Thursday, December 18, 2014

Wild Turkey Behind the Barrel

Just a Lady and a Big Turkey
Earlier this fall I was invited to Kentucky to be one of two journalists to check out Wild Turkey's new Behind the Barrel program.  The program hosted 30 bartenders selected from over 400 applicants, and flew them to Kentucky for 3 days to have a unique behind the scenes look at how Wild Turkey is made.

Let me begin this post with the basic fact that I love Wild Turkey.  Wild Turkey was the first bourbon I ever had, and after a few trips along the American Whiskey Trail, I have always found their approach to be refreshingly honest.  You can read the story I wrote this Spring, The American Whiskey Trail: Booming More Than Ever for more of my notes on many of the changes happening on the Whiskey Trail right now.

Over the last 6 months or so I have had a few special opportunities to get to know the Wild Turkey brand better.  I have enjoyed many of the whiskeys under the Wild Turkey portfolio, including the Wild Turkey Diamond created to commemorate Jimmy Russell's 60th year with the company, a gorgeous blend of 13 and 16 year old bourbon selected by Mr Russell's son Eddie.  I have also spent quite a bit of time with the Russell's Reserve bourbons, and it is fair to say that I have fallen completely head over heels for the Single Barrel and the 10 year Bourbon. Other favorites of mine are the Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel Bourbon and the Rare Breed Barrel Proof Bourbon.  In my opinion, Jimmy and Eddie make some of the best bourbon out there, and I feel incredibly honored to have had the opportunity to visit their distillery, and to stay the night on the grounds.

I flew into Louisville a day early, to have some time to get to know the city a bit, and to pay a visit to the legendary bar, The Silver Dollar.  I am always surprised by the extensive bourbon selections at the Silver Dollar, on and off the menu.  The last time I was there I tasted a 1951 Bonded Old Grandad that was delightfully fruity and complex, a far cry to today's Old Grandad.  This time, I tasted the impossible to find Wild Turkey Tradition a 14 year old bourbon aged in the sweet spot of the rack house, and bottled at 101 proof.  Gorgeous.

The trip officially kicked off the following evening with a welcome dinner at St. Charles Exchange in downtown Louisville, hosted by Jimmy and Eddie Russell and Bill Tucker of Bagdad Roller Mills where the corn used in Wild Turkey is grown.  Fun Fact: the corn used in Wild Turkey is 100% Non-GMO!

Bill Tucker, the Man with the Corn
PB&J Bourbon
After a cocktail hour in the restaurant, where I had a wild PB&J bourbon cocktail with peanut butter washed bourbon, we sat down to watch the new documentary about Jimmy Russell - Jimmy: The Man Behind the BarrelIt's a gorgeous little film - centering around the fact that Jimmy is one of the deepest roots of the bourbon industry.  He kept Wild Turkey's recipe alive when no one wanted to drink traditional bourbon, he has pioneered new enthusiasm for the brand, all the while doing everything the same way as it's always been done. Watch it.  Expect goosebumps and a misty eye.

Following the film, we toasted the legend with a pour of the Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary Bourbon - a lovely blend of 16 and 13 year old bourbon with a nose of maple, corn, apple, pear, and mixed summer berries.  On the palate the Diamond has the spicy heat like rye with undertones of maple, and with a bit of water it opens up to reveal sweet corn, blackberry, pomegranate, with a dry but minty finish.

Jimmy Russell
We ended the night in the Old Seelbach Bar in the historic Seelbach Hotel.  Jimmy and Eddie both sipped on Russell's 10, and the bartenders took the opportunity to ask questions and to get to know the men behind Wild Turkey.

The next morning we were up and out early and on the way to Independent Stave in Lebanon, Kentucky.  We were not allowed to take photos during this tour, which was a bummer.  Alas - it was a great peek into another cooperage that makes barrels for many different brands including Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Maker's Mark, Barton, Crown Royal, Bulleit, and Dickel. Every time I visit a cooperage I am always impressed by the precision and speed by which the barrels are made - and without any glue or nails. 

