Posts Tagged ‘Wild Turkey’

Happy anniversary, Jimmy Russell

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Author - Lew Bryson

Jimmy Russell: 60 years at Wild Turkey

Jimmy Russell: 60 years at Wild Turkey

I was in Kentucky on Tuesday for the grand opening of the new Wild Turkey visitor center. At least, that was the big billing for the day to the press, and Kentucky Governor Beshear was there for the event, as was the head of Campari North America, Jean Jacques Dubau. It was cocktails and toasts all around as we stood in the glass-wrapped structure, high on the bluff over the Kentucky River; the view was tremendous, the whiskey exceptional, and the engagingly open rickhouse-like interior of the center, all raw, unpainted wood and steel supports, was a reflection of the honesty of the product being celebrated. It’s the crowning touch of $100 million worth of expansion and improvements that Campari has made at Wild Turkey, and that kind of investment is noteworthy.

But the real reason I was there, and the real reason people like Fred Noe (Beam), Al Young (Four Roses), Mark Coffman (Alltech’s distiller), Greg Davis (Maker’s Mark), Craig Beam and yes, even Parker Beam (Heaven Hill) were there, was something more momentous. We were celebrating Jimmy Russell’s 60 years with Wild Turkey; a little early, maybe, since he started at Wild Turkey on September 10, 1954…but that just means we’ll get to do it again in five months.

Al Young, Mark Coffman, Craig and Parker Beam, Jimmy, Gov. Beshear, Eddie Russell, Fred Noe, and Greg Davis: some real bourbon firepower

Al Young, Mark Coffman, Craig and Parker Beam, Jimmy, Gov. Beshear, Eddie Russell, Fred Noe, and Greg Davis: some real bourbon firepower

If there was any doubt about how important Jimmy has been to the long-term success of Wild Turkey, the billboard over the river at the west end of the Rt. 62 bridge should dismiss it. “Welcome to the house that Jimmy built.” We toured the new distillery, and Jimmy pointed out the reassuring sameness. The still is built just the same — five feet wide, 52 feet high — as the old one (which is on display in the visitor center with the hatches open so visitors can get a rare look inside a column still), the fermenters are bigger and more numerous (there are twenty 30,000 gallon wells) but still open, the barrels are still air-dried white oak burnt to a #4 ”alligator” char, and the yeast is still grown up fresh from the same strain that was being used in 1954.

The house that Jimmy built

The house that Jimmy built; the new distillery.

So what exactly was it that Jimmy did, if everything is the same? That’s the point: he kept it that way. It wasn’t always easy, and it certainly wasn’t always popular when bourbon sales were sinking badly through the 1980s. But Pernod Ricard went with his solidly stated advice, and it has turned out to be right, much like the oft-quoted advice of Dickel’s first distiller, Ralph Dupps: “Don’t change a damn thing.”

Now, there have been some changes at Wild Turkey, and not just building a big new visitor’s center to replace the old 2-bedroom house that used to serve that function! The entry proof is a little bit higher than it used to be; some are going in as high as 57.5%, though most are going in at 55%, where they used to be down around 52.5%. Eddie Russell (he’s been there for 33 years himself, of course) said he had to get the proof up a bit; he wasn’t getting a high enough proof out of the barrel often enough to make the higher proof Rare Breed and Single Barrel bottlings.

That’s another change: up through the early 1980s, the flagship 101 bottling was the only bourbon they made, along with the rye and the liqueur (which is now bottled as American Honey). More bottlings were added, including the 80 proof bourbon…which is now gone. “Jimmy and I didn’t even drink the 80,” Eddie said. It was 4 ½ years old, the new 81 is about 6 ½ years old (Jimmy likes to add a half year, “an extra season,” to every barrel). The 101 is 7 ½ years old, and the Rare Breed is a mingling of whiskeys between 6 and 10 years old.

IMG_20140415_151622788Which brings us to the new whiskey we got to taste: the Diamond Anniversary, a 91 proof bourbon that’s a mingling of 13 to 16 year old whiskeys. That’s pretty well-aged for Wild Turkey! It was definitely Wild Turkey — hot honey sweetness, a bit smoky, and strongly smooth — but with much more wood character — drying spiciness — than I’ve ever encountered in a Wild Turkey bottling. There’s not a lot of it, and at $125, I believe it’s the most expensive bottling they’ve ever done, but it’s like nothing else you’ve ever had from this distillery.

