This past Wednesday I had the pleasure of spending time with a group of wonderful people. We ate; we talked; we sipped bourbon. It was fellowship at its finest, all connected through a single passion … Wild Turkey.
It’s not everyday that Eddie Russell comes to town. Maybe once or twice a year in South Carolina (if we’re lucky). But when he does, we make the most of it. Thanks to Campari’s Amy McClam, as well as Eddie Wales and Motor Supply Co. for once again hosting an event to remember. My gratitude to you all. You made my week – hell, my month. And I think it’s about time I share it with the world.
Wednesday morning started much like every other. Get up. Brew coffee. Drink coffee. Get the kids ready. Drink coffee. Get the kids to school. Drink coffee. Hit the road. But this day was graced with a change of pace. I wasn’t heading for work as usual. I was heading to see Eddie Russell – one of the two best master distillers in the world. (It’s a fact.) I would also be joining friends, both old and new. With all the excitement, surely the hour drive would go by in the blink of an eye. Well, so I thought. We talk about the surety of death and taxes … we seem to forget about traffic.
I arrived twenty minutes late, but thankfully Amy was accommodating of my tardiness and delayed the formalities (thanks Amy). After a few words of introduction, the brunch commenced. Chef Wesley Fulmer once again outdid himself and we all filled our plates (and bellies) with diced potatoes, poached egg, smoked salmon, country ham biscuits, and roasted New York Strip. But you can’t have a Wild Turkey brunch without bourbon, can you? Hell no. That’s when Motor Supply’s head barman, Josh Streetman, stepped in with three Turkey-based cocktails: “Cereal 101,” the “Pineapple Manhattan,” and the “Breakfast Julep.” I opted for the Pineapple Manhattan with zero regrets. Damn, what a fantastic cocktail!
After some casual table talk, an impromptu cork-popping session began. I’ll have to give credit to my bourbon amigo Bryant for sounding the charge (at least at our table) with a 2014 rickhouse B Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit. It’s rather uncommon to find notably unique modern Kentucky Spirits (at least in comparison to Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel), but this one had that touch – a nice candy sweetness with mouth-coating baking spice. Excellent.
And then it was time for Eddie to speak. From history, to statistics, to fishing trips with legends like Booker Noe and Elmer T. Lee, Eddie shared a captivating and informative insider’s perspective of Wild Turkey, both past and present. But I think what struck me most was his sheer humility and respect. He talked about his father, Jimmy’s, near-sixty-five-year career at the distillery with fondness and admiration. As sure as Eddie and Jimmy sometimes (probably often) butt heads, it’s easy to see that Eddie’s respect for Jimmy is immense. Austin, Nichols may have created the Wild Turkey brand, but Eddie made it perfectly clear – Jimmy Russell built it.
Then Eddie discussed the present and future – working with his son Bruce, the origins of Master’s Keep Cornerstone, and some new whiskeys currently in development. Ever wonder what Rare Breed would be like as a straight rye blend? Well, you’ll soon wonder no more. Also, the new Master’s Keep is in the works. No details yet, though Eddie stated it would be a throwback. And finally, the last of the old 107 barrel-entry proof whiskey will soon be bottled. How does it taste? Eddie mentioned the letters “C G F.” I think that says enough right there!
After fielding several questions, Eddie and Amy thanked attendees and the brunch concluded. But the day was far from over – the fun only beginning. It was time for Russell’s Reserve barrel selections!
Gathered at a table with Eddie, the talented crew at Motor Supply Co. were the first to select. In my experience, Motor Supply Co. has never picked a mediocre barrel of whiskey. In fact, two of my favorite Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel selections of all time were selected by Motor Supply Co. While I wasn’t in on their tasting, I could tell when it was done they were pleased with their choice.
Next up was our group – five fellas (including myself) from all walks of life just happy to be there.
There was Wes, who I’ve known since I was 15 years old. It was his first barrel pick, and I was damn proud to share it with him.
And Bryant, who I first met two years ago at an event with Jimmy and Eddie Russell. We’ve been friends since.
And last but certainly not least, James and Dylan, whose dedication to Wild Turkey cannot be overstated. They drove all the way from Louisiana to visit with Eddie and select a special barrel of Wild Turkey. James is a gifted carpenter (and possibly the kindest soul on Earth) who hand-crafted our Patreon 101 Anniversary boxes that were gifted to the Russells last year. And it was a particularly special day for Dylan, who lost his father, Derek (a bourbon fan like us) seven years ago. It was Derek’s birthday, August 14th. He would’ve been 56 years old. I’m so glad Dylan could celebrate his father’s life through a shared love of bourbon.