After the cooperage we were off to the distillery!  We had been invited to spend the night on the distillery grounds, a dream for any bourbon lover.  Wild Turkey had set up a tent city overlooking the oldest rack houses, and each guest had their own tent with a bed and a little seating area.

Tent 32, my Abode for the Evening

And there were activities!  Skeet Shooting!

Following the shooting we did a distillery tour with Eddie Russell, which was, hands down, the best distillery tour I have ever been on.  I have toured Wild Turkey before.  Twice in fact.  It was incredibly different to do the tour with Eddie and to listen to his opinions, and hear the decisions he makes, and why he makes them.  It was very clear that even though Eddie and Jimmy work together running the distillery, Eddie is slowly taking the reins with the intent to keep things the same as they have been under Jimmy's eye.
Eddie Russell

Wild Turkey is made from 70% Kentucky corn, German Rye sourced from Sweden and Canada, and Malted Barley from Wisconsin.  The water is purified using a reverse osmosis process that creates cleaner, crisper water, which is then added to the grains at 200 degrees F, and is mixed until it cools to 170 degrees F.  The whole grain Rye is added at this point, a traditional method that was originally used to make bourbon.

The same yeast has been used for 60 years, and is a proprietary strand of yeast that gives Wild Turkey its signature fruity and nutty flavors.  Back in the day, Jimmy was so protective of his yeast that he used to keep a back up petri dish in the home refrigerator!!

There are 24 30,000 gallon fermentation tanks at Wild Turkey - and that - is a lot of fluid.  After 3 days of fermentation 17,200 gallons of the beer is distilled, and the remainder is either put back into the mash as a starter or goes into the feed for local animals.

Mmmm ... Fermentation...

The beer is then sent to a 52 ft tall pure copper still made by Vendome that has 19 copper plates, though which the alcohol passes during distillation.  After the first pass through the still, the low wine is at 123-124 proof, which is then re-distilled to high wine which comes off the still at 128-138 proof.  The sweet spot for wild turkey is 128 proof, a process that is tracked with a massive computer system monitored by employees who have worked for the company for 40 or more years.

Jimmy and Eddie taste the spirit right off of the still and rate it from 1-5.  Just to understand their standards, no raw spirit is ever a 5, the best is a 4.  If the spirit rates a 2, it is re-distilled.

Barrels are aged at different places in the rack house to achieve different flavor profiles.  The spicier 101 is aged on the top floors, and the earthier and more floral 81 proof on the bottle floors.  All Russell's Reserve bourbons and ryes are aged in the sweet spot on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th floors, with the Kentucky Spirit expressions.  Rare Breed is a blend of bourbons from all the floors, and is a blend of 6, 8, and 12 year old bourbon.   

The tasting room is where Eddie and Jimmy are perhaps the most critical of their whiskeys.  They taste random barrels throughout the aging process, and they taste every single barrel that is released as a Russell's Reserve single barrel. This is where they select particular barrels for certain blends, and make sure that the quality is up to their incredibly high standards.

As of late, there have been rumors that there is an impending Bourbon shortage - and Eddie assured the group that there is plenty of bourbon and there is no crisis in sight (ie, no need to freak out people).  There have been some instances where other distilleries have run out of bourbon or rye, but Wild Turkey has never run out (although likely they have sold some to other companies).  Wild Turkey always prepares more bourbon than they anticipate on selling, some of which is reserved for future special releases, like the Diamond Anniversary.

Fun Fact: There are 4 million people in Kentucky, and there are 5 million barrels of whiskey aging.

There has been massive expansion at Wild Turkey in the last decade.  They built their first new warehouse in 20 years in 1993, which has been followed by 6 subsequent warehouses in the last 3 years.  Campari purchased Wild Turkey from Pernod Ricard in April of 2009 for $575 million.  The new distillery was built in 2010 (which means we haven't even tasted any bourbon distilled in the new facility yet), and a new visitor center was completed this year, my personal favorite visitor center on the Bourbon Trail. 

Wild Turkey Visitor Center
Following the distillery tour we were off to the visitor center, where the bartenders participated in a blending challenge to re-create the Rare Breed.  I am terrible at blending, so I took the opportunity to enjoy a nice glass of Rare Breed and check out the view.  Not bad.