Did I like it? We tried it at a tasting in the distillery (there’s a small gallery right by the yeast room) along with five other whiskeys, and I not only finished the Diamond, I figured there was nothing to be lost by asking for more. Ask and ye shall receive, it turned out, and I finished that one, too!

It was a pleasure to be there to wish Jimmy the full congratulations he deserves for his long, illustrious run at Wild Turkey. He’s not slowing down, either; Eddie’s feeling the pressure to not retire before Jimmy, and he admits that may be quite a while yet. After all, it’s getting busy. That was one of the biggest changes Jimmy noted from when he started. “We were making around 60 to 70 barrels a day when I came,” he said. “We had four storage buildings, we had about 70,000 barrels in storage. Now we’re making 560 barrels a day, we have 27 warehouses, and we have over half a million barrels in storage right now.” He seems to figure, why stop now?

As Jimmy said, several times during the day, and again during his acceptance of the key to the town of Lawrenceburg and an honorary plaque from the Governor, “It’s been a blessing for me.” He honestly seems to be the luckiest kind of person, someone’s who’s enjoyed their job so much that he’s never worked a day in his life. Happy anniversary, Jimmy.

WhiskyFest New York 2013 Seminar Topics Announced

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

I wanted to share with you our list of seminar topics and whiskies scheduled for the WhiskyFest New York 2013 weekend. The seminar program, outlined below, will take place on Saturday, October 12th.

Some of the whiskies are being produced and bottled just for this event–you won’t see or taste them anywhere else. They’re still “work in progress” and are identified as TBD (to be determined). We are very excited about the program and the whiskies. Hopefully you can join us. I’ll provide additional updates as we get closer to the event.

WhiskyFest New York 2013 Seminar Topics

Wanted: Dead or Alive

A tasting of rare whiskies: two from demolished distilleries and two from active distilleries. Industry experts will be on-hand to describe these whiskies and what makes them so special

Moderator: Jonny McCormick

  • Glenury Royal 23 yr. old, bottled in 1997. A rare bottling of single malt scotch from a distillery that last produced in 1983.
  • Stitzel-Weller bourbon (TBD). This legendary bourbon distillery closed in the early 1990s. We will taste something rare from the Diageo stocks that remain.
  • Kininvie (TBD). Relatively new distillery owned by William Grant and on the site of Glenfiddich and Balvenie, but rarely ever bottled and never imported to the U.S.
  • Sazerac 18 yr. old Rye. This is the first-ever release of this now legendary rye whiskey, Distilled in 1981 and  bottled in 2000.

 

Glenmorangie-Pride-1981LR-300x200Whisky Legend #1: Jimmy Russell

We spend time with Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell, talk about life and whiskey, and taste a very special Wild Turkey whiskey selected by Jimmy.

Moderator: Lew Bryson

 

 

12 in all the World

The world’s best whiskymakers each produce just twelve bottles of a whiskey exclusively for WhiskyFest, never to be tasted anywhere else. Ever. (Whisky specifics TBD.)

Moderator: Dave Broom

  • Ardbeg
  • Balvenie
  • Highland Park
  • Aberlour

 

Auchentoshan 1979 OlorosoWhisky Legend #2: Jim McEwan

We spend time with Bruichladdich Whiskymaker Jim McEwan, talk about life and whisky, and taste a very special Bruichladdich selected by Jim just for this occassion.

Moderator: Dave Broom

 

Scotch & Chocolate

Whiskymakers collaborate with chocolatiers, each pairing a whisky with a specific chocolate. Both the whiskymakers and chocolatiers will be on the panel to discuss their parings. (Details on the whiskies and chocolates TBD.)

Moderator: Gavin Smith

  • Compass Box (Featuring John Glaser of Compass Box)
  • Glenmorangie (Featuring Dr. Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie)
  • Dalmore (Featuring Richard Paterson of Whyte & Mackay)

 

Talisker lunch

We taste a special selection of four different Talisker whiskies.

Moderator: Dave Broom

 

Balvenie TUN1401-Batch5_ComboLR1-225x300Whisky Legend #3: Parker Beam

We spend time with Heaven Hill Master Distiller Parker Beam, talk about life, whiskey, and his recent diagnosis of ALS, and taste a very special whiskey selected by Parker.

