If you’d told me ten years ago that I’d be sharing the history of Wild Turkey Bourbon with bartenders from around the world, I would’ve chuckled. Bourbon was barely on my radar then. Wild Turkey, a fuzzy college memory.
Standing on the porch of Tyrone’s historic rickhouse A, looking out over the picturesque Kentucky River, I couldn’t help but pinch myself. I was living a dream. Everything I’d done – every bourbon I’d sipped, every word I’d typed to that very day – had led me to that moment.
I don’t consider myself a spiritual person, but the morning of Friday, August 19th was moving. More on that later.
I boarded my flight in Augusta early Thursday morning. Having arrived at the airport later than planned, I rushed straight from security to boarding. No worries. I made it. Even so, stress still flowed through my veins. (It should’ve been a second cup of coffee.)
Takeoff was delayed due to weight issues (thankfully, my luggage was spared from being tossed onto another flight), but we eventually hit the runway and were on our way to Dallas/Fort Worth. The stress began to fade. That is, until I realized I might miss my next flight to Louisville. Somehow, I’d lost an hour. With fumbling thumbs, I quickly emailed a few folks to let them know I was running behind and placed my iPhone in airplane mode.
What happened? How did we fall behind? Well, it turns out we didn’t. And I’m an idiot. You see, there are these things called time zones. (I really needed that second cup of coffee.)
I landed in Kentucky early that afternoon. The weather was beautiful and everything felt right. While a greasy lunch at the airport was tempting, I decided it was best to secure my rental car and head to the hotel. After a short drive to downtown Louisville, I made it to the Hyatt Regency, grabbed a sandwich and coffee at the Starbucks in the lobby, and checked in. No hiccups. No mysterious lost time.
I settled into my room, but only briefly. I was eager to visit Justins’ House of Bourbon, as my buddy Ryan Alves had assured me exciting pours were waiting. And he was right. I kicked off my day with their house Old Fashioned, which was expertly crafted by Miriam with one of Justins’ New Riff Single Barrel selections. After a quick browse of the store, I chatted at length with Chrissy and Tim, who I’ve followed on social media for years but never met in person until Thursday. I also talked with Justins’ “new guy,” John, who recently finished reading American Spirit. (I genuinely appreciate conversations with my readers. Thanks, John!)
Before I knew it a few hours had passed, and in the process, a Sazerac 18, a Four Roses Al Young 50th, and Justins’ own private-label, a fourteen-year Kentucky bourbon. Each was incredibly delicious, but that Saz 18 was something special.
Hunger eventually got the best of me, so I grabbed an Uber to North of Bourbon. Predictable? Sure. What can I say? I love the place. Crab Rice Dressing (yum) and a frozen bourbon coffee (double yum) and I was off to meet my friend Michael Lazar at Neat.
The Wild Turkey selection at Neat is impressive. If you’ve never been, I recommend finding a few hours to do so (and bring your wallet). Sitting there with Michael, discussing bourbon history and post-Covid realities, he hit me with a head scratcher – “Of all the Turkey bottles up there, if you could only choose one, which would you recommend this evening?”
For a little perspective, Neat’s shelves showcase numerous (practically sequential) vintage Wild Turkey 101 8-Year bottlings, as well as Donut, Split Label, CGF, etc. And I had to pick just one. So what did I choose? Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond.
With so many noteworthy dusty bottles to try, it may surprise some of you reading that I requested Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond. It surprised Michael. But as they say, tasting is believing. Besides, dusty whiskeys are just flavors. I’m more impressed with a stellar modern whiskey than I am with a vintage batch bottled in the Glut Era. It’s not that I don’t love the profile of dusty whiskeys – especially bourbon – but if you sip enough of them, they can lean predictable. Imagine eating chocolate ice cream every day. As tasty as it may be, at some point you’d find yourself in the mood for something else.
But why am I even explaining myself? It’s Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond for Turkey’s sake! I rated it a 5/5 for a reason. At seventeen years from the best distillery in the world, you really can’t go wrong. We savored our pours and remarked on the elegance of the bourbon’s lengthy oak-laden finish. It was the perfect whiskey to close out the night. I thanked Michael for the always-awesome conversation and caught a ride back to my hotel. I had a big day ahead of me.
