The past two days are days I’ll never forget.
I left my home in South Carolina not quite knowing what was ahead of me. Of course, one always has ideas – visions of what things will be like, conversations and moments you’ll possibly share with others, how people and places will look and sound – mental expectations, if you will. I had all of these things swirling in my head as I boarded the plane bound for Lexington, Kentucky. Little did I know that my dreams would be exceeded in virtually every way.
As my flight approached the LEX runway, I was entranced by the captivating landscape below me. You hear folks talk about hills of bluegrass and picturesque farmland as if it’s unique. It is. Kentucky is beautiful. I stepped off the plane, where just paces away, in the airport no less, I found my first dedicated bourbon shop. Its shelves were lined with bottles I rarely find in Carolina. Yet as tempting as it was to grab an early souvenir, I had far greater things ahead of me.
After a brief time in my hotel (thank you, Residence Inn Keeneland, for the excellent service) and a much-needed chat with my family, I met up with two bourbon amigos I’ve talked with many times online, but never met in person, Scott and Ryan. I ran into Scott first, as he was staying in the same hotel. We shared a pour of a damn-fine Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, the 2018 Kentucky Bourbon Affair Legend’s Select (thank you very much, Scott). Shortly after, Scott and I were met by Ryan and we headed off to my first annual gathering for Patreon supporters. After a quick stop at Red State BBQ to pick up dinner for the get together, we made it to Base 110 in downtown Lexington. (Both Red State and Base 110 get my highest recommendations, by the way.)
As Scott and Ryan were setting up, I spent a little time recording an episode for The Bourbon Road podcast. Thanks to Jim and Randy for their kindness and professionalism.
And the gathering commenced …
Words can’t describe the appreciation I have for the individuals that support my blog through Patreon each month. Sunday was my chance to give back – in passion and in person. We sipped epic pours, shared incredible conversations, and most importantly, we did it all through a bond forged in Wild Turkey. A few lucky folks left with prizes, including a spot on our Wild Turkey barrel pick the following day (congrats, Jon). Special thanks to Brad for donating a 2007 Wild Turkey 101 and to Mikey for throwing in a Wild Turkey ball cap (you both made two attendees very happy). An esteemed guest was also in attendance, Brian Haara, author of Bourbon Justice. Brian signed books and contributed to the door prizes as well (thank you, Brian). It was a night I’ll never forget – especially that 2001 Rare Breed Batch 01-99 (wowza!).
Back at the hotel, I had a hard time catching sleep. The excitement of the gathering took some time to settle down. I also missed my family back in South Carolina, but I needed to stay focused and get good rest. The day ahead was a big one. I was going to “The House that Jimmy Built.”
Remember when you were a kid and you had trouble falling asleep Christmas Eve? Well, that was my sleep Sunday evening. Nevertheless, I awoke Monday morning fueled by anticipation and excitement. After quickly getting ready, I found a few minutes to sit down for a nice complimentary breakfast at the hotel with Scott and another bourbon friend, Kevin. I should mention that Kevin had some very entertaining stories to tell throughout the trip. His presence really gave my visit an authentic Kentucky charm and I’d like to say thanks to him for that.
After a half-hour or so on the road, we approached Wild Turkey. Crossing over the Kentucky River and seeing the distillery on the hill … I felt as if I’d entered a world of its own. For those that have never been, Wild Turkey is everything and nothing like you’d imagine. It’s gorgeous and timeless, but it’s not fancy. It’s simple, yet enriched with a history that shows in its grounds. Even the newest buildings feel like they’ve been there for ages. The landscape is strikingly natural – almost untouched by man. You hear wildlife. You feel the sun. And despite being yards from a large operating distillery, you breathe fresh air. It’s everything and nothing like you’d imagine.
As we approached the Visitors Center, the “Cathedral to Bourbon,” as it’s appropriately called, there was electricity within our group. While we all came from different places – different trades and walks of life – we all shared a love for Wild Turkey. You could feel it from the first minute our feet hit the ground. Everything was perfect. There was no doubt in our minds, this would be a special day.