Eddie and Jimmy tasted all of the different blends, and passed over most of them.  One satisfied them enough to deem a winner, and the winning bartenders beamed with pride.

Following the competition we headed over to the oldest rack house on the property, where we were invited to taste some bourbons straight out of the barrel that Eddie selected for the bartenders.  We lined up in the rack house, and Eddie poured tastes for each.  I hate to get sentimental here, but this was kinda a big deal!  To drink bourbon, in Rack House One, with Eddie and Jimmy, being pulled from a select barrel, poured by Eddie himself!

Behind the Barrel Facebook Page Cover Photo

Outside Rack House One was a gorgeous long dinner table lit with candles.  The view overlooked the valley, the old and new bridges that welcome visitors to Wild Turkey, and the patinated rack houses.  As the sun began to set the sky turned the most brilliant shades of orange and pink, which reflected off of the rack houses, and illuminated the whiskey in my glass.

This, Ladies and Gentlemen, Is a Dinner Table

Sugar Barrel Bourbon & Epic Sunsets
The Wild Turkey team was holding an excellent secret from us - a tornado warning had been issued, and all day the team was tracking the storm (whilst nervously biting their fingernails).  This storm just missed the distillery, but was close enough for us to watch the fantastic lighting show.  It was, without a doubt, epic.

This video is terrible, I apologize, but aren't those clouds amazing?!?!

Following dinner Eddie built a massive bonfire just outside of the tent city in a fire pit that must have been 10 feet in diameter.  In went 4 or 5 wood pallets, maybe 1/2 a can of diesel, and boom we had fire.  A very, very large fire.   

And This, is a Proper Bonfire
This trip pulled at my heart strings in ways that only the best trips do, and I left feeling not only closer to the Russell family, but to the people who put their hearts and souls into the brand every day.  What I really didn't expect was to see this group of bartenders (who are presumably all jockeying for the same slots in bartender competitions, the profitable shifts, and for features in publications) bond in such a deep and personal way, and to see how they also bonded with the brand and the Russell family.  It must be noted that Jimmy and Eddie were with us for pretty much the duration of the trip, which is incredibly impressive.  They drove us around in golf carts, ate lunch with us, signed mini barrels for us to age cocktails in, sat around the fire, shot guns, and took the time to impart their knowledge and expertise.  I think we all left Wild Turkey wanting to be adopted officially.

I loved spending 24 hours on the distillery grounds - watching the light change on the rack houses, watching the thunder and lighting roll through the valley, and waking up to the mist in the morning.  Seeing mother nature's influence on the distillery grounds made the experience so much more visceral - feeling the heat of the sun, and the chill of the morning, and knowing that it is exactly this weather that makes the whiskey age the way it does.  But mother nature can't be credited for everything.  Wild Turkey is all about the ethos of tradition and discipline that Eddie and Jimmy embody - and how they carefully make their bourbon exactly the same way, year after year after year. 

I leave you with a quote from one of the bartenders on the trip, Christopher Longoria (1760 Bar in San Francisco), who posted this on Facebook in the days following the trip:

In preparation of getting ready for work tonight I'm filled with a refreshing inspiration and layered gratitude. Sometimes when the day to day starts to wear you down it's experiences like the one we all shared that encourages me to give the best i got to this craft, hopefully attaining new heights of humility, integrity, and skill. Knowing that the stripes we earn from a gathering like this will be recognized and respected by cats with high character such as yourselves, fills me with new energy and appreciation for us all. I feel especially grateful for the Russell family for the incredible generosity and wealth of education they shared with us. And for the group that organized everything and remained patient with our drunken slurs. I am grateful. To all the new friends we made, to cross country [connections], to shotguns, shots, and sugar barrels, to the wild and well intentioned, to the sour mash and wet bluegrass, to cold feet in freezing tents, to afternoon Kentucky rain, to the Kentucky grain, to lightning in the distance and the thunder we will certainly all create in the future, to my Behind the Barrel Crew, you have my respect, CHEERS!! . . .

Share This!