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American Whiskey Revival

1._Distilling_partner_Eddie_Russell_inviting_the_group_on_a_tour_of_the_distillery~ Family bonds are at the heart ~

 

In the last instalment of our American Whiskey Trail journey, we stopped at the iconic Stitzel-Weller Distillery and looked at how global industry giants are growing roots in the American craft whiskey renaissance. In our next stop, we are focusing on the master distillers, the family ties and the apprenticeship passed down through generations.

 

More than 95% of the world’s bourbon, America’s native spirit, is made in Kentucky, and our next stop is at another historic distillery, the Wild Turkey Distillery built in 1869 by the Ripy brothers on the Wild Turkey Hill in Lawrenceburg.

 

Its first international recognition came while being selected to represent Kentucky at the 1893 World Fair. Soaring wings were soon clipped during Prohibition. The distillery closed in 1919 until 1933. It only regained its international footing after 1940, when Thomas McCarthy, an English South African distillery executive, shared its whiskey samples on a wild turkey hunting trip. By 1971, the distillery was sold to the Austin Nichols Distilling Company. The French company Pernod Ricard bought the distillery in 1980 and sold it in 2009 to the Italian Campari Group.

 

ALL THESE international changes in ownership are inconspicuous while touring the distillery, where the home-grown all-American feel reigns supreme. This ability to retain local authenticity is pegged on the lifelong service and reputation of its master distillers, on their ability to stick to traditions while steering production through the booms and busts in demand.

 

The two current master distillers are a father-son duo, one of the most influential such partnerships in the industry. The senior Master Distiller, Jimmy Russell, is a living legend, the longest tenured Master Distiller in North America. Dubbed by peers as the “Buddha of Bourbon,” he has been calling the shots at the distillery for over 61 years. Famed for sticking to the craft’s old traditions, he also revolutionized the industry when in 1976 he introduced to the market the flavoured whiskey category presenting the Wild Turkey Honey Liqueur. The innovation paid off, American Honey whiskeys are still all the rage these days.

 

IN HONOR OF Jimmy’s accomplishments, Wild Turkey opened last year a new Visitor Center and issued a commemorative Diamond Anniversary Bourbon created by his son, distilling partner Eddie Russell. The latter is a Bourbon Hall of Fame member with a grand reputation of his own. Eddie gave us a tour of the distillery and in addition to sharing inside family stories, he also led us into a tasting, just to help us distinguish the various features of their products. Formally, he’s been working for the distillery for some 34 years, but he jokingly describes his initiation as most likely having occurred as early as his toddler years.

 

As a young lad, he remembers how his father and the other master distillers would meet and work together, how they all knew what the others were trying to do. They drove each other to excellence and each of them singlehandedly controlled all aspects of production. “Jimmy and those guys, they weren’t chemical engineers, they learnt the craft through apprenticeship, through trial and error,” Eddie points out.

 

THE CRAFT WAS always about long-term trust relationships. Since the mid-1960s, Wild Turkey purchases its yellow corn from the same local company. All of the grains they use are non-GMO. Bourbon must be made from a mixture that contains at least 51% corn and the distillery goes through some five truckloads of it each day. To ensure consistent supply and quality, they place orders a year in advance. Unlike the other distillers, Jimmy likes his corn grinded coarser before it gets into the mash because “he believes the starch and flavour come out better that way,” Eddie says.

 

Their mash bill maximizes rye to enhance flavour and minimizes corn. They use more rye in their mash than most other bourbons. Because local rye production has declined, they now import it from Northeast Germany, Canada and Sweden. Their barley is from North/South Dakota and Wyoming and malted in Wisconsin. It is a fermentable cereal grain that provides the enzymes to transform the corn starch into sugar. The water they use is the purest – thanks in part to the Kentucky’s natural limestone shelf but also due to a reverse osmosis plant on site. Another vital ingredient is the yeast. They use a proprietary strain of yeast developed and maintained in the family since the early 1950s.

 

EDDIE REMEMBERS Jimmy keeping the yeast at home in the fridge and sending it to cousins in other counties to ensure that if one batch died, they would still have spares to rely on. Among the old masters, Jimmy was the big proponent of the idea that the yeast is key to the resulting flavours – the one factor that defines if the whiskey gets a nuttier or a fruitier flavour. Many distillers now use dried or bagged yeast but Wild Turkey sticks to its old-age tradition of making it in house.

 

Their fermentation process takes three-four days, breaking down sugars and turning them into alcohol, a “beer” of 6-7% alcohol volume. After distillation, they barrel the white whiskey at a lower proof to “seal its taste.” They are also famously picky about ageing their whiskey in white oak #4 alligator charred barrels. The #4 charring is the heaviest deep-layer burn that can be done without affecting the integrity of the wood. It gives an inner caramelized layer to the barrels, and weather changes promote the interaction of the liquid with the burnt wood, giving bourbons over time that extra depth of flavour and colour.

 

AMBER COLOUR is a good indicator of age; the darker it is, the longer it stayed in the charred barrel. Older bourbons are more flavourful, younger ones more pungent; but time is a fickle ingredient. After 12 years, the benefits of time diminish and flavour turns to woodsy bitterness. Jimmy’s Wild Turkey 81 and Wild Turkey 101 blend six-, seven-, and eight-year old casks. Their Rare Breed product is made with six-, eight- and 12-year-old stocks and Russell’s Reserve is aged 10 years. In every detail, Edie’s remarks reflected one thing: Jimmy’s words are still the Bible on the Wild Turkey Hill.

 

“Anybody that knows Jimmy Russell knows he doesn’t change anything. You have to prove it to him.” Eddie learnt this the hard way, facing stubbornness every time he tried updating a production process. In retrospect, Eddie confesses that Jimmy’s strong stance on tradition was the way. “Everybody’s coming back to the old way Jimmy was doing things, to the hard proofs, to doing the things the hard way.” He subscribes to his father’s motto: “If you’re going to do it, do it the right way, and give it your all.”