You likely gathered the purpose of my trip to Kentucky from the title of this post. For those unfamiliar, Camp Runamok is a six day summer camp designed to educate and immerse bartenders into Kentucky bourbon culture. Each day is sponsored by a different company (typically a producer) and last Friday was Wild Turkey’s day. As it turns out, Campari had a staffing shortage, so they graciously invited me on as an instructor. My job was to teach brand history, lead campers (or “Squirrels” as they’re affectionately known) through a tour of Tyrone’s rickhouse A, and ultimately, share my love for Wild Turkey. In a nutshell (no squirrel pun intended), a dream job.
I awoke at 6:00 AM refreshed and ready to meet the campers. The drive to Lawrenceburg zoomed by. For what it’s worth, I’m never bored riding through Kentucky. I’ve said it many times before and I mean it: it’s my home away from home. I suppose I was a little too eager to get to the distillery (do you blame me?) and arrived a good hour and a half before kickoff. But there’s no such thing as too much time visiting Wild Turkey.
The first person I ran into was brand builder extraordinaire, Bo Garrett. Bo parked right next to me, so we walked to the Station Master’s House together. If you aren’t familiar with Bo, I highly recommend his recent appearance on the Bourbon Pursuit podcast. Bo isn’t just an employee, he loves Wild Turkey as much as I do. I couldn’t have planned a better way to start my day.
And it only got better. Eddie Russell walked in several minutes later, followed by Jimmy. Eddie talked about the new Single Rickhouse release and how thrilled he was with its profile (he should be). More importantly, I was able to give him a proof copy of my latest book, Wild Turkey Musings. But Eddie couldn’t stay long. He had an interview with Fred Minnick about the Kentucky Bourbon Benefit, as Wild Turkey had donated several impressive lots for Eastern Kentucky flood relief. (The event raised $1.4M.)
With Bruce Russell, JoAnn Street, and Benny Hurwitz on the way, I spent my last 15 minutes with Jimmy Russell. I gave him a copy of Wild Turkey Musings, which he flipped through on the spot. We also browsed some old photographs sent to me by my friend, Matthew Houchin. Jimmy had worked with his grandfather, Thomas, a distiller for J.T.S. Brown & Sons, back in the 1950s and 1960s. I don’t think it would shock any of you to hear that Jimmy recognized every location and nearly every individual in those old photos. Looking back, I should’ve taken notes, but I was too elated and enthralled to even consider it.
As always, there’s never enough time with Jimmy. I could’ve sat with him all day. But it was time for work, as Bruce, JoAnn, and Benny had arrived. We chatted for a bit, then walked across the street to rickhouse A. After a few minutes of last-minute planning and protocol review, they headed off to their respective stations. JoAnn was leading a tour of the bottling facility, and Bruce and Benny had a special tasting prepared for campers. I was all alone in rickhouse A … and it was surreal.
If you had a half hour to yourself in Wild Turkey’s rickhouse A, what would you do? If you answered “thief whiskey,” you’d be wrong. Nice try, though. Not that it wouldn’t be a memorable experience. It damn sure would. But I’m a professional. At least I strive to be. Besides, there’s plenty to do there with your other four senses.
The first thing I did was soak it all in. Walking the bottom floor, as familiar as I was thanks to private barrel selections, was a whole new experience. I took my time, studied the barrels, admired the craftsmanship of the structure, and absorbed the wonderful scent like a rare perfume. I climbed the old plank stairs to the second floor, then the third, and all the way up to the top floor.
If you examine rickhouse A from the exterior, it appears six stories tall. Interestingly, it has a seventh, though technically it’s more of an attic – a “faux floor,” if you will. The temperature shift from floor to floor, while gradual, was notable. By the time I reached the top, you could feel the summer heat (even on what this South Carolinian would consider a mildly warm day). I read barrel heads, searched for oddities, and snapped as many pictures as I could before the sweat kicked in. Then it was back to the first floor for a refreshing cool-off.
