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Wild Turkey Behind the Barrel - Louisville and Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
Between October 5-7th 2014, I was lucky to have been chosen with 29 other bartenders from around the country to visit Kentucky and get shown around by Jimmy and Eddie Russell, Master and Associate Distillers of Wild Turkey whiskey. With our hosts we got a private tour of the Independent Stave Company cooperage, shot skeet targets with twelve gauges next to rickhouses, got an in-depth tour of the distillery with Eddie Russell, camped out in “5-star” tents on the distillery grounds and drank straight out of barrels from Warehouse A. It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience and still today we are all reminiscing about that fantastic three day experience.
One of the most things I am thankful for from the experience (other than meeting and having a hell of a time with 29 badass bartenders from around the country) was the chance to converse with Jimmy Russell. For those of you who don’t know Jimmy is a legend in the industry, in fact Eddie just created a special bottling of Wild Turkey to commemorate his father’s 60 years at the distillery - Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary. Like a true sage Jimmy has seen it all and told me some amazing stories during our conversations. But what really got to me was understanding Jimmy as a person - by discovering Jimmy is a (rightfully so) stubborn traditionalist with a respect for those before him and with the experience of a true master with over half a decade in the trenches I really got to understand why Wild Turkey is the way it is.
Those who have drank Wild Turkey, you know that it is not a pushover drink. From their entry level 101 series to their Kentucky Spirit single barrel expressions and beyond, when one drinks Wild Turkey one feels compelled to contemplate what they are drinking. Sure some will see the 101 series as a quick vehicle to inebriation - and yes who doesn’t like shots of 101 Rye! - but digging deep into what you are drinking one finds complexity born from Jimmy’s stubborn attitude to do things the way they had been taught by him since he started.
So how does he do it? A quick look into a book by Dave Broom or Micheal Jackson (the whisky writer!) will tell you that it is a combination of their yeast choice (their yeast was long there before Jimmy started!), slow fermentation time, low ABV off the still and into the barrels (more congeners not stripped away via dilution) and variety of rickhouses at their arsenal. Yet why does Wild Turkey taste distinctively like it does? Simply put, Wild Turkey tastes the way it does because of the human element behind the bottle: Jimmy Russell. As one of the last of his generation, Jimmy’s dedication to tradition and “doing things the right way not necessarily the easy way” can truly be tasted in each bottle of Wild Turkey - it was a pleasure to discover this first hand from the man himself!
So cheers to Jimmy and Eddie Russell and all of those involved with putting together the Wild Turkey Behind the Barrel program. You gave us 30 bartenders from around the States a hell of a good time and we will never forget it. I only hope that the USBG and Wild Turkey will be putting this together again next year at which time I will definitely be applying for again!
Philip Cesario Min-Oh Suh
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