Before bourbon, I had fewer friends.

To the outsider, this might sound strange. But to the majority of us in the whiskey community, it rings true. The relationships fostered within this hobby eclipse any rare bottle or remarkable flavor profile. Friendship, fellowship, and an appreciation of the moment are the most valuable things whiskey enthusiasm has to offer.

This is a tale of all three.

Willett Family Estate

My flight landed in Louisville on a cool but sunny Wednesday afternoon. It’s never a dull affair. The airport is lined with whiskey billboards and bottles. There’s an energy about it. It’s bourbon country after all. Usually, I grab an Uber and head straight to my hotel to check in. This visit was a little different. I had a ride waiting thanks to my friend, Mason Walker of Bourbon Lore.

Until that Wednesday I’d never met Mason in person. We live on opposite sides of the country, yet stay connected online thanks to – you guessed it – our love for bourbon. With salutations exchanged, we headed out to a destination that’s been on my must-see list for years now, Willett Distillery. 

The drive through Bardstown is never boring. You pass the massive giants of Jim Beam and Heaven Hill, only to turn the corner and arrive at Willett’s welcoming grounds. If you’ve never been, picture a mix of new and old world Kentucky. It’s not as thematic as Maker’s Mark, but it has a similar timeless feel. There’s a warm authenticity to it – so much so, it feels as if you’re visiting the Kulsveen’s home. I suppose you are.

Friendship on the Turkey Trail

At the bar, we met up with Ryan Alves of Justins’ House of Bourbon, Mark Carter of Old Carter Whiskey Co., the incomparable Pablo Moix of Rare Character, and Willett’s most noteworthy super fan, Emerson Shotwell. If you’ve yet to browse Emerson’s Instagram page, please make it a goal. It has photo after photo of Willett bottlings stretching back for years. I guess you could say Emerson is the me of Willett, and I found instant common ground in our passion for our favorite brands.

Having spent my morning in the air with only a handful of snacks, I decided not to dive right into straight whiskey. Besides, I was seated at one of the most recognized bars in Kentucky. A Paper Plane would constitute my first libation, and it was exceptionally refreshing. The food was equally impressive, particularly the egg salad sandwiches, which reminded me of home. (Yes, my wife’s egg salad is really that good. And yes, my wife sometimes reads this blog.)

After some lively conversation and catching up, Emerson recommended Willett Family Estate #1566, a 16-year short-barrel bourbon of high acclaim. We took our time nosing, then tasting the rich, viscous whiskey. I was stunned. Genuinely stunned. The complexity and drinkability at 123.8 proof was praiseworthy. Little did I know that Willett bottling would serve as an inspiration at Wild Turkey the following day. (Hell, I still dream about it.)

We wrapped up our brief time at Willett by browsing the gift shop and snapping several photos around the property. I made myself a promise that the next time I stopped by, I’d stay longer (and probably attempt to talk Drew Kulsveen into a private barrel selection). Our time at Willett had ended, but our day of fellowship had just begun.

Carter’s House of Bourbon

Back in Louisville, I checked into my hotel, handled a few phone calls and emails, then walked a block over to Justins’ House of Bourbon. Things had changed since my last visit, and the now-iconic blue cabinets lacked many of the treasures I was accustomed to admiring. But despite the hardships Justins’ is presently facing, the staff’s attitude was as positive as ever. I met Terence Hart, the store manager, and chatted briefly with John Daughtery, who I’d met last year. Justins’ is a personal favorite stop, be it Louisville or Lexington, but it’s the individuals who work there that make it special.

But this wasn’t the average everyday Justins’ drop-in. The Willett lunch crew was reunited – this time with Wild Turkey’s Bruce Russell, Brandon Smith of Bardstown Bourbon Company, and Jeff Knott of The Tartan House. Emerson recommended another Willett Family Estate bourbon, the 18-year behemoth, “Cobra Kai,” and Mark Carter popped the cork on a 27-year Old Carter American Whiskey. The Willett barrel was fantastic, though truthfully, it was hard to beat the 16-year bourbon from earlier that day. And Mark’s American Whiskey … Wow. Talk about a flavor bomb!

