CocktailWonk Rating: 7/10 ($10)
Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Wild Turkey distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.
“Wild Turkey? Are we really going there?” Such was the response from Mrs. Wonk when I outlined this year’s march through Kentucky Bourbon distilleries. If you’re old enough, you may have an impression of Wild Turkey as being inexpensive, less-than-stellar bourbon consumed in mass quantity by hard living folks like Hunter S. Thompson. That said, when those impressions were forming, bourbon and rye were less exalted than they are now, in the midst of the current whiskey craze, where folks pay exorbitant premiums for bottles labeled as the current “hot ticket.” The upside to the current enthusiasm is that Wild Turkey’s reputation, helped in part by the Russell’s Reserve lineup, has shot up again. Thus I was able to construct a convincing argument to Mrs. Wonk that a visit was essential. (Not that there was much discussion, she notes.
The distilling operation that evolved into Wild Turkey dates back to 1869. The brand itself came into being in 1940, a few years following the end of Prohibition. Fast forward seventy years to the purchase of the operations by Italian spirits conglomerate Gruppo Campari. These days, Wild Turkey products are stablemates with Skyy vodka, Appleton Rum, Aperol, and of course, Campari, the intensely red-hued, bitter liqueur. The Wild Turkey distillery creates both bourbon and rye, under both the Wild Turkey and Russell’s Reserve monikers. The Russell here refers to master distiller Jimmy Russell, who’s been with Wild Turkey for more than sixty years. And since flavored whiskey seems to be a requirement for brands these days, the distillery also offers Wild Turkey American Honey and Wild Turkey American Honey Sting, with the added bonus of ghost pepper.
The drive out to the distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, on US-62 is breathtakingly scenic in a rural American pastures, rivers, and fall colors sort of way. Nearing the distillery you cross over the Kentucky River on a two-lane bridge, which provides amazing views up and down the valley. Up on a hill you spy two rickhouses, making it clear you’re getting close.
Turning off the road onto the distillery property, two things become clear: First, the actual distillery complex isn’t some quaint throwback in time, like, say Woodford Reserve or Makers Mark. It’s a gleaming, modern factory. Shortly after Campari purchased Wild Turkey, they invested $50M U.S., creating an all new distillery complex with substantially more production capacity – eleven million proof gallons per year. (In great efforts to not impact the whiskey’s well-loved flavor profile, bacteria samples were taken from the original distillery and reintroduced into the new digs.)
Second, Campari’s money also bought a new visitor’s center that has garnered architectural design awards (and kudos from Mrs. Wonk, who was pleasantly surprised at the surroundings). What first appears to be a simple black barn is revealed to be much more complex as you approach. The structure is exposed heavy timber and plank panels, with a simple palette of concrete, natural wood, and black steel. (This, more than any column still or mash tun, is what piqued Mrs. Wonk’s interest, given her work at an architecture firm.) Inside is a registration desk, gift shop, and museum, plus back of house and event spaces. A promenade ramp leads to a second level tasting bar flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows– and panoramic views of the rolling Kentucky countryside. A section of vintage column still extends from the first to second floors, and an exposed opening lets visitors see the perforated plates within. (I’m told that this is a section of the original distillery’s column still.)
The tour begins aboard a bus (yes, the dreaded bus) for the short drive to the distillery buildings perched above on the hillside overlooking the visitor’s center. Exiting the bus, you’d be forgiven for not realizing that this is a bourbon distillery, were it not for the several stories tall wild turkey painting on an exterior wall, as well as Wild Turkey, Campari, and Skyy brand signage writ large.
Entering the building, you immediately climb several flights of stairs. All of the distillation equipment is several stories above ground level and encompassed by see-through grating. The first stop is the “dona tub” room, where Wild Turkey’s yeast is cultivated and preserved. It’s behind a glass window, so no risk of you inadvertently adding something new to their yeast recipe.
The next point of interest is the mash cookers. They’re also behind a glass window.
Following the cookers are the fermentation tanks—a football field sized room filled with 30,000 gallon tanks. Here you can wander around freely from tank to tank, watching them being filled or bubbling away, and sticking your hand into the sample the mash.
A short walk further and you’re at the column still and spirits safe. It’s also (surprise!) behind glass, so there’s no sampling of white dog, fresh of the still, like at other distilleries.
Having finished with the distillation part of the picture, another short bus ride took us to the bottling plant. This was unfortunately the one place we weren’t allowed to take photos. We were told that this was because as-yet unannounced product might be being bottled, and we wouldn’t want to let the social media cat out of the bag. I find the crazy engineering of bottling lines fascinating to observe; Mrs. Wonk breaks into the “Laverne & Shirley” opening theme song. Walking from the bus to the building entrance you’ll spot a station where tanker trucks load and unload bourbon and other spirits.
The bottling facility is massive, dwarfing the actual distillation building itself. Climbing a flight of stairs, we passed massive tanks where Skyy vodka’s flavorings are blended (dragon fruit vodka, anyone?). From the bird’s-eye view two stories up you can see most of the various automated bottling lines running in parallel. Although Wild Turkey’s bottling operation is huge, it seems smaller than the astronomically huge bottling plant at Heaven Hill, which we toured last year. On one side of the bottling floor you’ll spy a small manual bottling line where various special releases and low-volume, premium products like the Master’s Keep 17 year are bottled by hand.
Leaving the bottling plant, it’s another short ride to the rickhouse, the traditional penultimate stop of a Kentucky distillery tour. Like most rickhouses, the interiors are amazingly similar from distillery to distillery: Lots of heavy timber holding thousands of barrels filled with bourbon, slowly being doled out to the angels through the barrel walls. I will say, these rickhouses feature one of the most beautiful panoramic views that we’ve seen in Kentucky.
Back at the visitor’s center, we adjourn to the tasting room. Our delightful guide, who’d only worked at the distillery for six months, nonetheless provided an excellent overview of the bourbons and ryes available for sampling. (Not surprisingly, there was no Master’s Keep to be had in the tasting room.) While enjoying our samples, I geeked out over the column still guts while Mrs. Wonk geeked out over the architecture (and some killer Tom Dixon pendants). As a special parting gift, guests can keep their tasting glass. I ended up with six, a story for another time.
The gift shop, while somewhat small in comparison to other distilleries, does it right by focusing primarily on the bourbons and ryes made at the distillery, including some of the harder to find expressions. Mrs. Wonk was infinitely patient with me as I dithered about what to purchase, eventually settling on only four bottles to bring home.
The overall Wild Turkey distillery tour experience has its plusses and minuses. In the hour long tour, you see most of the typical highlights of a bourbon distillery, but because several are behind glass, they’re not “up close and personal,” like at Buffalo Trace. The inclusion of the mass-scale bottling lines is something you don’t often see and potentially of interest if you’re wonky about such things. The tasting room experience is above average, aided by the impressive design of the visitor’s center. Throw in a gorgeous drive through the Kentucky country and you’ve got a worthwhile experience.