1972 was an important year for Wild Turkey. It was the first full year of ownership under Austin, Nichols & Co., which had purchased the Anderson County Distillery (operating as J.T.S. Brown & Sons) the year prior. There was one man in charge of the distillery at the time, and that same man remains in charge today … Jimmy Russell. You can tell me this, that, or whatever reason as to why Austin-Nichols might’ve acquired the J.T.S. Brown & Sons Distillery. Whatever fact or figure you throw at me, it all boils down to Jimmy.
Stay with me. You’ll see.
Surely you’ve purchased a supermarket “store-brand” product at some point in time. For example, instead of Lucky Charms cereal you might’ve picked up something like “Marshmallow Mates” or “Magic Stars.” Well if you think about it, that’s essentially how the Wild Turkey label started – a store-brand whiskey.
From the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, Austin, Nichols & Co. was the largest grocery wholesaler in the world. They were the Amazon or Costco of its day (sans-retail-consumer relationship). Yet by 1934 the tide had turned. Grocery distribution wasn’t the same business it had been. Five & Dimes had taken over, merchandise was no longer kept behind a clerk’s counter, and the old retailer-wholesaler relationship continued to change. Austin-Nichols felt that shift and entered wine and spirits distribution as a means of diversification. By 1939, wine and spirits would be their sole focus.
While distributing spirits of various labels was certainly lucrative post-Prohibition, Austin, Nichols & Co. needed a house brand whiskey to garner profits and meet the rising demand for Kentucky straight bourbon. And so about 1940, on a company hunting trip in South Carolina (so the story goes), Wild Turkey Bourbon Whiskey was conceived. We’ve all heard the tale many times before, but in my mind it’s nothing compared to the story I’m telling you now.
Remember, stay with me.
Austin-Nichols Wild Turkey 101-proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey first hit shelves in 1942. It was a respectable success and continued as such for decades. So much so that it only made sense for Austin-Nichols to move from sourced whiskey to a distillery of their own. By the 1950’s the Anderson County Distillery in Tyrone, KY was producing some of the best bourbon around, rivaling whiskey from established names like Stitzel-Weller and National Distillers. Austin-Nichols often purchased bourbon from Anderson County/J.T.S. Brown for Wild Turkey 101 and as a result, it soon became the choice profile for their brand. But what made this profile so special? Jimmy Russell.
In 1954, James “Jimmy” C. Russell began his career at Anderson County Distilling Co., which years earlier had been operating as Ripy Bros. Distillery. Jimmy learned the art of bourbon production from Master Distiller Bill Hughes, who I’ve heard was incredibly knowledgeable (and quite the character), and Ernest W. Ripy, Jr., grandson of famed Lawrenceburg distiller T.B. Ripy. Everything was done “the old fashioned way” – no shortcuts, no compromises. And so by 1967, through years of hard work and dedication, the honor of Master Distiller was passed to Jimmy Russell. The newly appointed Master Distiller not only kept production standards high, he effectively raised the bar. Austin, Nichols & Co. took note and in 1971 the distillery became the Austin, Nichols Distilling Co. Wild Turkey 101 now had a permanent home and a chance-of-a-lifetime steward in Jimmy Russell. The rest, as they say, is history.
So tell me this – what do you think of when you sip Wild Turkey 101? Do you think of a grocery wholesaler? Do you consider yourself sipping a distributor’s house label? No. You think Wild Turkey. You think Russell. And that’s because Jimmy Russell, through strong leadership and uncompromising craftsmanship, made Wild Turkey the household name it is today. Sure, Austin, Nichols & Co., Pernod Ricard, and Campari all made considerable financial investments over the years. But Jimmy changed the brand forever. Without Jimmy Russell I’d argue that Wild Turkey would likely be a dead label. Hell, I’m sure it would be. It’s a quirky name that’s struggled against misinformation and misconception for years – but – it’s undeniably delicious and unfailingly reliable. We buy Wild Turkey because it tastes good – because it’s of high quality – and we have Jimmy Russell to thank for that.
Speaking of quality, I’d say it’s about time for a review. Thanks to a generous bourbon friend (appreciate it T.J.), I have the opportunity to taste Wild Turkey 101 from 1972 (at least thereabouts). There’s no precise science to dating bottles. Even in its pristine shape, this bottle still has several indicators to consider. First off, the glass stamp carries a weak strike on the bottle’s underside. It appears to read “69.” But this can’t be a 1969 release, as the label clearly reads “Lawrenceburg, KY.” Prior to 1972 (and somewhat in transition through early ‘72) Wild Turkey labels stated New York, NY (Brooklyn, NY prior to that). Also supporting an early 1970’s bottling is an IRS tax strip (instead of a post-1976 ATF strip) and a “sans-Turkey” reverse label. So for purposes of this review, I’m going with “about 1972.”
And that should cover all bases – all bases except how it tastes. It’s time to stop lippin’ and start sippin’!
