I’ve written about private selections at Wild Turkey Distillery many times over the years. Seeing as last Wednesday was Frank Dobbins’ first Turkey barrel pick, I thought it was only right for him to pen the next installment. I must admit, he had me blushing on a few sentences. Frank, you are far too kind, my friend.
Any first experience at Wild Turkey is memorable.
Some might argue any bourbon “first” has a tendency to stick with you, though I can say from experience that simply isn’t true. Some distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail are impressive enough, but fail to make a lasting impression. Typically, that sentiment waxes and wanes in lockstep with one’s appreciation of those distilleries’ whiskeys, but I’d argue Wild Turkey is immune to such shifting tides.
From the quiet majesty of age-old rickhouses to the rustic countryside that rests beneath them, you can readily appreciate what makes those historic grounds special. Standing on the site that was once home to the Ripy Brothers Distillery, destined to eventually be christened Wild Turkey, isn’t just cause for awe among the bourbon cognoscenti. It’s truly a beautiful stretch of land that even a city boy like myself, more accustomed to the industrial charm of New York City skyscrapers, can enjoy.
I still vividly remember what my first visit to Wild Turkey, complete with a wrong turn or two, was like. My GPS first led me to the “Cathedral of Bourbon,” Wild Turkey’s Visitors Center, which was under construction at the time. A quick Google search indicated the action was actually at the Station Master’s House, Wild Turkey’s pop-up gift shop and former visitors center. Fortunately, it’s a place with a history all its own. And despite being a pared-down version of the Cathedral – a chapel perhaps – it emanates a warm sense of welcome. It’s as if the sparse, intimate site was intended to host folks making the pilgrimage all along.
I stumbled into the ad hoc shop, immediately enticed by the bottles and bric-a-brac lining the walls. From pins and sweet edible treats to modern-era Wild Turkey decanters (sadly absent of whiskey), I felt pulled in every direction. Yet, having seen photos from the sojourn of others I knew there was more awaiting me in the back room. When I walked back, I was greeted warmly at the bar and soon found myself enjoying a few reasonably priced pours of the distillery’s finest. Finally full of Lawrenceburg liquid, I soon found my way back to the front room, where I picked up a few of the aforementioned bottles and paraphernalia. I left knowing it surely wouldn’t be my last visit.
That was my first “first” at Wild Turkey, and while it was a memorable one, the next time around would prove to be far more special.
If you’re here reading this blog, then that’s thanks to David Jennings. As fate would have it, I found myself here – that is to say at the Station Master’s House on a humid, overcast July morning – thanks to DJ as well. What began as an immense admiration for what he’s built with Rare Bird 101 soon morphed into a sincere appreciation for something more. You see, David’s generosity is a reflection of the wonderful whiskey world we both inhabit. It’s thanks to that spirit of generosity that we struck up a correspondence that made us colleagues. Now, at last, we would be meeting for the first time. But, that’s not all. This would also be my first time in Lawrenceburg to select barrels of Wild Turkey bourbon.
Having previously had the pleasure of interviewing him on my social media channel I knew to expect an effusive congeniality. Of course, it came as no surprise that upon arriving early at the Station Master’s House I happened to overhear a few employees already singing his praise. “Know what time the Rare Bird will be in the hen?” said one before I giddily cut into the conversation.
“In about 30 minutes!” My excitement at that point had evidently begun bubbling over.
There were times before when I saw Bruce ambling off into rickhouse A, thief at the ready, with some lucky so-and-sos to do a barrel pick, but it was finally my time … and I couldn’t help but to bask in it.
It wasn’t much later that David arrived allowing us to share our first embrace before he introduced me to his pal Aaron Konen who would be joining us. They were soon followed by my friend, the man who happened to be pouring whiskey at the bar in the Station Master’s House on my first fateful journey to Tyrone Road, Bo Garrett. Unbeknownst to me it was Bo’s day off but the allure of selecting Russell’s barrels beckoned, and Bo is never one to ignore the call. His wealth of knowledge about Wild Turkey is second only to his knowledge of Anderson County; it was a treat for David and I to take turns peppering him with questions about the lay of the land. Some of the photos he shared with us will forever remain behind sealed lips, but that doesn’t mean they were unremarkable!
Finally, we were joined by Ryan Alves, a frequent collaborator on Rare Bird picks, his friend Kenny Mills, another friend of mine Jamar Mack, and our spirits guide himself, Bruce Russell. With the team assembled, the moment I had been anxiously awaiting had arrived. It was time to head into rickhouse A and taste some whiskey!
EWR to E.W.R.
