Five Things I Learned About Kentucky Whiskey (This Week)

Bruce Russell, Wild Turkey. Photos and words, Greg Nagel

Every time I drink whiskey, I feel like I just got a little bit wiser…and this week is no different. Tuesday evening at the soon-to-open Vacation Bar on Fourth Street in Santa Ana, I got a chance to sit down next to Bruce Russell of Wild Turkey and get a little bit of that funky Kentucky brown they call “one-oh-one,” among other fine-feathered treats.

Bruce is grandson of Master Distiller Jimmy Russell, a guy who would be chiseled into a Mount Rushmore of bourbon distillers, if there was such a thing. “Granddad still works every day and says if it ever becomes work, that’s the day he’ll retire,” Bruce notes with a slick southern drawl and a smile.

Working through four Wild Turkey whiskeys, a few notes I scribbled down kind of blew my mind:

1 – Wild Turkey is the only Kentucky whiskey producer that makes only one brand. Others in the region diversify product lines, brand names, and recipes per product. Wild Turkey has two grists (bourbon and rye) and the varying barrel quality and age of liquid make up the various Wild Turkey product line.

2 – I knew that Kentucky bourbon makers still made booze for medicinal purposes during prohibition. What I didn’t know was that to supplement their income, not all bootlegging was done in fast cars. Some distilleries started quarry businesses. Not only did they profit from pulling rocks out of the side of the Kentucky River…each truckload of rocks *may have* contained a few barrels of booze on the bottom. Cops would never question it as they didn’t want to lift huge boulders.

3 –  The best liquid goes to Japan. Due to Japan’s dense population, the rich opt to invest in high-end products, not cars or real estate. Of those products, American bourbon couldn’t be a hotter commodity. Lower quality bourbon goes to Australia, mostly for ready-to-drink canned products, like Wild Turkey 101 Cola.

4 – Wild Turkey has around 26 warehouses with 20,000 barrels each. Trying to visualize a half-million barrels breaks my mind.

5 – Russell’s Reserve isn’t chill-filtered. Chill-filtering is generally a good idea for large-batch booze as water, barrel complexity, and alcohol can stratify over years in the bottle, causing a cloudy haze. Small-batch whiskey tends to be purchased and consumed faster due to demand, and doesn’t need chill-filtering. This preserves yummy proteins, barrel character, and even fatty acids that appear on the glass as “legs” after swirling.

Find Russel’s Reserve and other Wild Turkey bottles at most O.C. liquor stores and bars. 

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