Mark gave us an impromptu tour of his office next door, though I’m not sure the word “office” applies. It’s more of a cozy den surrounded by cabinets of various Old Carter releases. As an added bonus, we were privileged to see where Mark personally crafts his magic – a simple table with notebooks and rows of nondescript 375ml bottles of whiskey. I can only assume those barrel samples might one day find their way into a future Old Carter batch.

They say time flies when you’re having fun, and they’re right. It was once again time to find sustenance, and North of Bourbon was calling our names.

North, Neat, and Starhill Shorty

Do I write about North of Bourbon a lot? Probably so. Do I write about it enough? Probably not. Needless to say, if you haven’t stopped in for a meal or a drink at North of Bourbon, please do. Greatness awaits.

Upon our arrival, we were joined by acquaintances old and new, as well as three friends who would assist me at Wild Turkey the next day, Clay and Amanda Kesterson, and Matt Piccorelli. Dining at North of Bourbon is always a treat and their bourbon menu is just as laudable. I ordered an ounce of Calumet 16, as I’d passed by the bottle time after time but never taken the chance. It was nice, as expected; however, when Ryan handed out a round of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel “Starhill Shorty” for everyone, that Calumet just didn’t hit the same. For those unfamiliar, Starhill Shorty is a 12-year, 6th-floor Camp Nelson F barrel selected last year by Ryan for Justins’ House of Bourbon. It’s one of my all-time favorite Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel selections, though I’m admittedly a bit biased.

Friendship on the Turkey Trail

After a wonderful evening of fine food, not to mention the outstanding Old Carter Rye batch 9, we headed out to Neat for a dusty nightcap. Owen, the store’s proprietor, gave us a tour of their new bottle shop. The Wild Turkey selection was strong, and I tried my best to talk him into opening the 2006 14-year Master Distiller Selection (arguably the best Turkey ever bottled), but no dice. Maybe next time! I needed to take it easy anyway. With a full day in Lawrenceburg just hours away, I needed some rest. We dabbled through a few dusty Heaven Hill labels, each tasty and unique, then grabbed a ride to our hotels (thanks Matt).

Louisville to Lawrenceburg

The morning before a Turkey barrel pick is always contemplative. In some ways, it’s like getting ready for church. You push aside your obligations, get in the right mindset, and focus all of your attention on one thing. Thursday morning was no different. 

After a satisfying breakfast, I met Mason in my hotel lobby and found an Uber willing to drive us from Louisville to Lawrenceburg. If it sounds like a difficult task, it’s not. I’ve had great success in finding long-distance rides to and from major bourbon hotspots in Kentucky (something to keep in mind if/when you travel). But in no time, we were on our way. 

We arrived in Tyrone in less than an hour. Our driver, while kind and professional, wasn’t the best with English and we nearly ended up at the under-construction visitors center instead of the Station Master’s House. Fortunately, he spoke frantic hand gestures and finger points pretty well, and we pulled up (literally onto) the rock walkway to the temporary visitors center. We made it!

Friendship on the Turkey Trail
Photo by Amanda Kesterson.

Every time I visit Wild Turkey, the first person I look for is Bo Garrett. If you haven’t met Bo, you should. Bo is a true ambassador for Turkey, but he’s better (and more appropriately) known as a brand builder. You won’t hear any sales pitches or marketing fluff from Bo. Instead, you get a wealth of knowledge from someone who’s dedicated time to research Wild Turkey’s history. He talks with Jimmy Russell often, soaking up the distiller’s stories like a sponge. He plays a mean guitar too, but that’s another story for another day. Bottom line: a trip to Wild Turkey is incomplete without a chat with Bo.

Before too long, the first selection team members walked in – familiar faces from the night before: Amanda, Clay, Emerson, Pablo, and Ryan. Assembled with myself, Mason, Bruce Russell and Wild Turkey’s new barrel program director, Grant Wheeler, we crossed the street to Tyrone’s rickhouse A. Though slightly damaged from a recent windstorm, it stood strong and proud in the warm light of the morning Kentucky sun, as it has since 1894.

Rickhouse A (If Only I Could Stay)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, rickhouse A is a spiritual experience. On the surface that might seem odd. How can an old wooden warehouse filled with barrels of whiskey be spiritual? But if you’re passionate about Wild Turkey – or just bourbon itself – when you walk in, you get it.