As stated in my introduction, I don’t consider myself a spiritual person. But that doesn’t mean I’m not moved with emotion. Given the right occasion or circumstances, pure inspiration – even transcendence – is entirely possible. This may sound silly, but for a brief moment that Friday, I saw myself in third person. Ridiculous, right? But that’s the best way to describe it. I’m not saying it was an out-of-body experience. I don’t believe in that stuff. I’m saying it was a mirror-esque perspective. From writing whiskey reviews on Reddit in 2015, to standing alone in Wild Turkey’s most famous rickhouse in 2022, there was profound reflection and gratitude.
And then it happened – the first bus of Squirrels pulled up. As the campers unloaded, I made a quick change of plans. Instead of speaking to the group from the porch (the more formal option), I decided to join them in their break tent which was pitched a short distance from the rickhouse. It was the best decision I made all day.
In the tent, I met eyes, watched expressions, and gauged the energy. Granted, some campers were probably managing a not-so-easy morning from their evening festivities, but even so, I didn’t notice. It only felt positive. I introduced myself, then dove into a quick history of Wild Turkey, starting with the Ripy family and ending with the Russell family. Everyone listened. To say the crowd was warm would be an understatement. They seemed truly interested in what I had to say, and that meant the world to me. I closed to the sound of applause. And you know what? It choked me up a bit.
From A to Z
With a few words of caution (it’s a 128-year-old work site), we entered rickhouse A. I took a minute to show the Squirrels how to decode a barrel head, which would come in handy as they explored the racks, and off they went! Some wandered the floors in groups, others individually, but everyone had fun. Each bartender I talked with was kind and engaging. I answered questions about whiskey maturation, Wild Turkey’s private barrel selection program, and various bourbon-centric topics. I’ll admit, it was a refreshing change of pace from the everyday bourbon geek banter. Whereas some of us enthusiasts are nerdy, some of us are snobby, and some of us are nerdy and snobby, I got none of that from the campers. Don’t get me wrong, I love my people, but it was enlightening to witness things from a different point of view.
After a half hour or so, with some Squirrels taking time to visit Jimmy at the Station Master’s House, we wrapped up the rickhouse tour. It all happened in the blink of an eye. But my work had just begun. There were two buses of campers left, and with the confidence of the first behind me, I was eager to do it all again.
The second group of campers was just as welcoming and receptive as the first, but there was an added bonus – after touring rickhouse A, I hitched a ride on their bus to lunch at rickhouse Z. It’s funny, but it reminded me of my time in the USC marching band – that unique sense of comradery, merriment, and sweat. I’d be lying if I said a part of me didn’t want to head back to camp with them, but lunch would have to do.
We arrived at rickhouse Z and broke bread at tables lined parallel to endless rows of multi-tiered barrels. I’ve never had a dining experience quite like it before, and probably never will, but it kicked ass. If you love the smell of bourbon (who doesn’t?) … Well, let’s just say it gave new meaning to the word “atmosphere.” Also, I don’t recall who catered the lunch (shame on me), but it was exceptionally tasty.
With full bellies, the buses loaded up for their respective final stations for the day. I joined the gang on the third bus, which allowed me an opportunity to at last meet Campari’s National Portfolio Brand Ambassador, Anne Louise Marquis, who I’ve long followed on Instagram. As expected, Anne Louise was every bit as energetic and passionate as she is online. Needless to say, Campari is fortunate to have her on their team.
We unloaded at rickhouse A. It was my last hour on that hallowed bourbon ground, so naturally, I savored every minute. At the end of my presentation, I made it a point to stress the importance of Jimmy Russell and the Russell family legacy. While Wild Turkey’s past is storied – elaborately so at times – it would be nothing without Jimmy. Through years of hard times, when many distilleries closed their doors or changed their products as a means of survival, Jimmy kept making bourbon. He held tight to the lessons learned from his mentor, Bill Hughes – sometimes at a financial loss, but never losing faith in what he knew best. What we have today is a testament to his persistence (and stubbornness).
