Last month, I participated in a press trip for the release of Russell’s Reserve Single Rickhouse. It may not surprise readers who know me, but up to that point I’d never attended a press trip. I suppose it’s the price you pay when your writing focus is so niched. Besides, it’s not like whiskey brands are bombarding my inbox to convert me (good luck).
Needless to say, I was thrilled to receive the invite from Campari. I had no idea what was in store, but from the day it began to the day I departed, the trip exceeded my expectations in every possible way. More importantly, I met new friends and left with a greater sense of the future of the brand we love. Dare I say I witnessed a new era on the horizon?
I’ll get to that soon enough.
Rubber Ducks and Penguins
My flight landed in Kentucky on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 14th. The last time I’d walked LEX was back in 2019, and I forgot how welcoming an airport it is. My ride was right on time, and my driver, Gordon, was a pleasure to talk with. On the way to the hotel I remarked that I’d never heard of 21c, so he filled me in on the building’s history and its conversion from a bank to a hotel and 24-hour art museum. Naturally, I was excited to check it out.
After a short drive we arrived at 21c. Based on my conversation with Gordon, the hotel was both everything and nothing like I’d expected. Elaborate modern art decorated the interior of the lobby, but it was the lifesize blue penguins at the entry that caught my eye first. I probably should’ve asked their origin, but looking back, I’m glad I didn’t. Some things are better left with an air of wonder and mystery.
I checked in and took the old elevator up to my floor. Stepping out, the first thing I noticed was the antique mail shaft. I’d seen these before in old buildings I’d visited as a child with my father in downtown Augusta, Georgia. And as trivial as it may seem, it added a bit of reminiscence to my stay. As for my room, it was spacious, clean, and decorated with a contemporary whimsical touch. There was even a rubber duckie in the shower to greet me! I rarely put much thought into hotel rooms, but this one had happy vibes. On the desk sat a bag of goodies from Campari, and I immediately helped myself to some bougie dark chocolate.
This was going to be a great trip. I just knew it.
It’s Not Late, It’s Early
I made the best of my downtime, catching up on emails and making several calls back home. A few hours later, I met the Campari team, Jordan, Sarah, Zuri, and Thoma, at the bar downstairs, kicking off my evening with a sweet vermouth on the rocks and casual conversation. Why not Turkey? Oh, just wait. (There was no shortage of whiskey that night.)
After the arrival of a few media associates, we took a stroll to Dudley’s on Short. At dinner, I met Emily, a freelance writer, and Will from Bourbon+ Magazine. I caught up with Caroline from The Bourbon Review and Justins’ House of Bourbon. It was fun to talk shop and see familiar faces in person for the first time. We sipped on some seasonal cocktails, my favorite of which was crafted with Russell’s Reserve 6-Year Rye and apple cider. I debated a second glass, but opted for Russell’s 10 instead. And the food … wow. I had a perfectly prepared steak, and thank goodness. I needed a full belly for the hours ahead.
The drinks and conversation flowed effortlessly, as did the fellowship. I introduced Thoma and Robert, the trip’s photographer, to the notorious Door Knocker. (Don’t ask me why I do twisted things.) Before too long, Chris Evans, Bourbon on Rye’s manager, was popping corks on all sorts of curious bottles (I particularly enjoyed the bar’s own Elijah Craig Barrel Proof selection). And at some point in the wee hours of Thursday, Chris led us on a tour of their kitchen, where they fashion their own bitters and unique cocktail syrups.
It was one helluva time, but as with all good things, there was an end. Ours was just a bit later than I’d prepared for. Thankfully, the next day’s gig wasn’t until lunchtime, so I took full advantage and slept in.
Behind the Glass
I wish I could say I woke up completely re-energized and refreshed that Thursday. I didn’t, but after a fair dose of rehydration and caffeine, I was 75% there. Lunch at Zim’s Cafe, combined with a quality exchange with John McCarthy of Barleycorn Drinks, bumped me up to roughly 90%. And by the time we loaded our bus to the distillery, I was nearly 101%. (There’s something about the ride to Wild Turkey that gets the blood moving.)
