Life is full of surprises. Cliché? Sure. But, true.
I awoke at 4:00 AM excited for my Tuesday morning flight to Kentucky. As I hastily snoozed my alarm, I noticed my flight had been delayed by two hours. No worries. A quick rebook via Delta’s app and done. Extra Zs, and I gladly took them.
6:00 AM and another notification. My flight had been delayed again. Thankfully, my connecting flight survived the rebooked arrival window. Even so, I figured it was probably best to head to the airport. And that I did.
10:00 AM: Security was a breeze (too easy). I sauntered to the terminal refreshed and ready to fly. Clear blue skies. Everything seemed perfect – then – yet another delay.
And that was just the start of a chaotic day of travel (with very little traveling). By early afternoon, my flight had been canceled altogether, and with it, my hopes of making my 4:00 PM New Riff bourbon selection. To add insult to injury, the airport bar didn’t carry Wild Turkey (I settled on Maker’s Mark). Thankfully, I have good friends like Tony Konja and Shem Coward of Keg N Bottle. After a few phone calls and well-timed texts, a swift swap in airlines and some speedy assistance from a stressed out American Airlines rep, I was off to Reagan International.
About that New Riff pick …
While some may have canceled a private barrel selection they’d never attend, I have the benefit of an amazingly passionate and whiskey-talented community, Russell’s Renegades, to rely on. And that Tuesday, they performed exceptionally. Not only did these individuals select a stunning bourbon, they made me proud – representing the Renegades in true form. I’m sincerely grateful to Aaron, Elliott, Josh, Nikki, Stephen, and TJ, as well as Justins’ House of Bourbon for sponsoring the barrel. Thank you, all. And a very special thanks to New Riff and Creola Dickerson for the excellent communication and hospitality.
I arrived at Reagan International in a bit of a rush. I had only a few minutes to catch my connecting flight to Louisville. So what did I do? I plowed through the crowd like a fighting bull and ran the moving sidewalks like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. I made it! And soon after, I was Kentucky bound.
Most flights are a mix of small talk, sleep, iPhone Solitaire, and mindless snacking and ear popping. This flight was different. My seatmate was Judy from Indiana, and we hit it right off. For 81 years, Judy has every bit of zeal to best a 21-year-old. We talked about our families, our former careers (we both worked for banks), and our love for Kentucky. We talked about her grandmother, who in her youth survived a devastating tornado by hanging on to a door, flying a block from what was once her home. We talked, and talked, and talked. Fellow passengers were either jealous of our banter, or mildly annoyed (there were mumbles). I’m honestly not sure which and I honestly don’t care. After a day of ups and downs (mostly downs), Judy provided a much-needed positive perspective. She reminded me of what was important in life and to make the best of the time I have. It was just the lesson I needed. Judy, wherever you are, you have my heartfelt gratitude.
Kentucky Bourbon, Irish Pizza
I landed at Muhammad Ali International around 9:45 PM. Though exhausted, there’s something invigorating about arriving in Louisville. After a prompt Uber, I checked into the historic Seelbach Hotel. It was my first stay at the Seelbach, and I couldn’t have been more pleased. Early twentieth-century elegance with essential modern conveniences … And it felt like bourbon. I called home to say my goodnights, freshened up, and headed out to grab some 101 and dinner with my friends Aaron and TJ at O’Shea’s. (I highly recommend the Ultimate Pepperoni Pizza, but be warned, that bad boy is hot!)
It’s always nice seeing familiar faces when visiting Kentucky. I’ve known Aaron and TJ for years, but with rare exception, our discussions typically exist in text format. To sit together at a bar, sip a pour or two, and break bread over casual conversation is something to be treasured in a pandemic-weary world. As Judy from Indiana might say, appreciate the time you have. And that’s exactly what I did that evening.
Fortunately, our night was just beginning. Across the street at Bar Expo, we met up with Benny Hurwitz, brand ambassador for Wild Turkey, and a crew of Campari executives and representatives. Folks like Andrea, JoAnn, RJ, and Sean were an absolute pleasure to chat with. They were so warm and welcoming, I couldn’t help but share the latest proof edit of my second book (coming soon!). Needless to say, I was relieved by their enthusiasm and encouragement for Wild Turkey Musings (significant credit to Ricky Frame and Victor Sizemore for their visual talents). I should also note that Expo’s “Summer’s Hold” is a spectacular cocktail.