With one final stroll of the rickhouse floors, I said goodbye to Anne Louise and my new Squirrel friends. It was a day I’ll never forget – for multiple reasons. Personally, it was life-changing. But outside of feelings of joy and accomplishment, I realized something so many in whiskey enthusiasm forget: Bartenders are the backbone of this industry. They don’t produce, they don’t consume, they endeavor to craft and serve. Were it not for our bartenders, the brands we adore and fawn over would likely be shadows of their present-day success. In many ways, bartenders are the quintessential ambassadors of spirits. So the next time you stop by your favorite bar or speakeasy, tip well. The bounty of whiskey you love now is largely their doing.
Cigars and Bourbon on Rye
Sporting a mile-wide grin, I hit the road. But my day wasn’t over. I had an evening planned at Justins’ House of Bourbon in Lexington with Ryan (as if my time at Louisville’s Justins’ wasn’t fantastic enough). It was near closing time when I pulled into the parking lot, but I wasn’t there to shop. I had a sample of the upcoming Russell’s Reserve Single Rickhouse to share. I was also stoked to try Justins’ two custom “Alligator Char” cigar blends by Alec Bradley. (I’m a big Alec Bradley fan.)
We started off with a blind comparison of Russell’s Reserve Single Rickhouse versus Russell’s Reserve 13. (I don’t recall the batch, but please don’t sweat that.) To my surprise, Ryan ended up appreciating the Single Rickhouse over Russell’s 13. In my comparisons at home, I preferred the 13. My tastings weren’t blind, however. And you know what they say – blinds don’t lie.
Next up was a 1972 exclusive private bottling of Very Old Fitzgerald. Wow … just, wow. It was followed by a 1970’s Old Forester, which wasn’t too far behind the Old Fitz in character and quality. Talk about a one-two punch! After a browse of some one-of-a-kind bottles in Justins’ archives, we moseyed outside to pair cigars and bourbon.
Of the two Alligator Char releases, each had something unique to offer. The black label robusto was blended for dusty and lower-proof whiskeys. Ryan poured me a glass of 1980’s Cheesy Gold Foil; its richness and depth flowed hand in hand with the sweeter, medium-mild tones of the shorter parejo. The white label toro, which was crafted for higher-proof whiskeys, was full-bodied and loaded with flavor. But being the rebel I sometimes am, and even though a Wild Turkey Rare Breed 03RB was right in front of me, I chose to pair it with a 91-proof Wild Turkey 13-Year Distiller’s Reserve. Not only did it pair well, I didn’t want it to end. (You know you’re smoking a great cigar when you keep checking up on how much is left.)
Before we knew it, a few hours had flown by. That’s just how it goes with first-class whiskey and smokes. It was time for some dinner, and Lexington’s Bourbon on Rye was our destination.
I started my night with a Paper Plane cocktail, but as outstanding as it was, the “Coffee and Smokes” (think smoked Manhattan) that Ryan ordered was even better (and I don’t particularly like smoked cocktails). Joined in conversation with Bourbon on Rye’s manager, Chris Evans, we dined on meatballs, sliders, and some insanely good french fries, but it was the Door Knocker Bourbon that captivated us most. The label says it’s Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, but I’ve gotta say … the profile was nuts. To me, it fell somewhere between a high-proof light whiskey and a funky rum. How that stuff is made is a palate-boggling mystery.
As badly as I wanted to hang around and test my skills in Bourbon on Rye’s vintage pinball lobby, I had a 4:30 AM wakeup call for my flight home. With an epic day behind me, I wished Ryan and Chris the best and headed back to Louisville to catch some much-needed sleep.
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a morning person. That being said, I do appreciate waking up in a big city in the early morning hours, before the hustle, bustle, and chaotic rush of the day. It’s almost peaceful. Add a fresh cup of coffee and a minimal-traffic drive to the airport, and you damn near have perfection.
I turned in my rental car, breezed through security, and boarded my flight home. Though a little tired, my mind paced through the events of the last 24 hours with satisfaction. And just as the plane was taking off, the sun rose over Kentucky. It was a beautiful sight – a cascade of cotton candy color. For a moment, I imagined myself back at rickhouse A watching the very same sunrise. Maybe one day.
Title photo courtesy of Campari.
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