Moderators: Lew Bryson & John Hansell

 

Where Whisky is Heading

Taste the hottest, cutting edge whiskies along with the master distillers and blenders who are making them.

Moderator: Dominic Roskrow

  • The evolution of US Artisan distilling: Anchor Hotalings
  • Bourbon Innovation: Something new and special from Buffalo Trace (TBD)
  • Japanese whisky boom: Something new to the U.S. from Japan’s Nikka whisky company.
  • The trend towards blended malts. Featuring Blue Hanger, Whisky Advocate Blend of the Year

 

The Best!

Taste several of the Whisky Advocate award winning whiskies, along with Whisky Advocate’s esteemed whisky writers who chose them.

Moderator: John Hansell

  • Glenmorangie Pride 1981 Vintage (>$3,000/bottle!): Gavin Smith
  • Four Roses 2012 Limited Edition Small Batch: John Hansell
  • Auchentoshan 1979 Vintage: Gavin Smith
  • Balvenie Tun 1401: Dave Broom
  • Lot No. 40: Davin de Kergommeaux
  • Yellow Spot: Dominic Roskrow
  • Corsair Triple Smoke: Lew Bryson

(Please note: whiskies subject to change)

Some whisky highlights from WhiskyFest San Francisco

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

WhiskyFest San Francisco was this past Friday. I had a chance to try some new whiskies while I was there and would like to share my thoughts. Some of these are so new, they haven’t even been formally released yet. I was just offered pre-release samples to taste.

One of my favorite whiskies of the evening was a Samaroli Glenlivet 1977 Vintage. It was elegant, well-rounded, and subtly complex. Very nice!

The U.S. finally has Japanese whisky besides Suntory’s Yamazaki and Hakushu. Nikka is making its formal debut at WhiskyFest New York in two weeks, but the importer was also pouring Taketsuru 12 year old “Pure Malt” and Yoichi 15 year old single malt at the San Francisco event. The 12 year old, a blend of malts, was nicely rounded and easy to drink, while the 15 year old was very distinctive. My feeling on Japanese whisky is: the more the merrier!

Angel’s Envy has two new whiskeys coming out. The first one is a barrel-proof version of their flagship Angel’s Share bourbon that’s finished in port pipes. The other one is a high-rye whiskey that is currently being finished off in a Caribbean rum cask. I tasted both. Both were very interesting. The high rye/rum finish combination was unique.

Wild Turkey is finally coming out with a new whiskey that’s not 81 proof! (Thank goodness!) There’s a new Russell’s Reserve Small Batch being released soon that’s 110 proof, with no age statement.

I was able to taste the next Evan Williams Single Barrel vintage release (a 2003 vintage). It was very smooth, easy-going, and dangerously drinkable.

There’s a new Michter’s 20 year old single barrel about to be released. I was concerned that it was going to taste too woody, dry and tannic. Not a chance! I was so impressed with this whiskey, that I kept taking people I knew over to the Michter’s booth to taste it before it disappeared. (Well, it wasn’t officially there in the first place, but I did my best to spread the word.) I know this was a single barrel, but I sure hope they all taste like this!

Gable Erenzo had a unmarked bottle of a Hudson Bourbon he wanted me to try. It was a six year old Hudson bourbon matured in a standard 53 gallon barrel (not a small barrel!) and it was the best Hudson whiskey I have tasted to date. Thanks for the tease, Gable…

One of the most pleasant experience of the evening wasn’t even a whisky. It was a beer! At the Anchor booth, they were pouring Anchor Steam that was bottled just five hours earlier. Damn that beer was fresh. It was the best Anchor Steam beer I ever had outside of the brewery. So, if you saw me walking around with a glass of Anchor Steam, now you know why!

Finally, I couldn’t resist sitting in on one of the seminars: a flight of Bowmore whiskies paired with a variety of West Coast oysters that were flown in that day and shucked right in front of us.  Delicious!

New American whiskeys strive for maximum versatility

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Some bourbons (and rye whiskeys) are good enough to drink neat or with a splash of water. Others, usually because of their youth and lower cost, are more suitable for cocktails or on the rocks.  Most people put American whiskey into one of these two categories.