Words were exchanged on the short walk up to the rickhouse, but they seemed to wash over me as my nerves began to crest, taking stock of what we were about to experience. Think about it – rickhouse A, where private barrel selections are often held, is the oldest building on the property (c. 1894). To wit it’s a building that the Ripy brothers, founders of the first distillery in Wild Turkey’s lineage, once set foot in. Going one step further, I had flown into Kentucky from Newark to make my first Wild Turkey selection in a building that the Ripy Brothers’ first Master Distiller Ernest W. Ripy had once roamed. (Airport code EWR to E.W.R.)
As he approached the fleet of nine barrels we would have the pleasure of tasting, Bruce misspoke, “I’m pretty sure you all have done this before.” He was nearly correct, with the exception of one. In our excited chatter before reaching the rickhouse I had managed to ask every member of our group how many barrel picks they’d done with Wild Turkey. As it turns out, I was the only one undergoing the experience for the first time. Bruce offered an olive branch inside of a mea culpa, “Well, in that case, you’re first up. Bring that glass over here.”
The atmosphere from there on out became increasingly ebullient as we started parking our samples under our noses and lifting them to our lips. The first barrel featured a strong greeting on the former before dissipating slightly on the latter, but we continued undeterred. We were only getting started. Barrel two, a Tyrone rickhouse M selection distilled nearly 10 years ago, instantly won me over on both the nose and palate. It was marked by a lovely stewed black cherry note coupled with a robust spice presence that made it an early favorite among the group. But again, patience was advised.
The makeup of our group was such that we had a welcome balance of personalities. There was Aaron and Ryan’s steadfast assuredness, my palpable excitement mirrored by Kenny and Bo, while Jamar and David rounded us out with their more quiet contemplativeness. As we continued onward to barrel three, from Tyrone rickhouse K, brows furrowed and camps became divided. Both two and three we all agreed were stellar, but preferences began to emerge. As a confessed sweet tooth, I knew that two was a barrel I wouldn’t soon forget. But others were equally adamant about barrel three. Fortunately, we were told that we would be selecting three barrels, with two being Russell’s Reserve and one earmarked as a Kentucky Spirit. We had a lot of work yet to do!
As the process went on, we sampled several barrels and delighted in their deviation from Wild Turkey’s core profile. One with an exquisite mouthfeel but an atypically curt finish, another that presented beguiling lavender honey notes, and still another which offered up the unmistakable flavor of peach ring candies. At last, we reached barrel seven, a Tyrone rickhouse T selection, and again that ground Ernie Ripy once walked had to endure the digging of heels. Could this be a contender for our third barrel? My initial notes on it should make my stance clear: “I love this.” It had a splash of everything we enjoyed about earlier barrels, displaying an almost dizzying depth of flavor (though that might also be a feature of being seven barrel-proof pours deep) as well as a finish that no one could deny.
Barrels eight and nine had fans as well, along with the odd barrel or two that had a sole supporter, but after our first pass it seemed clear that only a few would reach the final round. Upon revisiting barrels two and three we ultimately decided that they would both make for remarkable selections, with barrel three showing the stoutness to go on to become a damn fine Kentucky Spirit. After we took turns commandeering the thief to revisit personal favorites, a consensus was formed around barrel seven. We had done it! We picked three Wild Turkey barrels.
Last First Goodbye
The Tyrone campus offered us some fantastic selections from rickhouses M, K, and T, and we were more than happy to sign and slap a Rare Bird 101 sticker on them all. Toward the end of the selection process we were accompanied by Grant Wheeler, Wild Turkey’s new barrel program director, as he joined us in gathering around one of Bruce’s favorite seven-year rye barrels for one final pour. While Bruce spoke openly about the future of Wild Turkey, we made our way out to the porch to enjoy a whiskey that rivaled the best of ‘em and revel in our first glimpse of the sun on that cloudy day.
With our time drawing to a close, we headed back to the Station Master’s House. Naturally, camera apps were opened so that we could pose for a few photos before saying goodbye. In hindsight, I realized the trip was rather light on pictures, but that’s perfectly fine. It’s true when they say you never forget your first, and being able to live in the moment, savoring every sip with friends and folks who became fast friends, is a memory I’ll keep forever. I want to thank Bruce, Grant, and all of my fellow pick members for making it such a special occasion. I would also like to thank David especially for extending the invitation and affording me this space to immortalize the selection. Once those bottles are opened they surely won’t last long!
Maybe on my next Wild Turkey barrel pick I’ll be a tad more introspective like Jamar. Perhaps I’ll carry the phlegmatic confidence of Ryan. Or, I might simply hold fast to my now-hallmark enthusiasm for good bourbon. In any case, I know that I’ll always keep this first close to my heart. I’m not foolish enough to think we made history that day, but it was an incredible honor to become part of the history at such a storied distillery.
Until next time, rickhouse A. I know this will be the first of many.
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