For me, I always take a brief moment to ponder. I wouldn’t call it prayer, or even meditation, but it’s something like that. You smell the angel’s share, feel the century-old lumber, and walk the planks that legends walked (and continue to walk). The sounds of nature carry on outside, almost as if the rickhouse is a part of their world, not yours. Like an ancient tree that’s still bearing fruit, guarded by the Kentucky River and the patience of Father Time, rickhouse A welcomes you to partake, but only temporarily.

Though not entirely unlike past barrel selections in A, Grant’s handiwork was evident. There was a new table set up with etched Glencairns (instead of the formerly employed copitas) and a display showcasing Wild Turkey distillate as it ages. Wait – a Mason Jar filled with Wild Turkey’s new make? Just sitting there?? Of course, I had to ask if I could try it, as I’d never tasted Turkey’s new make, or “White Dog” as the old timers call it. I was elated to get a nod of yes. I probably shouldn’t divulge who gave that nod, as I don’t want anyone in trouble, but I’m pretty sure it was the ghost of J.P. Ripy (he’s a sneaky fella). 

Friendship on the Turkey Trail

So how does Wild Turkey’s White Dog taste? Frankly, pretty good. I’m not big on unaged spirits, but damn if that stuff wouldn’t do well in the right cocktail. Super sweet with a surprisingly oily mouthfeel, I can see why it works so well with Mother Nature. When you’ve got it right from the start, it can only get better with age (and most certainly does).

I emptied my glass and eagerly awaited the pop of the first bung. Eight barrels sat before us, each weathered and laced with rust from seasons of slumber. Bruce began hammering, then thieving and filling our glasses at an experienced pace. Having just tasted distillate, my first nose of bourbon was a refreshing jump in complexity and depth. I took my first sip only to find a strange sweet-sourness. Apparently, some residual White Dog coated the inside of my glass – not much, but enough to make a difference. After a thorough rinse and refill, all was well. 

We tasted through the eight barrels in a somewhat blind fashion. Though the details were clearly labeled on the barrel heads, we chose to avoid them and sample each whiskey unaware of maturation location, age, and proof. We each had our favorites, but surprisingly, our overall rankings were fairly similar, with barrel 7’s spiciness and full-flavor garnering the most praise. But just as we thought we’d reached a consensus, Bruce mentioned he had something special for us on the next row – a sixth-floor short barrel from Camp Nelson’s rickhouse B.

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For the record, I’m not the biggest fan of short barrels. It has nothing to do with flavor profile or the annoyance that sometimes accompanies a group’s “epic super short barrel” release. Some of the best whiskeys I’ve tasted came from short barrels. It’s the low yield that bothers me. More often than not, when I select a barrel I’m not selecting it for myself; I’m selecting it for a large number of individuals who trust my judgment. To return with a handful of cases seems a disservice to those who support me. But Thursday was different.

When I nosed the CNB bourbon I was immediately reminded of Starhill Shorty and the 16-year Willett Family Estate bourbon I’d tasted the day before – not so much in profile, but in sheer impressiveness. The whiskey was considerably robust, with a layered lingering finish. Honestly, it was one of the best barrels I’ve ever tasted in rickhouse A. Possibly the best. But there was that problem … the significantly low yield. How low? So low that a second glass was nearly impossible. 

We each took turns rocking the barrel in an effort to determine what might remain. Bruce and Grant felt there may be 40-60 bottles at full barrel strength (as these would be for Pride of Anderson County). Pablo and I convened for a quick “do or die” discussion and determined that leaving the barrel behind would be the greater disservice. As for the rest of the team, there were no qualms whatsoever. It was that spectacular. And with that, our first of two barrels was in the books.

We stepped outside, relieved to have a unanimous first pick behind us. It always makes for a good day when everyone lands on the same barrel. But you know what makes a good day even better? A hefty pour of Russell’s Reserve 1998.

It’s been years since I last tasted Russell’s 1998, but thanks to Ryan Alves I was once again able to revel in its glory. I just hate that Eddie Russell missed it. Thursday was Eddie’s birthday and Ryan had brought the bottle along for a celebratory toast. Unfortunately, Eddie was under the weather and couldn’t stop by as originally planned. While it pained me to sip without him (I’m lying, it was unregretfully delicious), we raised our glasses and offered our best to Wild Turkey’s “New Guy.” As for 1998 … better than perfection. Thanks again, Ryan.