We gathered at the table ready to sip barrel-proof Wild Turkey bourbon. And that we did. One by one Eddie filled our glasses. We tasted four barrels altogether, but truthfully, that’s all we needed. Having split opinions on the barrels prior, when the fourth was poured it was decided. It had exactly what we were looking for – layers of flavor with a remarkably complex finish. What did we choose? Barrel #19-0453, distilled November 18, 2009, and matured on the sixth floor of Camp Nelson rickhouse F. A damn good selection and one I look forward to seeing in my cabinet very soon.
With our barrel decided, it was the Columbia Bourbon Collective’s turn at selecting (and our turn for lunch). Wes, James, Dylan and I grabbed another table – each ordering a tasty meal. For the record, I’m a crab cake nut. If I see crab cakes on a menu, I browse no further. The crab cake sandwich Chef Fulmer whipped up was nothing short of a coastal delight. Could I have eaten two? Yes. Three? Probably. It was just so damn delicious, as was the bourbon and various cocktails we sipped along with our meals. I’d brought along a Wild Turkey American Spirit. Dylan brought a barrel-aged Manhattan he’d been saving for the occasion. And James – well, James brought a lot of whiskey. 🙂 Breaking bread with generous friends over memorable pours … what more could one want?
After lunch, we spent our last hour or two with Eddie. I had the opportunity to share some early designs of my upcoming Wild Turkey book. Thanks to Daniel and Ricky at Mascot Books for making that possible. And thanks so much for the feedback, Eddie. But just as things appeared to be winding down, I seized the opportunity of a lifetime – sipping late-1960’s Wild Turkey with Eddie Russell.
Thanks to two bourbon associates (Nick a patron, and Michael, an Instagram buddy) we had the pleasure of comparing a 1968 Wild Turkey 101 8-year (New York, NY) and a 1969 J.T.S. Brown & Sons 86-proof (Lawrenceburg, KY). The ‘69 J.T.S. Brown was produced at what would eventually become the Wild Turkey Distillery (bottled with Jimmy Russell as master distiller), but the ‘68 Wild Turkey 101 could’ve been sourced from anywhere in Kentucky. However, it’s long been said that Austin, Nichols was purchasing barrels from Anderson Co./J.T.S. Brown & Sons years before their purchase of the distillery in 1971.
Did the two bourbons taste the same – or at least similar despite their proof difference? Surprisingly (perhaps unsurprisingly), yes. I felt the ‘68 101 had more spice and length in the finish (likely from its proof), while Eddie remarked on what he described as its “saltiness.” He stated he gets that trait in many bourbons of this era, and while not exactly “salty” in the conventional sense, it’s admittedly the best word he can find to describe that characteristic. As for the ‘69 J.T.S. Brown, I was stunned by its comparatively full flavor for its lower proof.
I asked Eddie if he thought the ‘68 101 was sourced from J.T.S. Brown (I sure thought so). While he noted the similarities, he felt the ‘68 101 wasn’t entirely from J.T.S. Brown, though he was certain it was in the batch. He felt it contained bourbon from several sources – possibly Old Boone, though we’ll never know for sure. The bottom line is, if you’re looking for late 1960’s Wild Turkey, you might seek out a bottle of J.T.S. Brown & Sons from the same era. At the very least it should be cheaper. You’ll also be sipping similar whiskey – whiskey that’s likely 100% Jimmy Russell produced.
Thanks again to Nick and Michael for such a rare and enjoyable experience. Both bourbons were nothing short of amazing and undoubtedly worthy of considerable praise.
After our dusty Turkey tasting it was time for Eddie to depart. We wished him safe travels and finished the last of our pours. It had been an incredible day. So much so, I don’t think I’d ever had six hours fly by so quickly.
The conversation among friends carried on for awhile, but unfortunately all good things come to an end. I said my goodbyes to Bryant, Wes, James and Dylan, but didn’t leave empty handed. There were thoughtful gifts, like a handmade turkey feather quill pen from James (get ready to see this at book signings 🙂 ). Oh, and whiskey too, like the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon selected by Motor Supply Co. earlier this year (which I’m sipping on now). Thanks so much, Josh!
I stopped at the Starbucks a block away before hitting the road. I had a lot to think about over my triple shot of espresso – great food, fun conversation, fantastic whiskey, and the better part of a day spent with a true master distiller, Eddie Russell. So much to be thankful for. In a world caught up in bottom lines and political gains, it’s comforting to be a part of a community that sees a different side of things. We enjoy life. We stop and “smell the bourbon,” if you will. We welcome all without apprehension or prejudice and exchange our most cherished pours. And here’s the kicker – it doesn’t take rare, high-dollar whiskey to make it happen. Wild Turkey works just fine – damn near perfect, if you ask me. Cheers to Jimmy and Eddie for that.