A Visit to Wild Turkey

If you ever visit the Wild Turkey distillery, do yourself a favor and arrive from the east. As you approach the distillery, U.S. Route 62 descends a hill through lush green woods, passes over a quarry on the banks of the Kentucky River, and takes a sharp left before riding the Blackburn Bridge over the river. As you approach the bridge, you can see buildings on a ridge in the near distance. These are warehouses and distillery buildings at Wild Turkey. Just beyond the highway bridge stands the remains of a railroad bridge, 283 feet above the river. The rail bridge is now out of service, but it formerly carried freight and passengers on what became the Norfolk Southern Railway, connecting all the Southern states. Passenger traffic ended in the 1930s, and freight stopped traversing the bridge about 50 years later, but for a time, the bridge carried grain into the Wild Turkey plant and finished bourbon back out.

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View of the two bridges, from the visitors’ center at Wild Turkey. (All images are clickable. Make ‘em big!)

I visited a couple of weeks ago. The purpose was twofold. Wild Turkey is opening a beautiful new visitors’ center, with stunning views of the river and its bluffs. The center itself is made of wood and glass, as you’d probably expect from a bourbon distillery. I failed to get a good exterior shot of the building, but it’s described as a cathedral to bourbon, and as you view the soaring ceilings, you’d probably agree.

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Ramp to upper level of the Wild Turkey visitors center.
Soaring ceiling
Soaring ceiling

In the tasting room is a large copper still that spans both floors of the visitors center, pulled out of production when the old distillery was torn down.

Copper still
Copper still
Low quality image of a rectifying plate within the still.
Low quality image of a rectifying plate within the still.

As impressive as all that is, though, the other reason for the visit is even better. 2014 marks master distiller Jimmy Russell’s 60th year at Wild Turkey. Can you imagine spending 60 years in one place? Jimmy can, and even after 60, he has no plans to retire.

Salt of the earth. Jimmy Russell.
Salt of the earth. Jimmy Russell.

Our visit ended with a cocktail reception, to launch the visitors center and pay homage to Jimmy. Among the VIPs were Kentucky governor Steve Beshear and brand reps and master distillers from other bourbon plants, including Four Roses, Heaven Hill, and Woodford. The bourbon industry is pretty tight, and less personally competitive than you’d expect, so a guy like Jimmy has fans at rival distilleries. Jimmy’s family were there. His son Eddie is his right hand at Wild Turkey, even though Eddie only has 33 years tenure there and is still a relative novice compared to Dad. Jimmy’s other offspring were there, along with his grandkids and a few great-grandkids.

I felt honored being among his family and friends on such a great occasion. I’ve always loved Wild Turkey 101; it might be my favorite American whiskey. Being there for this celebration was a real treat.

We took a lengthy tour of the distillery. Those notes and photos will follow in another post.

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