Friendship on the Turkey Trail
Photo by Amanda Kesterson.

The second selection team arrived, which included Turkey pick veterans Wes Milligan and Kevin Williams, just in time to appreciate a pour of Russell’s 1998 with us. Now that’s a warm-up! We entered the rickhouse and returned to the row of eight barrels from earlier that morning. These were completely new for the majority of the team, but I suggested we taste in reverse order so I could re-evaluate from a fresh perspective. (8 became 1, 7 became 2, etc.)

After tasting through the lot, our favorites aligned similarly to the first team. And again, there was an obvious standout – barrel 2 (or barrel 7 for the first team). We had ourselves a winner – a 9-year, 119.2 proof bourbon from the fourth floor of Tyrone’s rickhouse M and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. 

But our time at rickhouse A wasn’t over yet. Just as we wrapped up our final selection, Bruce popped the bung on a rye barrel. Wild Turkey’s rye whiskey is great as is, but straight from a barrel … priceless. As you might expect, there were smiles abound. Having done this a few times now, I’m convinced you could take two bitter enemies, walk them into rickhouse A, offer rye straight from the barrel, and all would be well. In fact, maybe single-barrel, barrel-proof Wild Turkey rye is exactly what this world needs right now.

With our glasses in hand, we stepped out onto the porch and gathered for a final group photo. Typically, folks exchange phones and take turns snapping a group shot. But thanks to Amanda Kesterson, we had a pro to capture our jubilation. She spent the entire day photographing each selection team and I truly appreciate her time and hard work.

Until Next Time, Jimmy

Back at the Station Master’s House, we each took time to talk with the living legend himself, Jimmy Russell. I learned several new things about the Gould brothers (once owners of the original distillery) that I might just put to use in a future book. I could’ve sat and talked with Jimmy all day (it’s easy to do), but closing time was drawing near and I hadn’t eaten since 9:00 that morning. After all, one can only survive on Kentucky’s Finest for so long.

I said my goodbyes to Jimmy, Bruce, Grant, Bo, and my friends on the two selection teams. We had one helluva day – an amazing helluva day – but it was time to head back to Louisville. I caught a ride with Pablo, along with Mason and Emerson, and we hit the road.

Cold Pizza, Mizunara, and a Forklift

“Alright, we’re here.”

Apparently, I’d fallen into a deep sleep on the drive to Louisville. In a daze, I looked out the window as we pulled into an old strip mall. None of the signage seemed familiar. Was this the outskirts of Louisville? Where were we?

We exited the vehicle and were approached by a man wearing black jeans and a yellow t-shirt that read “Kentucky.” He appeared to be in his 30s and somewhat disheveled, as if he’d been hard at work or playing video games for three days straight. One of those two. (For what it’s worth, I’m sure my sleepy, “bed head” self didn’t look any better.)

“This is James Symons,” said Mason. And then it dawned on me … Mason had mentioned something on Wednesday about visiting his friend, James. I’d simply assumed he was talking about dropping by a friend’s house and filed it away in the ol’ noggin. Well, in case you’re wondering, I have a perfect memory. I just lack total recall. 

We introduced ourselves and made our way into James’s shop. Walking in … well, let’s just say the front office was pretty spartan. But there was one major exception – a shelf full of artfully crafted whiskey bottles, several of which I recognized as LeNell’s. Pretty cool. Were we there to pick up a bottle? I was still waking up – trying to make sense of exactly what we were doing. 

James opened a door to the back office. “Right this way,” he said. The walls were lined with racks of barrels, as well as a few half-empty totes and odd-sized casks. In the center of the space sat a forklift, and right in front of it, a fold-out camping table with pita chips, cheese, fruit, and … Glencairns. And then, out of the corner of my eye … pizza.

Friendship on the Turkey Trail
Mason, “Bed Head” Bird, Emerson, and James.

The pizza was cold, but no one cared. We were famished. When I was in my 20s cold pizza was a delicacy, and I had zero hesitation getting back to my roots. I don’t remember what kind of pizza it was. Cheese? Pepperoni? Didn’t matter. It was exactly what I needed, and I devoured my New York sized slice in less than a minute. Then and there, it was the best pizza in the world.

