Give Someone the Bird this Season – The Tale of Wild Turkey Bourbon
Jimmy and Eddie Russell are household names in the bourbon business. Jimmy’s name is synonymous with Wild Turkey Bourbon. You know his name, you’ve seen his smile, and you’ve most likely seen him give someone the bird a time or two. Let’s take a deeper look at this iconic brand and its journey from a sample without a name to a beloved bourbon favorite.
You may recognize the name Austin Nichols. Austin, Nichols & Co was a grocery importer that dabbled in the wine and spirits business in 1855. A few years later, in 1869, James and John Ripy settled in Kentucky from Tyrone, Ireland. They established a distillery on a plot of land, which they named “Tyrone” as a tribute to their homeland, Ireland. Located at what is today known as “Wild Turkey Hill” at this location, they had access to pure Kentucky limestone water, abundant corn, and were located on the Kentucky River, which gave them an easy outlet for transportation. They began mashing 100 bushels of corn a day, but in a few short years, their production rose to nearly 1,200 bushels of corn mash per day. In 1893, the Ripy Brothers (aka Old Hickory Distillery) whiskey was chosen to represent Kentucky at the World’s Fair Exposition in Chicago, IL. The whiskey business was booming for the Ripy Brothers and they worked through the Austin Nichols grocery stores to wholesale their product.
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Then Came Dreaded Prohibition
Many distilleries did what they needed to do to survive Prohibition. They offered medicinal versions of their product or sold ingredients separately. When Congress finally repealed Prohibition in 1933, the Ripy Brothers modernized their distillery, reopened it and resumed production. Austin, Nichols & Company also underwent changes and decided to focus entirely on the spirits business, divesting the grocery business entirely.
A fortuitous hunting trip and a sample of the Ripys bourbon proved to be all that was needed to launch the brand that we know as Wild Turkey. In 1940, Thomas McCarthy, an executive at Austin Nichols brought along some Ripy Brothers 101 proof undiluted bourbon samples to his hunting trip in South Carolina with some friends. The next year, he was enthusiastically urged to bring the bourbon back again! The fellas could not get enough and wanted to know where they could get more! Why, heck, they would even pay for it! McCarthy, who had a marketing background, took the idea and ran. What were the gentlemen hunting, you ask? Wild turkeys, of course! With that, a legend was born!
Wild Turkey has been marketed as the product it is today since that fateful hunting trip, with a few additions to the lineup. Austin Nichols was a non-distiller producer, wholesaling the bourbon under the Wild Turkey brand, most of which came from the Ripy’s distillery. The Ripy family sold their share of the distillery to Robert and Alvin Gould in 1949. It operated under the Boulevard Distillery until 1971 when Austin Nichols purchased the facility and renamed it the Wild Turkey Distillery. It remained under their ownership until 1980 when Pernod Richard purchased the distillery and brand.
1954: Master Distiller Jimmy Russell Joins the Team
Wild Turkey Distillery, Established 1869. This is one of many stones that make up the distillery map located on Main St. in Bardstown, Kentucky, the “Bourbon Capital of the World.”
Though the distillery changed hands, it benefited by strong, steady leadership. In 1954, Master Distiller Jimmy Russell joined the team. Jimmy was trained by Bill Hughes and Ernest W. Ripy and is only the third to take the coveted reins. His son Eddie joined Jimmy at Wild Turkey in 1981. Eddie worked his way through the ranks and is now a Master Distiller, as well. Jimmy was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of fame in 2000 and had the honor of inducting his son, Eddie in the year 2010.
Now owned by Campari Group, Wild Turkey remains one of the most popular bourbons in America. The original spot called Tyrone is now better known as Lawrenceburg, KY has undergone renovation and continues to grow, even today. The town thrives with Wild Turkey and Wild Turkey thrives with the town. Jimmy and Eddie remain at the helm and don’t see themselves going anywhere very soon. Now that you know a little more about its history, hopefully you can appreciate what goes into each barrel a bit more.
About Andrea Holak – Andrea likes to tell stories of bourbon history. She’s a St. Louis resident where she works as a grant administrator at a local nonprofit which provides housing and related supportive services to people who are affected by HIV/AIDS. She originally shared this story with Bourbon Zeppelin. You can follow Andrea on Twitter here @RedTumbleweed.