We arrived at Tyrone in no time at all, thanks to our driver, John, and Mint Julep Tours, and hung out at the Station Master’s House for a few minutes. I said hello to Bruce Russell, caught up with Bo Garrett, and browsed the gift shop. I would’ve been content if that were the bulk of our visit, but even at 2:00 PM, our day was just beginning.
Now joined by Bruce, we hopped back on the bus for a quick shuttle to the distillery. As frequently as I visit Wild Turkey these days, I haven’t toured the distillery formally since 2019. Admittedly, I was tickled pink, yet managed to keep my fanboy composure. With a team of professionals surrounding me, I had to. But it wouldn’t take long before my inner-geek would find itself struggling to contain itself. The second we stepped off the bus, Bruce pointed out the individual responsible for the infamous Wild Turkey Forgiven. Connie is somewhat of a legend in the deepest of Turkey nerd circles, and there she was, sweeping up grain from a recent delivery.
Before the distillery tour kicked off properly, Bruce took a few minutes to describe what Wild Turkey is all about – what makes it tick and sets it apart from other heritage distilleries. Over the years, I’d heard similar speeches from Eddie, Bruce, Bo, and Bruce’s cousin, JoAnn, but it felt different this time. Something in Bruce’s presentation – his stance, delivery, and voice – carried an assurity. It wasn’t a “script and a smile,” but rather, the opening of a dialog – a friendly introduction for everyone present: Wild Turkey is family, and the Russells extend an open, heartfelt invitation.
Bruce wrapped up and led us by the cookers and into the fermentation room, providing a grade-A multi-sensory experience in the process. The smell of bourbon mash is unmistakable, an aroma of pleasantly sour and semisweet beer, filling the vast, tank-lined room with its warmth. Many of the tanks were active, some wildly so, each in various stages of fermentation. Placing my hand over the distiller’s beer, I could feel the heat from the yeast working its magic. From there we walked to the still room, which one might consider an industrial sauna, then on to the sensory lab.
Wild Turkey’s lab is about how one might envision it – numerous bottles of spirits of various sizes and colors, cabinets filled with beakers and glassware, countertop devices and technical gadgets, oh, and dusty Turkey. Can’t forget that! Of course, all of this is used to test both new make and aged whiskey destined for expressions spanning the catalog. Bruce explained how they select (and reject) barrels for the private selection program, and how they use past bottlings to compare to newer bourbon and rye whiskeys. Sounds like a good excuse to taste “the good stuff,” if you ask me. (If I worked in the lab I’d be doing A LOT of comparing. For science, of course.)
Maybe I was the only one, but staring at all of that bourbon made me thirsty. Lucky enough, our next stop was rickhouse A.
I’ve said this so many times it’s almost cliché, though it shouldn’t be. There’s something genuinely special about Wild Turkey’s rickhouse A. It’s a living, breathing time capsule of whiskey wonder. The second you step inside, it hits you – bourbon history, and you’ve got a front-row seat.
After a brief overview of the rickhouse’s history from Bruce, we jumped right into tasting whiskey. First up was a bourbon of roughly nine years. If my memory serves correctly, it was from Tyrone’s rickhouse F. Its nose, while the familiar Wild Turkey profile, was complex and indulgent, with dense caramel and well-balanced oak. The palate and finish followed suit, and I reveled silently in the moment. I think we all did. Tasting whiskey in rickhouse A does that to you. You slip into your own little world – it’s just you and your glass, the rest of the world be damned.