The hours flew by, as they often do when surrounded by well-crafted drinks and quality company. Before I knew it, the night was over. But there was no cause for disappointment. Besides, adequate rest was needed for the big day ahead – a barrel selection at Wild Turkey! We said our farewells as Expo closed up and departed to our hotels. Very soon, we would be sipping Turkey straight from the barrel.
Good Day Sunshine
The great thing about afternoon barrel picks … plenty of time for a hearty breakfast. That being said, I don’t advise walking ten blocks in near-90-degree temps to eat. But hey, I’ve lived in the Deep South my entire life. It’s doable.
Louisville’s Biscuit Belly was my destination, and I power-strolled that trek with a hunger-fueled determination (dodging the morning sun in the shade of city skyscrapers whenever possible). But it wasn’t just a filling meal I was looking forward to, I would be meeting Tony and Shem from Keg N Bottle in person for the first time.
Those familiar with my barrel selections know that Keg N Bottle is an invaluable partner, and they were sponsoring not one, but three Wild Turkey barrels for Russell’s Renegades that day. They also ordered my breakfast in advance, which was a real treat for an out-of-shape, middle-aged blogger. Thanks again, fellas.
After a super-satisfying biscuit and coffee, as well as some timely dog talk (my family has a new puppy), we were met by Campari’s Tony Magliocco for a ride back to our hotels. I’d spoken with Tony before by phone, but Wednesday was our first face-to-face meeting. Such a cool guy. We chatted about our fondness for the Russells, as well as the first (often forgotten) Master’s Keep, which only intensified my eagerness to see Jimmy, Eddie, and Bruce again.
Just a few hours to go …
The drive to Lawrenceburg went by in the blink of an eye. It helps when you have someone like Aaron to talk to. I mean, the man loves some Turkey (and he has one helluva dusty collection to prove it).
We reached Heavens to Betsy with plenty of time to catch up with our friends Ed and Kevin, not to mention, a chance to enjoy the best damn sandwiches in the Commonwealth. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just ask the Bourbon Pursuit gang, who were finishing their lunches when we walked in. We wished Kenny, Ryan, and company the best as they set off to meet Bruce Russell in Wild Turkey’s rickhouse A. We’d be seeing them again, but first, sustenance.
Naturally, Heavens to Betsy hit the spot. We made the short trip to the distillery, where we were greeted by our fellow selection team member, Mike. The five of us walked to the Station Master’s House, which, for now, has resumed its former role as the Wild Turkey Visitors Center (the official visitors center is currently undergoing renovations). Inside was a “who’s who” of bourbon social media – Jason and Scott of the Mash & Journey whiskey club, Bill McBrayer of McBrayer Legacy Spirits, Michael Porter of Sunday Evening Scotch, and the Turkey man himself, Bo Garrett. But as thrilled as I was to hang out with these fine gentlemen, Jimmy was waiting for us.
Spending one-on-one time with Jimmy Russell never gets old. Never. I’d seen Jimmy back in March, but only briefly. Wednesday was special, as I was able to talk with him about my book (the pandemic kept us apart for nearly two years). He opened the cover and stopped on the first late-50’s aerial map. Within a matter of seconds, Jimmy was schooling everyone in the room on the layout of the old distillery. He knew those buildings like the back of his hand (many of which no longer exist), pointing out various homes, roads, and railways, along with several important distillery structures. It was amazing. And I have to give Jimmy credit – I think he sold a few books that day. I’ll never forget him signing a copy of American Spirit, then passing it to me to cosign with his trademark gold pen. It was the kindest gesture. But everyone knows the gold ink is reserved for Jimmy, so I used the black Sharpie.
It was in that surreal moment that I received a text message – we were 15 minutes late for our barrel pick with Eddie and Bruce. At least we had a good excuse, right?
The five of us moseyed across the street and up the hill to Tyrone’s famed rickhouse A. One could practically taste the aging barrels flanking us, with A on our right and B on our left. We turned the corner to find the Bourbon Pursuit team on the rickhouse porch chatting with Eddie and Bruce. And yes, there was the obligatory “we took all the good ones” joke from the fellas. But this is Wild Turkey. They’re all good! 😉
Joshing aside, it was awesome to see everyone gathered at rickhouse A. It’s one of those few “real” bourbon landmarks – sites only the whiskey geeks know of and cherish. Standing on that porch, you always see smiles. Always. It’s magical. I just wished I had more time to shoot the breeze with everyone. But duty called.
