American distillers are known for protecting secret recipes and ingredients, but few guardians match the commitment of one Jimmy Russell.
The Wild Turkey distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ky., where Russell has overseen the stills for 65 years, has used the same yeast strain since the 1950s. At some point, the thought occurred to Russell that were the place to suffer a fire, that yeast might be lost. Why not just choose some other yeast? Unthinkable, son. Russell, then, did the only logical thing: He poured some of the yeast into a bottle, took it home, and put it in his refrigerator.
“Wild Turkey has had quite a few owners throughout the years,” explained Melanie Batchelor, vp of Campari, Wild Turkey’s parent company. “But Jimmy’s always been the consistent steward of the brand.”
Just in case this story smacks of a bit of fanaticism, consider that we’re talking about bourbon, here: Kentucky bourbon. Consistency is a sacred article. So is legacy, and Wild Turkey—the venerable old spirit that’s become surprisingly trendy again—has plenty of that.
James and John Ripy were Irish immigrants who landed in the Bluegrass in the 1850s and opened a distillery. By all accounts, their whiskey was exceptionally fine stuff: It beat out 400 competitors to represent the state of Kentucky at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Indeed, so popular was the spirit that Austin, Nichols & Co., the wholesale grocer that had long bottled and sold it, eventually shed the rest of its interests to focus solely on the hootch.
In 1940, a Nichols executive named Thomas McCarthy—who’d begun taking along some of his personal stash of the 101-proof bourbon on hunting trips with his friends—was asked to bring along some more of “that wild turkey bourbon.” McCarthy, no fool, saw a good name for what it was, and the Ripys’ famous bourbon has been called Wild Turkey ever since.
Not that everything has been that easy. After enjoying a few years of patio popularity after WWII, bourbon took a tumble in the 1970s and ’80s as vodka and other so-called white spirits rose to prominence. And, as Batchelor will concede, bourbon still tends to have “embedded associations” as “a drink for Southern gentlemen.”
One gentleman who saw bourbon’s potential for a wider audience was Luca Garavoglia, chairman of Italian liquor leviathan Gruppo Campari, which bought Wild Turkey for $575 million in 2009, then began infusing the brand with $100 million in corporate cash: $44 million for a new packaging facility, $50 million to expand the distillery and another $4 million to build a visitors center atop Wild Turkey Hill.
Campari’s best investment, though, was one the public didn’t see. Starting in 2014, its Behind the Barrel program invited bartenders onto the property to spend two days among the white-oak casks to learn about distilling methods and, of course, to sample the product. It was mixologists—the progenitors of the cocktail culture—who helped repopularize classic drinks like the whiskey sour and the old fashioned and, as a result, “spread the word of Wild Turkey,” Batchelor said.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Russell, the master distiller who’s known in whiskey circles as the Buddha of Bourbon, has some younger help in preserving Wild Turkey’s distilling traditions. It is none other than his son, Eddie, who is also a master distiller with decades on the job but, alas, so far as is known, no yeast in his fridge—yet.