But just as I was reaching bourbon nirvana, Bruce popped the bung on a seven-year rye barrel. Having enjoyed fourteen-year rye in rickhouse A earlier this year, I wasn’t expecting it to knock my socks off. Yet, it did. I can only describe it as a flavor carnival, with candy-apple, vibrant citrus, orchard fruit, and the unmistakable caramel drizzle note I find frequently in Wild Turkey’s rye offerings. Hell, it was more impressive than the bourbon we’d just sipped. (Don’t tell Jimmy.)
Tasting both bourbon and rye straight from the barrel made for a perfect lead-in to the purpose of our trip, Russell’s Reserve Single Rickhouse. For those unfamiliar, Single Rickhouse is a limited-edition expression that showcases a different rickhouse, or aging location, each year. 2022’s release marks the first, and it features Camp Nelson’s rickhouse C. For this year’s edition, 72 barrels were selected and batched from the third and fourth floors, creating a profile snapshot, or flavor identity, that’s unique to CNC.
We made our way to a weathered barrel at the entrance of the rickhouse. Sitting on top of the barrel was a bottle of Russell’s Reserve Single Rickhouse, as well as two curious notebooks that were weathered about as much as the barrel they rested upon. And that’s when Bruce filled us in, “Those are Jimmy’s journals.”
That’s right, Jimmy Russell’s handwritten journals penned since day one, 1954. Suffice it to say, I was elated, as was Caroline, Justins’ House of Bourbon’s resident archaeologist. We carefully flipped through the journals in amazement. Every page, every jotted thought, appeared meticulously organized and important. There were various lists, blends, recipes, and personal notes. It felt as if I were holding Professor Henry Jones’s Grail book. It was truly an honor to browse those journals, and I’m grateful to Bruce and Campari for sharing them with us that day.
Bruce broke the seal on the Single Rickhouse and started filling glasses. Having tasted it prior to the event, I was curious to see how others would react to their first sip. Unsurprisingly, everyone loved it. As for me, I was still on a high from the seven-year rye, and was doubtful the Russell’s Single Rickhouse would strike a louder chord. But it did. It’s somewhat difficult for me to give high praise to a release that so few will have the opportunity to taste, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t remarkable bourbon. Even after sipping whiskey straight from the barrel, Single Rickhouse shone brightest.
At this point, the mood veered less formal (not that it was all that formal to begin with). We’d loosened up. Conversations were flowing throughout the first floor of the rickhouse. But just when I thought we’d tasted our last glass of whiskey, Caroline suggested we pull from Justins’ House of Bourbon’s recent thirteen-year selection which happened to be resting nearby. No one said no. Then Bruce suggested we sample the fourteen-year rye barrel I’d mentioned earlier in this post. Again, no one said no. But while these considerably aged bourbon and rye whiskeys were nothing short of stunning, I couldn’t keep my mind off of Russell’s Single Rickhouse. Barrel after barrel, its profile held up to some hefty competition.
With twilight an hour away, we headed back to the Station Master’s House where Jimmy was waiting for us. Just when I thought things couldn’t get better, they did. The distillery tour with Bruce, Jimmy’s journals, the Single Rickhouse tasting in rickhouse A … What could top all of that? Sipping bourbon with Jimmy Russell at sunset.
Dusk, and the Dawn of a New Era
I’d like to pause for a moment and say thank you to Campari’s Rare Division for inviting me on this trip. My job might be whiskey here in 2022, but it didn’t start that way. Like so many, I started as a fan and I remain a fan. I don’t consider myself an expert on Wild Turkey – never have. The Russells are the experts. Sure, I write about the brand full time, but in my heart I’m a forever fan. To spend that evening with Jimmy, hearing him describe the whiskey in his glass and what made it special, was a bucket list experience. It’s what gives the bourbon industry and the hobby surrounding it meaning – heritage, fellowship, and an appreciation of the spirit. That’s Wild Turkey. That’s Jimmy Russell. That’s what makes me a fan.