Aaron, Ed, Kevin, Mike, and I entered rickhouse A, joined by Tony and Shem, as well as Tony Magliocco from Campari. Fantastic company! And Eddie too?! Outside of a 2020 Facetime barrel selection and a handful of 2021 Zoom webinars, the last time I spent an afternoon with Eddie Russell was late 2019. Now, I’m not downplaying the fact that Covid is still raging, but I’ll shoot straight: Then and there, things felt normal. Hell, better than normal. Things felt right.
Immediately, we set to work finding barrels for Russell’s Renegades. I’m uncertain of the exact number, but there had to be three or four dozen to taste from. Hammer in hand, Bruce led the way, walking us towards a seemingly endless row of 2013 distilled Camp Nelson A matured barrels. He stopped at the head of the line. “Y’all really need to taste this one.” It was the first barrel the Bourbon Pursuit team tried. According to Bruce, the team debated claiming it, but were hesitant because it was the proverbial first barrel. Bruce popped the bung and filled each one of our copitas. I don’t think a single person wasn’t impressed and #22-0306 instantly made our favorites list.
We moved down the line, skipping over barrels here and there. Bruce had a method that reminded me of his father, except Bruce used his phone for info; Eddie always used an old leather notebook. And there was Eddie – looking on as Bruce held the reins. It was just a flash of a thought, but I wondered if there was ever a day – surely there must’ve been – when Jimmy looked on as Eddie guided guests through a similar tasting in the very same rickhouse. These are the little things the public rarely sees. It’s what distinguishes Wild Turkey from countless other brands – a multi-generational bloodline encompassing the make and the makers.
After a few solid sippers, Bruce landed on a barrel with a stubborn bung. He hammered and hammered, when suddenly, an audible “Hisssssss.” We all chuckled and dubbed #22-0290 “The Hisser.” And the best part about it? It was a surefire winner. I just love a whiskey with a good story!
We sampled a few more from Camp Nelson A then made our way around the corner to the right side of the rickhouse. There we tasted two from Tyrone B, each with an enticing bubblegum-esque nose. One was destined as a collaboration barrel between Bourbon Pursuit, Mash & Journey, It’s Bourbon Night, and myself, the other landed on our short list of possible selections. But there were more bungs to pop, so we did!
Most private barrel selections have an “ah-ha” moment. Barrel #22-2148 from Tyrone A was ours. The second we nosed it, we knew … a damn fine bourbon – signature Wild Turkey with a level up in vibrancy and sweetness. Undoubtedly, we had our second selection. We just needed to narrow down our third barrel.
Remember when I said life is full of surprises? Just when we thought the only task left was debating our final selection, the Tonys hit us with a whopper – we needed that plus a fourth barrel to be bottled as a Kentucky Spirit. Resting palates be damned! It was a challenge we gladly accepted.
When it comes to barrel selections at most distilleries, you have a finite amount of whiskey to taste. Often it’s as limited as three barrels to choose from. That’s not Wild Turkey. But the trick is knowing when to stop looking forward, and when to start looking back. We returned to that original line of CNA barrels. There were so many great ones to choose from (and we tasted and retasted). But that very first barrel … tasting it again only reaffirmed our affection for it. And like that, our third Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel selection was decided. All that was left was a Kentucky Spirit.
One thing I’ve learned on private selections, particularly Wild Turkey, is to listen to the producers who spend day after day tasting their whiskey straight from the barrel. After all, they know it better than anyone else. So when Bruce recommended we taste a barrel he’d previously earmarked as a favorite, we took his advice. Like so many of those 2013 CNAs, #22-0300 was a marriage of sweet and spicy – well balanced, with unmistakable Turkey character.
And that was that – four barrels in the books thanks to Keg N Bottle, Campari, the Russells, and my dedicated selection team. But the fun times weren’t over. Not yet. As we exited rickhouse A we ran into Jason, Scott, and the team from the Mash & Journey barrel club. And yes, there was the obligatory “we took all the good ones” joke from us. (I mean, you gotta.) We wished them all the best (I think they snagged the Tyrone B bubblegum barrel) and said farewell to Lawrenceburg. Well … there was a brief pit stop at Four Roses. Unfortunately, we arrived ten minutes before closing. C’est la vie! Not to worry, we had quite a night ahead of us.