Before getting started on the distillery tour and barrel selection, I took a few minutes to browse the Visitors Center alone. I met and talked with some wonderful and kind employees of Wild Turkey – folks like Bo and Allison, who excel at making you feel welcome. I reviewed the wall of Wild Turkey’s history – learned a few new things (and found one or two trivial inaccuracies 😉 ). And then, Eddie and Bruce Russell walked in.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting Eddie Russell, you know that he takes his job seriously. After a minute or two saying good morning to our group, he and Bruce were off to Warehouse A. After all, there were barrels to be picked and people waiting to pick them. We’d see a lot more of Eddie and Bruce later.
Just as Eddie left, JoAnn Street, Eddie’s niece, introduced herself and led us to a bus for a short ride to an in-depth tour of the distillery situated on the hill above the Visitors Center. JoAnn did a fantastic job. She was knowledgeable and patient and added notable energy to topics that many wouldn’t necessarily find thrilling. As you’d probably guess, there’s a mountain of science and complex machinery behind a modern distillery. JoAnn made it sound easy – accessible and relatable even. It was an informative tour that frankly couldn’t have been any better.
And then it was time to meet Eddie and Bruce at Warehouse A for our barrel selection. Riding by all of the rickhouses on the way to A was surreal. I realized I was passing by hundreds of barrels that I’d one day be sipping whiskey from – be it in batches or as single barrels – literally living history, crafted from hard work and slowly aging in American Oak. As I said, surreal.
We arrived at Warehouse A and were met by a new friend and stellar photographer, Victor Sizemore. Victor had started his morning shooting pictures for my upcoming book and was now joining us for the barrel selection. Soon after, Bruce arrived and we all talked on the rickhouse porch for a few minutes as Eddie was finishing a barrel selection with another group.
Eddie wrapped up and stepped out of the rickhouse door ready to go. Armed only with an old copper thief, a well-used hammer, and a leather-bound notebook, he guided us into the rickhouse. And the smell … whiskey and wood in an almost indescribable “ancient” scent. It was cool with an odd touch of moisture, yet enticing and relaxing at the same time. Truthfully, it’s the kind of place I’d love to hang a hammock. I thought about the history of the rickhouse, which was built in 1894. Its floors were once walked by James P. Ripy and his four nephews that started Ripy Brothers Distillery, Jimmy Russell’s mentor, Master Distiller Bill Hughes, countless employees and guests for well over a century, and every single Russell that’s ever worked at Wild Turkey. And here we were … walking those very same floors.
With copitas and water bottles in-hand, Eddie started popping the bungs and filling our glasses. Barrel after barrel we tasted – each one with considerable contemplation and joy. There wasn’t a bad one in the bunch (didn’t expect one to be), but with so many quality choices you have to make hard decisions. But who’s complaining? 🙂 We narrowed it down to four – three of which were fairly close in profile. At that point we decided to re-taste blind, so Bruce and JoAnn set that up for us. We again tasted and the choices were unanimous – two barrels from Camp Nelson’s rickhouse F. Beasts of barrels, I must say.
We finished up the blind samples and moved on to tasting two remarkable rye barrels – personal favorites of Bruce Russell. One was pure bubblegum, and if I could’ve taken that barrel home, I damn sure would’ve! Per Bruce, these were barrels originally destined for the upcoming Master’s Keep Cornerstone, but either by chance or circumstance they remained in rickhouse A. Lucky us! It seemed at that point things were winding down, that is until we were drawn to the “truck barrel.”
Earlier in our selection process, an employee walked into the rickhouse and notified Eddie a truck was outside with more barrels. As it turns out, the entire load of the 18-wheeler trailer was a single barrel. It was just sitting there … all alone and begging to be tapped. We all laughed about it, yet felt compelled to ask Eddie about making a tasting happen. Thankfully, he did. We each jumped into the trailer and tasted the barrel. It was a rock solid Turkey profile – “classically modern,” you might say. My guess was Camp Nelson A, and it turned out to be just that. On the spot, Adam, the sponsoring vendor and manager of Lexington Beverage Outlet, decided a third barrel would be purchased. The “truck barrel” would forever be known as “Swan Song: A Barrel to Remember.”