Wild Turkey 101 (abt 1972) – KSBW at 50.5% ABV – aged at least 8 years – bottled by the Austin, Nichols Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: rose copper
Nose: (dusty WT w/ sweet minerality) butterscotch, fruitcake, cherry-vanilla, candied almonds, caramel drizzle, musty oak, tilled soil, tobacco, maple, hints of pineapple & chewable vitamins
Taste: (vibrant & tart) sweet minerals, tangy vanilla, fruity & funky oak, orange peel, caramel candy, herbal tea, lemon icing, peppery spice
Finish: medium-long, sweet & spicy – fruit candy, butterscotch, orange/lemon zest, herbal & floral spice, nutmeg, musty oak, cinnamon “Red Hots,” faint leather
Overall: Well, this is certainly a surprise. Sweet minerals … a substantial volume of sweet minerals. I’ve experienced a similar profile before. 1979 Wild Turkey 101 8-year immediately comes to mind, as does 1989 101/8 (though it had only traces of minerality). Outside of that there’s plenty of fruity vanilla, butterscotch candy, and herbal & floral spice to keep one going back for more. Even so, it’s hard to escape the rather dominant tangy mineral notes.
So what’s going on? Why doesn’t this sip like typical dusty Wild Turkey? Well, for starters we must consider sourced whiskey. After all, the label says “bottled by” and 1972 is a few years away from Eddie’s time at the distillery. Remember, Eddie Russell has stated publicly that nothing has been sourced for Wild Turkey products since the day he started in 1981. Jimmy’s not talking, but don’t take that for evasiveness. That’s just Jimmy doing things the old fashioned way.
Do I believe this ‘72 Wild Turkey 101/8 was sourced? Well, at one time I might’ve said yes. Now, I’m not so sure.
Honestly, the Wild Turkey sourced whiskey argument starts losing weight by the time we reach the 1970’s. From all references I can find, Austin, Nichols & Co. was more than pleased with the whiskey being distilled at Anderson County/J.T.S. Brown in the 1960’s. Also, Jimmy’s very particular about his bourbon. I’m pretty sure he prefers using his own whiskey to fill Wild Turkey bottles – even back then. We know that sourced whiskey was acquired from Old Boone by Austin-Nichols, but much of it was left unused. In fact, those unused barrels became the first Pappy Van Winkle, as reported by esteemed bourbon historian Michael Veach.
It took a few years but [Julian Van Winkle] finally found the bourbon for this new brand. He had managed to purchase the last of the Old Boone whiskey from its owners, Wild Turkey [Austin, Nichols & Co.]. They had purchased the bourbon in the early 70’s when the brand was growing and they needed whiskey to fill bottles in new markets. They purchased their own distillery at that time and the Old Boone whiskey was not needed […] so they sold it to Julian.
According to Veach, Austin, Nichols & Co. purchased barrels from Old Boone to “fill bottles in new markets.” What that means exactly, I’m not entirely sure. But he goes on to say that after purchasing J.T.S. Brown & Sons, the Old Boone barrels were no longer necessary. So does that mean that early 70’s Wild Turkey 101 is or isn’t sourced? I’m wagering not.
I know what you’re thinking. That leaves no explanation for the atypical profile I’m experiencing with this 1972 expression. Maybe – maybe not. If there’s one thing I’ve learned first-hand from Jimmy Russell, it’s how Wild Turkey pulls its barrels. Last November I was talking with Eddie Russell about choice/favorite rickhouses and why barrels weren’t pulled from them every year. That’s when Jimmy chimed in. He explained that each year certain rickhouses are harvested for barrels. Wild Turkey doesn’t pull barrels from every single rickhouse every year over – barrels are pulled from select rickhouses each year based on maturation and taste.
Think of years as seasons. For example, this “season” (2017-2018) Tyrone B, D, H, and K are often found as single-barrel selections, as well as Camp Nelson A and F. Last season (2016-2017) there were a good many G, K, M, and O barrels available as private selections. So using that logic, it’s very possible that whichever rickhouse/s were harvested in 1972 (and/or 1979, 1989, etc.) simply contained barrels showcasing a fruity mineral vibe. If today’s barrels vary by rickhouse, it only makes sense that yesterday’s barrels varied as well.
In closing, I can’t help but imagine how exciting the early 70’s were for Jimmy Russell. He would’ve been a few years younger than me at the time, and that resonates. According to Eddie, Jimmy ran it all – from Human Resources to Plant Manager. If the distillery failed, Wild Turkey would fail, leaving only one man to blame. But thankfully that never happened. Even through the infamous Glut Era, when numerous distilleries closed their doors forever, Jimmy persevered. Even more impressive, he took a distributor’s whiskey label and turned it into the everyman’s quality pour.
So the next time you’re at Costco and you pass a Kirkland brand whiskey bottle (Costco’s house label), consider how difficult it would be to bring that Kirkland label to the mainstream – to make it a recognizable, popular, and well-respected bourbon worldwide. Could you do what Jimmy’s done? Could anyone? It’s hard to say. Yet as I finish my last sip of this 1972 Wild Turkey 101, I find comfort in the fact that this label will be around for many years to come. Be it through Jimmy, Eddie, Bruce, Joann, or names from generations unseen, Wild Turkey is truly a family affair. Wild Turkey is Russell.
Rating: 4.25/5 🦃
Special thanks to T.J. Thompson of Thompson Woodworks for the pictures, and most importantly, for sharing this amazing rarity. Cheers!