Mr. Rare Character
Some of you reading might remember the name Pablo Moix from my “Spirit of Collaboration” post. I can’t say enough good things about him. When my Tuesday morning flight was canceled, I reached out to Pablo to inquire about a last-minute barrel selection with Rare Character Whiskey. My objective was to spend time with the friends I missed at New Riff and to do so by selecting a special bourbon or rye. When Pablo replied he wasn’t in Kentucky, I chalked it up as fate and moved on. But before I could put my phone away, he again replied, this time stating he’d just booked a flight and would meet us Wednesday evening. What?! Again, I can’t say enough good things about Pablo Moix.
In what might seem like a repeat of my March visit, we convened at Louisville’s North of Bourbon. And just like last time, the food, whiskey, service, and frozen bourbon coffee were top notch. We had quite the crowd – Pablo, Andy Shapira, Andy Thomas, Tony, Shem, and friends from the Russell’s Renegades New Riff and Wild Turkey selection teams. And as always, Pablo’s positivity and generosity was boundless.
After dinner, we gathered at Neat. I saw Four Roses’ Michael Lazar at the bar, so I took the seat next to him. We spent some time chatting about Lawrenceburg’s distilling history over a pour of 1990’s Henry McKenna (appreciate it, Aaron). Everytime I’m around Michael I learn something new. I sure hope he writes a book one day. Oh, and how could I forget? Bruce Russell was there. Could the night get any better? (Hold on. It actually does.)
Within the first hour, an impressive number of vintage pours had crossed the bar, all while meeting and mingling with folks from all over. I ran into another Russell’s Renegades member, Michael (different Michael), as well as a cordial couple, Nicholas and Kristen, who follow this blog. They asked for my top two Wild Turkey recommendations based on what Neat had to offer, so I suggested a 1990 Cheesy Gold Foil and an early 1980’s 101 (I believe it was the ‘82 I had in March). They weren’t disappointed.
Before too long, the bartender locked up and we had an impromptu private party. Tony ordered pizza for everyone, then Pablo brought out his box of goodies. We kicked off the tasting with an Amburana finished rye (MGP 51% rye recipe). Damn! Now that was some flavorful whiskey. While there were similarities to Starlight’s Cigar Batch Bourbon, the rye added an extra layer of zesty spice, keeping the Amburana’s heady sweetness in check.
Up next were two white port finished whiskeys (both rye, I believe) and a PX Sherry finished rye (MGP 95% rye recipe). The port finishes were intriguing, but the sherry finish … so beautifully done. Our selection team was unified and determined; we had to have it. Good thing Tony was there!
And last but not least, we tried an incredible six-year 95% Kentucky rye distilled by Steve Nally. Everyone was a fan, and that “everyone” included a certain Russell. 😉 Special thanks to Ryan Alves of Justins’ House of Bourbon for sponsoring this rye barrel for Russell’s Renegades.
With two Rare Character Whiskey selections behind us, we began making plans for the remainder of our evening. But just before leaving, the bartender informed me that Owen, Neat’s owner, had a Turkey I needed to try – a late-1990’s Wild Turkey Stampede. It was a sealed bottle, the first of the two travel-retail releases. (I could tell by the forward-facing bird.)
For those unfamiliar, Stampede’s packaging and accompanying story are somewhat gimmicky – an old flask bottle with a nod to the American Old West – but the bourbon inside is pure dusty Turkey. And boy, was it tasty! The 105-proof whiskey reminded me of a “spiced up” 101. Not quite 1990’s Rare Breed, but pushing that direction (in other words, delicious). Thank you, Owen, for allowing me to check Stampede off my must-try list.
Into the Sunrise
The rest of the night was a whirlwind of delightful drinks and jovial conversation. We stopped by Expo to hang out with Bruce, Benny, JoAnn, and friends. Suffice it to say, we had a blast. After Expo, we visited Louisville’s High Horse (a first-time stop for me). As luck would have it, the bartender, Josh, had a “Rare Bird” t-shirt on. It wasn’t a Rare Bird 101 shirt, however. If I recall correctly, it came from a beer joint in Arizona. But no matter! I took it as a sign that we found the right place. And we did. It was the perfect spot to close out our adventure. And my last libation? Old Faithful: Russell’s Reserve 10-Year.
The next morning … well, let’s just say thank the Mighty Gobble for late checkouts. After some coffee (lots of coffee) and a lunch-hour breakfast, I was off to the airport. No delays, no cancellations, no rush. Just plenty of time to nap and reminisce about the past 48 hours. What a trip! I’m so very fortunate to have such wonderful friends in the whiskey community. And Kentucky … It’s my home away from home. I’ve always felt that way. I imagine I always will.
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