We gathered in a circle of rocking chairs outside. Some sipped cocktails, others sipped sweet tea. I initially opted for tea, having consumed my fair share of Kentucky’s finest back in rickhouse A. We mingled, shared stories, laughed, and reflected on our day. I took a few minutes to talk with Zach from Uproxx and Seth from The Bourbon Review, who I’d yet to spend time with thanks to our eventful afternoon. It was wonderful meeting so many talented and easy-going individuals, and I was privileged to be in such great company.
Looking around, I couldn’t help but feel the confidence imparted by Bruce and Jimmy as they spoke to the group. It wasn’t that they had anything profound to say – just casual conversation, as Jimmy and Bruce excel at. I do wish Eddie Russell could’ve been there, as I always appreciate his presence in functions like these. Maybe next time. But in that hour, within that intimate group gathered at sundown in Tyrone, I realized the torch had been passed. Not formally or with corporate fanfare, but with unspoken acceptance.
The essence of Wild Turkey as we know it today is bound by a single legacy. From Jimmy and Joretta’s early days at Anderson County Distilling Company, to Eddie signing on in 1980, and now, with Bruce and JoAnn, the Russells are what make Wild Turkey … well, Wild Turkey. And while the same could be said for other family-tied heritage Kentucky distilleries, it’s comforting to know that my favorite will carry on. The third generation of Russells has big shoes to fill, but I have faith it will. I believe the best is yet to come, so long as that single legacy is preserved.
As the daylight started to fade, Sarah and Jordan surprised us all with glasses of Russell’s Reserve Single Rickhouse. Jimmy held his glass in the air, gave it a swirl, talked about its color and texture, and remarked on the bourbon’s aroma. I was mesmerized. We toasted to life – to Jimmy. Regardless of what was in my glass (it could’ve been anything, really), it was the best damn whiskey I ever sipped.
We said our goodbyes to the Russells and boarded our bus for the final time. What a day! It didn’t take long for me to nod off. (I’ve heard photographic evidence exists on a certain journalist’s cell phone.) For the record, I love a good nap on the road, or “time travel,” as I’ve been known to call it. From Lawrenceburg to Lexington in the close of my eyes!
After a short call home and a splash of water on my face, I met our group one last time in the hotel restaurant. Our dining room was the vault of the bank that once occupied 21c’s building. It was a unique experience and the food was world-class. I could only partake in so much, however, as the hors d’oeuvres I entertained back at the distillery were quite filling. Still, it was nice to have one last gathering of friends – breaking bread, enjoying fine spirits, and reliving the day. But nothing could beat that glass of Single Rickhouse at sunset with Jimmy. And as much as I wanted our night to go on, I was exhausted. I’d argue most of us were. So I wished everyone farewell and hit the sack.
Fans and Family
As I was packing my bags early the next morning, I stumbled across a handwritten note buried in the welcome bag from Campari. It read, “We hope you enjoy good food, great whiskey, and even better company during your stay. Cheers, the Russell Family.” And that, I most certainly did.
My driver, Dean, arrived promptly and we engaged in a pleasant chat on the way to the airport – a little about bourbon, a little about Kentucky, and a lot about family (whom I missed). LEX security was challenge-free. I even had time for breakfast. It wouldn’t be long and I’d be back home with my wife, kids, and puppy, Ollie.
On the flight home, I struck up a friendly conversation with my seatmate, Seveda. I learned Seveda is the niece of the late Luther Vandross and the founder of an online community for Luther’s fans, Fandross. We had a lot in common, each growing up in similar times, appreciating music from decades gone by, and sharing our passion for something we love and cherish. For Seveda, seeing her uncle’s legacy live on isn’t just a wish, it’s a responsibility. And I admire that.
It’s my sincere hope that Wild Turkey and the Russell legacy never fades. As a fan, I’ll do all that I can to see it stride and strengthen. It’s more than a wish, it’s a responsibility.
Cheers to Jimmy, cheers to the Russells, and cheers to Wild Turkey!
Title photo by Robert Jacob Lerma; copyright 2022 Campari.
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