Ah, whiskey. We were there to taste whiskey. James explained the operation, the Woodwork Collective, as a small producer crafting one-of-a-kind projects for respected names like MAWLS (a 1789b affiliation) and LeNell. In fact, LeNell’s Lighter Side and Darker Side of the Moon (both finished rye whiskeys) were produced there by James and his partners. Enlightened by that information, as well as James’s apparent knowledge and hands-on experience, I was excited to try what Woodwork had to offer.

We started with a 16-year Kentucky straight bourbon of undisclosed origin aging in a larger (roughly 65 gallon) new charred oak barrel for just under two years. It was a 78.5% corn bourbon recipe – one that’s been employed by other NDPs over the last three or four years. Some say it was a contract distillation by Heaven Hill for an unknown party. Others say it was distilled by Jim Beam. Hell, I’ve heard some folks refer to it as Wild Turkey distilled. Based on past conversations with Eddie Russell, I’m confident it’s not. But James didn’t spin it one way or the other, and after tasting it I’m not sure it even mattered. It was remarkable whiskey.

Next up was a 15-year bourbon of similar origin, but finished in a Japanese Mizunara cask. James made it a point to clarify it was a work in progress and needed more finishing time. Even so, it was incredible stuff – rich and flavorful with its own unique spice. My initial apprehension and skepticism faded. It was obvious that James put a lot of time and care into his whiskeys. There was no TV. No radio. Not even a window. Just a forklift, barrels, totes, and a small variety of equipment. This was James’s life – his passion – and it showed.

We spent the rest of the afternoon sampling different barrels of rye whiskey, most from MGP in Indiana. There was plenty more we didn’t taste, and I still wonder what we left behind in those mysterious barrels. But there were two things left I wanted to try, as my curiosity was brimming over – LeNell’s Lighter and Darker Side of the Moon expressions.

Friendship on the Turkey Trail
Photo courtesy of James Symons.

James explained the processes in detail. Lighter Side of the Moon is a 6-year MGP rye finished in one of LeNell’s ex-Willett barrels that once held blackberry Berliner Weisse. Darker Side of the Moon is also a 6-year MGP rye, but finished in LeNell’s original Dark Side of the Moon barrel after aging Imperial Stout. I know, that’s a lot to chew on. But to my delight, they were both exceptional (and nothing like I thought they’d taste). Darker Side of the Moon was my favorite, but not by leaps and bounds. If you have the chance to try these releases, please don’t pass it by. 

After a full afternoon of sipping crazy hooch (thank you, James), we said farewell and set our sights on downtown Louisville. My hunger had reached a serious frenzy. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to reach Repeal; however, the wait was longer than we could bear so we rushed over to Proof on Main. I’m sure glad we did, because their cheeseburger was exactly what I needed – that and a hand-crafted ginger ale at the bar. As much as I wanted to stay out, sip and socialize, I was thoroughly exhausted. What I needed was sleep. 

Biscuits, Gravy, and Old Fo

Friday, March 31st … Wilderness Trail Day.

I awoke to the sound of rain – that, and a notification from American Airlines that my flight home might be canceled. The way I figured, if I had to be stuck somewhere, Kentucky worked for me. I hopped out of bed, brewed a cup of coffee, packed my bag, got ready, then headed downstairs to check out.

Dang it! I missed breakfast by one minute. Ever seen the Adam Sandler movie, “Big Daddy?” Well, that McDonald’s scene certainly crossed my mind. Thankfully, the receptionist suggested Barrel Bar & Grill next door. Black coffee, eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy … the perfect “barrel pick prep kit.” And the music was A+ … Brenton Wood, James Brown, Stevie Wonder. My morning instantly turned around (and would only get better).

I sent a text to Mark Carter. Pablo had to fly home earlier than expected and I was left with a last-minute spot to fill on our Wilderness Trail team. Like Pablo, Mark has a fine-tuned palate and a positive attitude to match it. I was delighted to receive an affirmative reply and made plans to meet at Michter’s at 11:15. I sipped the last of my coffee just as Mason walked in. We had a half hour to kill, so why not spend it across the street at Old Forester.

