1972 was an important year for Wild Turkey. It was the first full year of ownership under Austin, Nichols & Co., who purchased the J. T. S. Brown & Sons Distillery the year prior. There was one man in charge of the operation at the time, and that same man remains in charge today – Jimmy Russell. You can tell me this, that, or whatever reasons 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’s store-brand product at some point in time. For example, instead of Lucky Charms cereal you might’ve purchased “Marshmallow Mates” or “Magic Stars.” Essentially, that’s how Wild Turkey started – as a store-branded whiskey.
From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, Austin, Nichols & Co. was the largest grocery wholesaler in the world. They were the Costco of its day (sans-retail-consumer relationship). By 1934, the tide had turned, however. 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 overall retailer-wholesaler relationship changed. 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. The story goes that in the late 1930s, on a company hunting trip in South Carolina, Wild Turkey Bourbon was conceived. We’ve heard the tale many times, 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 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 1950s, the Anderson County Distillery in Tyrone, Kentucky 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 (later operating as J. T. S. Brown & Sons) for Wild Turkey 101. As a result, it soon became the choice profile for their brand. What made this desirable profile so special? Jimmy Russell.
In 1954, James “Jimmy” C. Russell began his career at Anderson County Distilling Co., which four years earlier had been operating as Ripy Bros. Distillery. Jimmy learned the art of bourbon production from Master Distiller Bill Hughes, who I’ve been told was quite the character, and Ernest W. Ripy, Jr., grandson of famed Lawrenceburg distiller T. B. Ripy. Back in those days, everything was done the old-fashioned way – no shortcuts, no compromises.
By 1967, through years of hard work and dedication, the title of Master Distiller was granted 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.
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 almost certain it would be. It’s a quirky name that’s struggled against misconceptions for years. Yet, it’s 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 whiskey review. Thanks to a generous bourbon friend (appreciate it, T.J.), I have the opportunity to taste a 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 1972,) Wild Turkey labels stated “New York, NY” (and “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. All things considered, for purposes of this review I’m going with “about 1972.”
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 a surprise. Sweet minerals … a substantial volume of sweet minerals. I’ve experienced a similar profile before. A 1979 Wild Turkey 101 Eight-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. A wonderfully quirky pour and a rare treat I’m grateful to experience.
Rating: 4.25/5 🦃
So what’s going on? Why doesn’t this sip like typical dusty Wild Turkey? For starters we must consider the possibility of sourced whiskey. After all, the label says “bottled by” and 1972 is a few years away from Eddie’s time at the distillery. Eddie Russell has stated publicly that whiskey hasn’t 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 being Jimmy.
Do I believe this 1972 Wild Turkey 101 contains sourced bourbon? At one time I might’ve said yes. Now, I’m not so sure.
The Wild Turkey sourced whiskey argument starts losing weight by the time we reach the 1970s. From all references I can find, Austin, Nichols & Co. was more than pleased with the whiskey distilled at Anderson County/J. T. S. Brown in the 1960s. Besides, Jimmy is very particular about his bourbon. From what I’ve gathered, he strongly 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, though much of it was left unused. In fact, many of those unused barrels became the first Pappy Van Winkle, as reported by 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. originally 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. Does that mean early-1970’s Wild Turkey 101 is sourced or isn’t? I’m wagering not.
That leaves no explanation for the atypical profile I’m experiencing with this 1972 expression, right? 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 the Russells about choice or 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. In other words, Wild Turkey doesn’t pull barrels from every rickhouse every year over; barrels are pulled from select rickhouses each year according to age and taste.
Think of years as maturation seasons. For example, this season (2017-2018) Tyrone rickhouses B, D, H, and K can be found as single-barrel selections, as well as Camp Nelson A and F. Last season (2016-2017), Tyrone G, K, M, and O barrels were available as single-barrel selections. Using that logic, it’s very possible that whichever rickhouses were harvested in 1972 (and/or 1979, 1989, etc.) simply contained barrels showcasing a fruity-mineral profile. Since today’s barrels vary by rickhouse, it only makes sense that yesterday’s barrels experienced the same.
Reflecting back on all of this, I can’t help but imagine how exciting the early 1970’s must’ve been for Jimmy Russell. He would’ve been a few years younger than me at the time, and that resonates. According to Eddie Russell, Jimmy ran it all – Master Distiller, Plant Manager, Human Resources, etc. If the distillery failed, Wild Turkey would fail, leaving only one man to blame. Thankfully, that never happened. Even through the infamous Glut Era, when numerous distilleries closed their doors forever, Jimmy persevered. And more impressively, 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’s whiskey bottle (Costco’s house brand), consider how difficult it would be to bring that label to the mainstream – to make it recognizable, popular, and a 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 decades to come. Be it through Eddie, Bruce, JoAnn, or names of generations unseen, Wild Turkey is rooted in Jimmy. Wild Turkey is Russell.
Special thanks to T.J. Thompson of Thompson Woodworks for the pictures, and most importantly, for sharing this amazing rarity. Cheers!