Wild Turkey was founded by the Ripy brothers in 1869 (even though the label says 1855), at a time when Bourbon was still shipped to market in barrels. The distillery functioned continuously with a 14-year break for Prohibition. In 1940, executive Thomas McCarthy took some whiskey with him on a wild turkey hunt, and it was a spectacular success among his buddies. The following year, they asked him to bring “some of that wild turkey whiskey” with him, and the name has resonated ever since.
Despite its size, Wild Turkey is fanatically focused on quality, and many of the standards are traceable to legendary master distiller Jimmy Russell. Russell is one of the true superstars of Kentucky Bourbon. He has worked at Wild Turkey for 54 years, and still supervises production when he’s not traveling to promote the brand. Nearly 80, he maintains a grueling schedule that would decimate someone half his age. I had the pleasure of tasting with him several years ago during a visit to Lawrenceburg, and it was a remarkable experience---underneath his unassuming manner, he is a walking encyclopedia of Bourbon.
Under Russell, Wild Turkey has morphed into an international powerhouse while maintaining the standards of a small distillery. There are no shortcuts. The large product line offers something for everyone. 101 is still the flagship, but there’s an 81-proof version, a newly introduced Rye, and a honey liqueur for beginning spirits drinkers. There are numerous offerings at the upper end of the scale, including Russell’s Reserve and Rare Breed. One of those offerings is Kentucky Spirit.
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit (101 proof/50.5% ABV, average retail $50) is a single barrel Bourbon aged between 8.5 and 9.5 years. Each barrel is personally selected by Russell, and while there is some variation, he looks for a whiskey to be “fuller bodied, with rich vanilla flavors and a hint of sweetness.” One whiff illustrates his point. The nose is filled with aromas of honey, vanilla, fresh herbs and menthol. The spirit enters the mouth sweetly, but displays that intriguing combination of power and finesse in the mid palate. One of the most interesting things about it is the texture: light, crisp and subtle, yet imbued with a distinct alcoholic bite. The finish is long, filled with echoes of sweetness and spice. Because of that graceful texture, this whiskey would be a charm in a snifter. You could make cocktails with it, of course, but a great deal of the complexity and subtlety would vanish.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, by Mark Spivak, is published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot). Writing in an engaging and appealing style, Spivak chronicles the untold tales of twelve spirits that changed the world and forged the cocktail culture. While some are categories and others are specific brands, they are “the best kinds of stories---the type a writer could never make up.”
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