Striving for Consistency
By Hope S. Philbrick
“We’re just an old fashioned bourbon distillery,” said Master Distiller Jimmy Russell while escorting me around the site in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, where he makes Wild Turkey. He’s been master distiller since the late 1960s. (Wild Turkey was launched in the 1890s.) As we walked around the distillery and he explained the production process, he suggested that if I bought a bottle of Wild Turkey in early 2019, I could say I saw it being distilled—since the product distilled on the day of my visit would age in barrels before being bottled and sold. “I hope I’m still living when it’s sold,” he said, softly, under his breath.
For its grain mix, Wild Turkey imports rye from Germany, sources the bulk of its corn in Kentucky (never using any product that has been genetically modified), and buys barley from farmers in Wisconsin and Minnesota. “We strive to be consistent,” said Russell, “which is why we pay a premium for grain.” Rye, barley and corn are the base of most bourbons; recipes vary by percentage used and are proprietary. What’s more, “the coarseness of the grain varies by distiller,” said Russell. Yeast is another differentiator. “We grow our own yeast every day,” he said.
Wild Turkey ferments 700 bushels of grain for 72 hours in each of its 15,500 gallon tanks. Each 15,000 gallons of mash yields 1,700 gallons of distilled bourbon. Half of that will evaporate over the 8 years the product ages in barrels. On average, 400 barrels are filled each day.
Wild Turkey uses a copper column still that’s seven stories (48-feet) tall and 5-feet wide. Barrels are a No. 4 “heavy char”—which means the insides of the barrels were set on fire and blackened.
“I’m looking for four things,” Russell says of the Wild Turkey Bourbon taste profile. “Caramel, vanilla, wood and sweetness. Aromas are most important. You want the finish to leave a good taste in your mouth and linger.”
“I’m a people person,” Russell said, explaining why he frequents the Wild Turkey visitors center as often as his schedule allows. After giving me a tour, he sat down in the visitors center to sign bottles.
Time your visit to Wild Turkey right, and it can happen.
-Photo Courtesy Kentucky Distillers Association.
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