Friendship on the Turkey Trail
A Turkey at Old Fo.

I wasn’t expecting much at Old Forester, but was pleasantly surprised to find it well-designed with plenty to browse and peruse. If you think it’s just a fancy gift shop, think again. Their towering still will stop you in your tracks. Naturally, Mason and I took pictures in front of it like giddy tourists. We checked out the bottling line upstairs, though it wasn’t operating at the time. Regardless, it was a cool experience and conveniently located in the heart of downtown Louisville.

The Fort Nelson Experience

You’d think in all the times I’ve stayed in Louisville I would’ve visited Michter’s Fort Nelson, yet Friday was my first. Like Old Forester, the interior was well-designed and loaded with scores of bottles, barware, and merchandise to consider. They even had a coveted Celebration bottling or two on display. But just as we thought we’d seen all there was to see, Mark walked in.

“Have you talked to Nick?” Mark asked.

Though Mason and I had chatted briefly with the shop’s staff, neither of us recalled speaking with Nick. Mark explained that Nick Peoples is the manager of Fort Nelson, and promptly sent him a text to introduce us. Seconds later, Nick walked over and offered to show us around. We took the elevator to the bar (a beautiful bar, I might add) then back down to the lobby, all the while learning a little about Fort Nelson. Nick stated he had something to attend to, but asked if we might stick around as he’d be right back. We passed the time in the book section, which contained works by many of my fellow author friends: Aaron Goldfarb, Brian Haara, Fred Minnick, Clay Risen, among others.

In no time at all, Nick returned and ushered us to the distillery section of the building. He said he’d spoken with Joe Magliocco, the president of Michter’s, and that Joe wanted to treat us to something special. On the table in front of us sat three boxes; inside each, a Michter’s Fort Nelson Reserve bottle rested – empty. I realized what was about to happen, as I’d seen photos and video posts on social media. We’d be filling those empty bottles with barrel-proof bourbon. I must admit, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning.

Friendship on the Turkey Trail
Mason, Mark, David, and Nick at Fort Nelson.

One by one we took turns labeling our boxes and filling our bottles. If you’re unfamiliar, Michter’s has a custom bottling apparatus that pulls whiskey from a barrel, sends it to a chamber that’s exactly 750ml, then at the pull of a lever, releases the whiskey into your bottle. It sounds simple, and in some ways it is, but damn if it isn’t fun. And, you leave with barrel-proof Michter’s in a customized bottle and box. We signed the guestbook and gathered for a group photo. What an epic way to kick off our day!

Windy Wilderness Trail

With the nasty weather worsening, we quickly loaded up Mason’s car and hit the road to Danville. The drive was intense, with high winds and rain falling in sheets. Thankfully, Mason drove like an ace and we made it to Wilderness Trail safe and sound with time to spare. But despite contending with the storm, it was an entertaining ride. Mark and Mason shared plenty of fascinating business stories which not only put my mind at ease, but instilled a sense of motivation.

Wilderness Trail’s campus, though not as rustic as Wild Turkey or Willett, has an unmistakable rural Kentucky charm. Sure, it’s a commercial distillery. There’s plenty of industrial equipment and vehicles on the property. It’s also much larger than I envisioned, with rickhouses spread out in all directions. Even so, it feels authentic and tied to the landscape as if it’s existed for generations.

Friendship on the Turkey Trail

Mark, Mason, and I walked into the visitors center and waited for our fellow selection team members. My friend Chris Lynn arrived first (actually, I think he beat us there), followed by another Russell’s Renegades private barrel veteran, Jacob Runge, and the industry-knowledgeable Michael Lazar. Macaulay Minton, Wilderness Trail’s “Bourbon Swami,” soon graced us with his presence, offering samples of the distillery’s latest release, a 7-year straight rye whiskey. It was excellent – “Kentucky sweet,” with a well-integrated spice presence and a notably creamy texture. It was so good I was concerned that our selection pool might not make par. (Spoiler: I was wrong.)

With introductions and small talk behind us, Macaulay led us through the misty rain and wind to the building next door. It was a small but comfortable tasting room, complete with leather sofas and chairs. The sounds of the Grateful Dead played quietly in the background. (I don’t think I’ve ever heard music at a barrel selection before, but I liked it.) Near each seat sat six empty Glencairns, a glass of water, oyster crackers, and a note card. We were good to go, save for a missing team member – and not just any team member – our sponsor, Ryan Alves of Bourbon Outfitter. But before too long, Ryan made it and we were off and running.

