There’s a tinny yet wooden thump when the sledgehammer connects with the barrel stopper — the “sweet spot” of the bourbon aging process is about eight years, so the barrel’s precious cargo has long since calcified the bung to the opening — and as the impact reverberates though the barrel room’s dusty floorboards, the anticipation to unlock the old cask only grows.
With a few more blunt knocks, the stopper is jarred loose from the stave, and soon after, a copper tube (called a thief) steals a small sample of the masterwork that’s been nearly one decade in the making.
The flavor profile is nuanced and complex, mixing sweet notes of vanilla and caramel with a light smokiness, and its finish is as smooth as it is memorable.
It has the kind of taste that food bloggers would call, “craft,” and hipsters would celebrate inside of Brooklyn speakeasies.
But as you look outside the window, down at the lone bridge marrying two swaths of naked wilderness along the Kentucky River, you realize that this isn’t some hip Brooklyn tasting, and the drink in your hand isn’t some newfangled take on bourbon:
It’s Wild Turkey. And it’s a recipe that’s held strong since the pre-Prohibition era.
Bourbon’s golden age started with one man
Bourbon County whiskey has been a Kentucky tradition since the late 1700s, but it didn’t have a “father” until Jimmy Russell.
Russell joined Wild Turkey in 1954, on the eve of the company’s 100th year of operation. Despite its age, however, Wild Turkey still had very real ties with its roots. When Russell began, the company was steered by Bill Hughes — only the second Master Distiller in Wild Turkey’s history — and Ernest Ripy, whose father created the distillery’s first batch of bourbon.
Hughes and Ripy had carried the company through the Prohibition, and were dead-set on preserving the legacy of the original Wild Turkey. So after years of tutelage, Russell was anointed as Hughes’ successor and entrusted with Wild Turkey’s secret distilling process.
In the years that followed, Russell’s staunch determination to do things “the right way” would earn him acclaim in an industry that was quickly abandoning its core principles to compete with lighter liquors like vodka and gin. As the liquor landscape shifted, Russell uncompromisingly pressed on, and eventually became one of the few bourbon gurus left on the planet.
Russell’s steady hand at the helm would ultimately help Wild Turkey turn the tables on its lighter competitors and build out a diverse bourbon portfolio, all while staying true to the principles that were handed down from pre-Prohibition times.
Today, Wild Turkey remains the most authentic legacy of Bourbon County distilling — a perfectly preserved piece of American history — and even Master Distillers at rival companies look at Jimmy Russell as the man who not only shepherded Wild Turkey through the past 60 years, but also led an industry-wide bourbon renaissance.
He’s been called “The Buddha of Bourbon,” “The Master Distiller’s Master Distiller” and former Kentucky governor, Steve Beshear, went so far as to say that the bourbon industry wouldn’t be where it is today without Russell’s influence.
But Russell also has a title that may catch some by surprise: Innovator.
An innovation that’s purely American
Although we tend to reserve the term for conversations about technology, innovation is at the heart of bourbon’s rich history. That’s why, in 1964, the federal government passed a resolution that recognizes and protects bourbon as a purely American-made product.
Innovation is also a staple of Jimmy Russell’s work at Wild Turkey.
In 1976, Russell introduced a product unlike anything the industry had ever seen. Of course, Russell wasn’t about to turn his back on his training in the name of doing something different.
Instead, he started with classic Wild Turkey bourbon and blended it with pure honey in order to create an exceptionally smooth and delicious liqueur.
It’s called Wild Turkey American Honey. It was the first and only bourbon-based honey liqueur in the U.S. market, and has seen incredible growth since its introduction.
American Honey the best of both worlds, really: You get sweet and smooth drinkability — perfect when chilled or on the rocks — without compromising the quality of your bourbon.
Thanks to Jimmy Russell’s expert carriage of time-honored distilling practices, there’s never been a better time to enjoy a high-quality bourbon drink that perfectly suits your individual tastes. It truly is the Golden Age of bourbon.
So whether you’re experiencing the sweet new taste of American Honey, or sticking to the basics with Wild Turkey 101, you know that when Jimmy Russell’s name is on the bottle, you’re tasting an authentic piece of bourbon history.
To learn more about Wild Turkey’s history, the distilling process, or where to find a bottle of Wild Turkey American Honey near you, click here.
SOURCE: Mashable, September 2016