A trip to Wild Turkey begins at the visitor center, which opened in 2014 as part of the distillery’s expansion. The building sits on a bluff overlooking the Kentucky River and was designed in the style of Kentucky's historic tobacco barns.
The Heritage Wall explores the history of Wild Turkey, from the Ripy brothers' time making whiskey in the 1800s, to the Austin Nichols years, to Jimmy and Eddie Russell’s long tenure at the distillery.
Wild Turkey won’t reveal the exact percentages of the mash bill, but this representation gives one a sense of the grain proportions used to make the whiskey. The proportion of rye in the recipe is a bit higher than other bourbons.
The bar in the Wild Turkey tasting room has nearly every Wild Turkey product available to sample, including the small-batch Russell’s Reserve family of whiskeys and the single-barrel Kentucky Spirit.
Many bottles of whiskey can be found in the visitor center’s gift shop, including of course, the flagship Wild Turkey 101 and 81-proof bourbons. The labels were redesigned in 2015.
Rye whiskey is also at the core of the Wild Turkey lineup. The 101 and 81-proof bottles are available at the gift shop, and make great cocktails of varying strength.
The distillery, which received a $50 million investment in 2010, is just up the hill from the visitor center. Here, master distiller Eddie Russell stands in front of the brand’s iconic image.
Corn and rye are the two main grain components of the Wild Turkey mash bill. They are stored in these massive towers just outside the distillery.
Wild Turkey’s proprietary yeast is added to the mash in these huge fermenters inside the distillery. This important early step in making bourbon has a big impact on the flavor.
The fermentation process takes a few days inside these steel vats, as the yeast reacts with the grains, eating the sugar and creating carbon dioxide and alcohol.
There are many fermentation tanks at Wild Turkey. The liquid left inside at the end of fermentation is basically a low alcohol beer, also known as distiller’s beer.
An impressive cloud of steam rises from tank No. 4 as it is cleaned after running through the fermentation process. Tanks must be frequently cleaned to avoid contamination.
The core expressions of the Wild Turkey lineup are on display in the fermentation room, showcasing the many types of bourbon that can be made from just a few simple ingredients.
Wild Turkey’s column still is 52 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter. It was installed in 2010, so liquid that came off of this still is just starting to be found in bottles of Wild Turkey after aging for at least six years.
Everything in the control room is computerized, allowing workers to monitor every step of the process from fermentation through distillation in a high-tech center.
The distillery’s quality lab is where the whiskey is tasted and tested by a panel of experts to ensure that it meets Wild Turkey’s high standards. Samples are kept for many years so that the distillery can pinpoint where a problem originated, should that ever occur.
Campari spent $44 million to build a new bottling facility on the Wild Turkey campus. It opened in 2013. Skyy Vodka is also bottled here, among a few other spirits.
Much of the bottling process is automated, although there are still elements that must be done by hand. Here, 1-liter bottles of Wild Turkey 101 wait to be packed in boxes.
Bottles of Russell’s Reserve are labeled by hand, one of the steps in the bottling process that still requires a human touch to get right.
There are 29 warehouses spread out across the Wild Turkey property, with a few more currently being built. There are no vent fans in the warehouses – windows are opened and closed to help circulate the air.
Each barrel in a warehouse has a code telling workers what’s inside and when it was filled. That way the master distiller can access the full range of available stock and keep track of every drop of whiskey.
Bonded A Warehouse is one of the oldest warehouses at Wild Turkey. It was built in 1894 and houses many of the barrels that go into single-barrel expressions.
These barrels are not racked in the warehouse because master distiller Eddie Russell allows people to taste from them using a whiskey thief, a device that siphons whiskey from the bunghole. Consumers looking to buy a single barrel will taste from a variety of casks before deciding on their selection.
Some of the barrels in the warehouse have been there for many years and begin to show their age, though they are monitored closely for leaks. All are new, charred American white oak barrels.
The smell inside the warehouses is quite literally intoxicating, as the angel’s share evaporates into the air filling it with the scent of whiskey and oak. Every drop of Wild Turkey comes from one of these barrels.
Wild Turkey gets its barrels from the Independent Stave Co. cooperage in Lebanon, Ky. At this stage of the process, barrels are doused in flame to reach a number four char, also called the alligator char.
Sparks fly out of the barrels when they're cooled with a spray of water after being charred. The alligator char, the deepest level of char, is a key component of the Wild Turkey flavor, releasing vanillin and tannins into the whiskey as it ages.
Vendome Copper & Brass Works is located in the Butchertown neighborhood of Louisville. The company supplies Wild Turkey, and many other distilleries, with its stills and other copper needs.
A small pot still is being constructed at Vendome. This type of still differs from the giant column still used at Wild Turkey, and is obviously much smaller than anything that would be used at the distillery.
A worker stands inside a huge mash tun that's being built at Vendome, showing the size of the equipment that’s used at a large distillery like Wild Turkey. If the equipment is too big to be transported to the distillery, Vendome will sometimes construct it onsite.
When barrels are filled with new make spirit, they are transported to the various warehouses on the property, and most will be aged for at least six years.
The new make spirit that goes into the barrels is clear and tastes quite different from the final product. Over time it will pick up flavor and color from the barrel as it expands and contracts in and out of the wood.
The Wild Turkey warehouses aren’t temperature controlled. The Kentucky climate – cold winters and warm summers – is one of the key factors in aging the whiskey, although the temperature inside the warehouses is more consistent than outside.
The black material that you can see on the outside of the warehouses is actually a fungus called Baudoinia compniacensis. It is present at many distilleries because it feeds on ethanol.
The Wild Turkey tasting room, sometimes referred to as the Angels’ Room, overlooks the Kentucky River.
The Wild Turkey distillery is up and running every day of the year, except for a period of a few weeks when it must cease operations to make scheduled repairs. You can still visit during this time, but you might not see the distillery in action or smell the yeast and mash in the air.
Three generations of the Russell family have been the core of Wild Turkey for decades. Jimmy Russell sits in the center, with son Eddie on the left and grandson Bruce on the right.
Jimmy Russell is a Kentucky legend. He got his start in the business more than 60 years ago and is responsible for celebrated Wild Turkey expressions like Rare Breed and Russell’s Reserve.
Jimmy and Eddie are two of the most important tasters at Wild Turkey. They are not just the public face of the brand, they know the whiskey better than almost anyone else with close to 100 years experience combined.
A Boulevardier made with Wild Turkey is one of master distiller Eddie Russell’s favorite cocktails. The drink is made with bourbon or rye, sweet vermouth and Campari.