Macaulay filled each glass. No information was provided regarding age, proof, or whiskey type (bourbon or rye). This would be a true blind tasting. We took our time nosing and sipping each glass, taking notes accompanied by the late Jerry Garcia. After some time to ourselves, Macaulay asked us to close our eyes. It was time to vote half of the whiskeys out. Glass by glass, we were asked to raise our hands if the whiskey was in our bottom three. After all six had been called, we were left with glasses 2, 5, and 6. Interestingly, everyone’s top two were in the three remaining selections (just in different orders). Definitely a good sign.

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  • WTD Tasting Setup
  • Wilderness Trail March 2023

Round two. Macaulay refilled our empty glasses and we returned to nosing and sipping. After several minutes, we opened the floor to discussion. Glasses 2 and 5 were very similar (and exemplary). Both had an almost bourbon-like quality to them (I even think they fooled a couple folks), but they were all rye. Glass 6 was its own thing. As it turns out, it was a 95/5 Kentucky rye with a healthy proof to boot (about 118 or so). The votes were split as to which was everyone’s favorite, though most agreed that 2 beat 5. As for 6, it was tough. We were there for one barrel and glass 2 had, as Ryan noted, a dusty-esque Wild Turkey Christmas Rye vibe. I just couldn’t let it go. But admittedly, glass 6’s profile was uncommon for Wilderness Trail, with layers of spice and a finish that wouldn’t stop.

It’s times like these that I appreciate having Ryan around. Not only is Ryan a loyal friend with a long list of private selections under his belt, he knows when to hold ‘em and fold ‘em. And on that Friday, he believed in both barrels. Though polar opposite in profile, walking away from either would’ve been a mistake. There is, however, a tragic end to the story. In the week following the selection, we learned that barrel 6 sprung a leak and was empty by the time it hit the bottling line. At least we had our Christmas Rye and memories to cherish.

Our selection at Wilderness Trail was complete. We headed back to the visitors center to do a little shopping and reflect on our day. Unfortunately, my time was limited, as Mason and I had planes to catch back in Louisville (no delays or cancellations, thank goodness). I gave my best to Macaulay and our awesome team and set out for one last drive through Kentucky. Home was calling my name, though truth be told, Kentucky’s not far from it. Suffice it to say, it’s always in my heart (and glass).

Amen, John

On the flight home, I started a conversation with my seatmate, an older fella named John. (Yes, I’m that guy who talks on a plane. Well, sometimes.) As it turns out, John lives in my home state of South Carolina. We talked about bourbon and my passion for Wild Turkey, then he showed me a picture of his collection. It wasn’t tremendous – roughly eight bottles of American and Irish whiskey: Woodford Double Oak, Redbreast 12, Longbranch, etc. Nothing particularly rare, but all quality whiskeys. He pointed out which bottles were his favorites and which were favorites of his friends, as he loved to share.

John got it. Friendship, fellowship, and an appreciation of the moment are the true rewards of whiskey enthusiasm. Bottles come and go (or maybe just collect dust in one’s bunker), but memories last forever. The best things I’ve experienced in this hobby happened as a result of others’ kindness and generosity. Were it not for those individuals, I wouldn’t be typing this now. That, I’m sure of. 

Thanks to everyone who has helped me over the years – to those who’ve offered knowledge, advice, and whiskey (of course). Special thanks to Campari, Wild Turkey, and Wilderness Trail, especially Bruce, Grant, and Macaulay, for two flawless private selection experiences. My sincerest gratitude to Pablo Moix and Rare Character for making Pride of Anderson County a reality. Ryan, thank you for sharing that Russell’s 1998, and to Bourbon Outfitter for sponsoring our Wilderness Trail barrel. To my dear friends and Russell’s Renegades members who joined me last week, y’all were extraordinary! And to Nick and Joe at Michter’s, thank you both for a surprise I’ll never forget. And finally, to my Patreon supporters and readers who keep this adventure going, you have my heartfelt appreciation.

Cheers to you all!


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