All in all we tasted eleven barrels – fifteen if you count the blind tasting. As you can imagine, we were in need of sustenance, so we said our goodbyes to Eddie, JoAnn, and Warehouse A and headed to Heaven’s to Betsy in downtown Lawrenceburg. Bruce joined us for a friendly lunch – great food, great company, and great conversation. He informed us that Jimmy would be waiting for us back at the Visitors Center, so with full bellies we made our way back to Wild Turkey to see the man himself.
I want to pause for a moment and say that Jimmy Russell is a bona fide national treasure. He is the last of his kind – a master distiller’s master distiller. If you ever have the chance to talk with him, please do. As stubborn as they say Jimmy might be on the job, he is more than personable, patient, and gracious with his customers and fans. He is a true rarity.
One by one we all took our time with Jimmy. He told stories about the old times, signed bottles, cut jokes, and made us feel right at home. And then I had the chance to speak with Jimmy one on one. Half an hour seemed like five minutes. I didn’t want it to end. Unfortunately, there were others waiting, so I said my goodbyes and thanked Jimmy.
I decided I’d spend my last few minutes in the gift shop thinking I’d find something small enough for the flight home. I browsed the selection and chatted with a few bourbon friends in the process – down-to-Earth folks like Scott F. and his good friend Nellie, who were so positive to be around. That’s when I looked over my shoulder to see Jimmy sitting alone at the table. He motioned to me. “Come back over,” he said with a smile and waved me to the table. I sat back down, childish grin and all. We talked more about the old times. I asked him about Master Distiller Bill Hughes and he told me about the day Hughes suffered a stroke in the distillery. Jimmy said they had to carry him out and he seemed to recall it as if it happened yesterday. We talked about Booker Noe and Elmer T. Lee’s importance, as well as Parker Beam’s courageous battle with ALS. Every word from Jimmy was from the heart. It was just as the words embossed on Wild Turkey bottles read: Bold. Genuine. True. That’s Jimmy Russell to me.
I said farewell to Jimmy, Bruce, JoAnn and all of the fine folks at the distillery and headed out with my friend TJ, proprietor of Thompson Woodworks, and his wife, Nikki, for one last bite to eat and a sip or two with Victor Sizemore at Goodfellas in Lexington. Operating out of the original James E. Pepper Distillery, Goodfellas is the kind of place I wish I had in my hometown. The atmosphere, food, and drinks were perfect, as was the service. I enjoyed a well-crafted Rittenhouse Rye Old Fashioned, a tasty 5-year Willett Single Barrel, and a sip of the new Jim Beam Legent (it’s no Master’s Keep Revival – sorry, Fred). But just when I thought my day was done, Victor invited us to an Old Carter Whiskey Co. tasting at Justins’ House of Bourbon. I’m so glad he did.
At Justins’, I met and talked at length with Mark and Sherri Carter. We tasted four barrel-strength rye whiskeys, one barrel-strength bourbon, and one twenty-seven-year American whiskey (likely Seagram’s) – all blends of around five to thirteen barrels each. I’ll have to admit, they were incredibly delicious. Say what you will about sourced whiskey, but the rye bottles were undeniably impressive. There’s just something about a well-aged, barrel-proof 95%-rye mash bill whiskey that explodes in your mouth like a never-ending flavor bomb. And Mark and Sherri were both so pleasant to talk with – full of enthusiasm and open to our honest opinions. I genuinely appreciate their hospitality.
With a long and wondrous day behind me, TJ and Nikki kindly drove me to the airport. With goodbyes exchanged, I walked into the terminal with a huge smile of satisfaction on my face. Since the moment my plane had landed the day before, I’d been in the presence of greatness. A truly beautiful state, a memorable evening with friends and supporters over cherished pours, a visit to the best distillery in the world, amazing whiskey tasted straight from the barrel, precious time with the Russells, food and fellowship with friends old and new … greatness was all around me.
I’m so very grateful to everyone that made this trip so special. I’ll never forget these past two days and I look forward to my next visit with eager joy. And to Jimmy Russell … thank you for taking the time to talk with me and for making Wild Turkey what it is today. Cheers!
Featured story photo by Ryan Alves.