Very few whiskeys, for my palate anyway, manage to accomplish both. Arguably, some that might pass the test are Evan Williams Black Label, Sazerac Rye (Baby Sazerac, as it is affectionately know), and Old Forester Signature (100 proof). These are versatile, affordable whiskeys which you can keep in your drinks cabinet and use for many drinks applications.

However, I’ve noticed a lot of new whiskeys that seem to be produced and marketed for this exact kind of versatility. Part of it might be driven by the popularity of cocktails. It might also be that older, more mature American whiskeys are becoming scarcer.

I will also point out that most of these new releases don’t have age statements, allowing the producers more flexibility with their stocks, and some people aren’t very happy about it. (I, too, was a little bummed when Knob Creek Rye was released without an age statement, instead of being released at 9 years old similar to the Knob Creek bourbons.

Recent examples include Wild Turkey Bourbon 81 Proof, Wild Turkey Rye 81 Proof, Knob Creek Rye, and even the private label Breaking & Entering bourbon (which is quite nice, btw). All of them seem, to varying degrees, come across as mature just enough to enjoy neat or with a little water, but youthful and vibrant enough to work well in cocktails without breaking the bank in the process.

And, of course, the more versatile a whiskey is, the more bottles of it will be sold, which won’t exactly hurt the company’s bottom line either.

Have you noticed any whiskeys released recently that fall in this category? Your thoughts on this trend?

 

Review: Wild Turkey

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Wild Turkey 81, 40.5%, $20

Comprised of bourbon aged six to eight years old (and seems closer to six than eight). This new (fairly bold for 81 proof) whiskey, while drinkable neat or with a splash of water, really works best as a mixer. Very traditional bourbon notes of caramel, vanilla, mint, cinnamon, sweet corn and orchard fruit. — John Hansell

Advanced Malt Advocate magazine rating: 82

Guest post: Wild Turkey, Flying High

Wednesday, 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!

New Releases from Wild Turkey, Compass Box, and Buffalo Trace Distillery

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

Typically, this isn’t the time of year that we hear of many new product releases. This week however, there was news of three whiskies that have been or are soon to be released.   

Wild Turkey mixes things up with Wild Turkey 81. This is a blend of six, seven and eight year old whiskies bottled in the first package change to a Wild Turkey product in almost 15 years. To quote Jimmy Russell, “Even a good old boy changes his shirt every now and again”. He is referring to the “badass” label that dresses the classic Wild Turkey bottle.  But Jimmy was hands off on this creation. Wild Turkey 81 was solely crafted by his son, Eddie. It’s described as a “mixable spirit”, able to face any mixer or cocktail with the characteristic boldness of Wild Turkey. Available in the U.S. with an MSRP of $19.99.

Great King Street is the address of Compass Box’s office in Scotland. It’s also the name of their latest release – a range devoted to blended Scotch whisky. These blends are non-chill-filtered and bottled at natural color. John Glaser, Compass Box Whiskymaker proclaims this range a “rebirth of the blend”, created to appeal to both the malt whisky enthusiasts and those new to whisky. The first release in the Great King Street range is the Artist’s Blend. Bottled at 43%, the Artist’s Blend is available now in Europe and will wash upon the shores of the U.S. and other markets in September. Estimated MSRP is $41.00 per 50cl bottle. (Note: The U.S. will be getting 37.5 and 75cl bottle sizes instead.) More details here.

Buffalo Trace Distillery has released its Millennium Barrel bourbon. Crafted from the last barrel of the 20th century that was rolled into the only bonded single barrel warehouse in the world on December 31, 1999. Nearly 12 years later, 174 bottles have been filled, each label handwritten and each bottle individually numbered. The packaging includes a numbered hardwood box containing a piece of the barrel’s stave. Not one will be available in stores. Buffalo Trace will give each bottle to non-profit organizations across the country to auction off, with the hope to raise $200,000 for charity. Get all of the details and application at http://buffalotacemillennium.com/ .

Pernod selling Wild Turkey to Campari

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

We knew Wild Turkey was up for sale. Sources inside Pernod confirmed it to me off the record, and Chuck Cowdery also blogged about it.

I’m on vacation so I will keep this brief. The Wall Street Journal has published that Pernod is selling Wild Turkey to Gruppo Campari, the makers of Skyy vodka.