bridge over the Kentucky River. The. Distillery itself was rather industrial looking, especially compared to Woodford Reserve, which was our next stop. So I guess this means that another visit is in order.

    Slainte.

    Louis

  5. JWC says:

    since they are more than doubling their output, does this mean that eventually, we’ll see the 12 yo back in the US market?

  6. The Bitter Fig says:

    I’ve gotten into WT long since the 8 and 12yo disappeared from the States. My fingers are crossed that expanded production leads to their eventual return.

    • JWC says:

      bitter, they still sell the 8yo (tastes different from the previous domestic 8yo) in US duty free stores for less than the current 101. if you happen to fly overseas, be sure to be on the lookout for the 12 yo. it’s very good. maybe not as good as the old 12 yo, but still excellent – not that big of a difference. also keep in mind that what was being sold as the 8 yo in the US previously may have been older stock.

  7. EMalt says:

    Exciting news, but i surely hope the quality produced in the new distillery is at least equal to the current one. Does anyone know if both distilleries will run parallel for some time (years?)? And/or will the old one be demolished or will they create a visitor centre of it ;).

    Grtz,
    EMalt

    • Red_Arremer says:

      I have the same questions and concerns Emalt. In Scotland, when capacity needs to be expanded, the distllery can maintain continuity of style by installing more potstills of the same design– I’m a little hazy as to what measures are required to expand bourbon distilling capacity and maintain style…

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Sounds like the old distillery’s going to be demolished and a visitor’s center put in its place; that’s a plum spot there on the cliff! The old distillery was just that: OLD. It was almost falling apart, from what I heard.

      Bourbon’s less dependent on still design; it’s more about mashing, input/output on the still, and — as noted — proof levels. And the barrels/warehouse philosophies, of course. Bear in mind that swapping production facilities is still fairly common practice down here; Distillery X will run a batch for Distillery Y, and two months later, it might be reversed. They don’t talk about it, but it’s hard to avoid noticing that it happens. I wouldn’t be too worried about consistency issues…but I wouldn’t write them a blank check either.

      • Douglas Fischer says:

        Lew, my wife and I toured the old distillery last year during the Bourbon Festival. To say it was almost falling apart would be pretty accurate. Having been in any number of similar industrial facilities before (including several other distilleries) I found it impressive they were actually able to turn out such a prime product given the challenges they must have faced. I attribute that to top notch staff.

        Can’t wait to see inside the new facility. It’s good to see that GC is putting serious – and very much needed – capital into WT. Not to diss PR but it was clear that they were not interested in maintaining WT properly, not to mention promoting it. GC knows a gem when they see it – I can imagine they have big plans for WT given the doubled capacity, and a new visitor’s center would be right in line with such plans.

        Now I’m getting thirsty. I think I know what set of bottles I will be choosing from tonight…

        Cheers.

  8. Keith Sexton says:

    Also, the new label changes look really nice. I’m normally sluggish when it comes to liking new label changes(a fault of mine, i suppose), but i think they’ve done really well.

  9. Amit Sawhney says:

    I wouldn’t worry at all about quality or flavor profile. In Jimmy We Trust!

    Congrats to GC and the Russells on the new distillery.

  10. Bob Siddoway says:

    I hope with this increased ability to output whiskey that they start introducing more new products, especially something similar to Rare Breed yet different. But if not, I guess I will just stick with RB and Russel’s Reserve, both are great. But as always, more barrel proof offerings would be nice.

  11. Big Buick says:

    This appears to be good news. After a visit 4 years ago with friends we declared it to be not only shabby but the ‘filthiest” distillery by FAR! We blamed it on the french, and gave up on the brand. Let’s hope the Italians re-instill the pride Wild Turkey deserves. But alas it will likely be more cherry or cotton candy flavored bourbon.

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