A tale of three bourbons

To celebrate National Bourbon Day in the U.S. (June 14, 2024), we take a deep dive into American whiskey, through three Kentucky distillery tours.

To kick off Jimmy Russell’s 70th anniversary year with Wild Turkey, the renaming of the visitor center commemorates Jimmy’s unwavering dedication to crafting bourbon his way. Photo courtesy of Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey: Shooting for Third-Generation Greatness

To dive into the world of Wild Turkey whisky, first consider going shooting. Picking off clay pigeons at the Anderson County Sportsman’s Club is a unique way to experience the lore behind the whiskey made nearby in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. It started with a spirit the Ripy brothers made starting in the 1800s that was sold by grocer Austin Nicholls (a name that still graced Wild Turkey labels until recent years). On 1940s hunting trips, a Ripy executive shared some of that whiskey, which became popularly known among straight shooters around the world as Wild Turkey.

Jimmy Russell began working at Wild Turkey 70 years ago, and a new visitor centre, the Jimmy Russell Wild Turkey Experience, contains the Generations Lounge celebrating the family legacy. His son Eddie has worked there for 43 years, Eddie’s son Bruce is now a blender and on any given day all three Russells are probably present at the distillery.

“We’ve got Jimmy whiskies that are big, bold and in your face. And we’ve got Eddie whiskies like Rare Breed, that are softer. Me, I love rye,” Bruce Russell said, during a blending challenge in which he judged the efforts of a bunch of eager amateurs to re-create Rare Breed (which he calls an “Eddie whiskey.”). The new 10-year-old Master’s Keep Triumph rye, with a toasty mocha nose and rich orange-oil tones, might just be the taste of Turkey to come.

As Bruce Russell leads a tour through the working distillery, he jokingly points out what he calls “purposeful inefficiencies,” or, “Things Jimmy just doesn’t want to change.” That includes longstanding policies such as using non-GMO corn and importing the tastiest food-grade rye from northeast Germany. The same proprietary yeast that’s been used for they whiskey since pre-Prohibition is still propagated on site. A long, cool fermentation creates spirit that goes into barrels at a relatively low strength, contributing to Wild Turkey’s spicy, fruity flavour. Its famous 101 bottlings (they’re 101 proof, or 50.5 per cent alcohol by volume) are around eight years old, because, well, that’s the flavour sweet spot that Jimmy has always favoured.

A new distillery is breaking ground behind the new visitor centre, for development of new limited-release products and innovations — for the next generation of Wild Turkey.

Maker’s Mark bourbon is made at Star Hill Farm in Loretto, Kentucky. Photo courtesy of Maker’s Mark

Maker’s Mark: Sustainability at Star Hill Farm

Plenty of bourbon distilleries are located out in rural Kentucky, but few are on working farms. Star Hill Farm in Loretto is where a branch of the Samuels distilling clan moved in the 1950s to create Maker’s Mark bourbon. Today, the farm is a paragon of sustainability and modern farming: it’s one of a handful of B-Corp Certified distilleries, and the first distillery in the world to receive Regenified Tier 2 certification for sustainable agriculture. “Bourbon is an agricultural product,” says Amanda Humphrey, the farm’s advocacy and experience manager, touring me around the farm. A promise to source 100 per cent of its grain from regenified farms by 2025 is part of the vision.

Tours start in a modern, white-walled gallery crowned with a Dale Chihuly blown-glass light fixture and hung with local art. Behind that is a striking new bar and terrace, for surveying incredible views of the farm. “Rob [Samuels] calls it the ‘Napa-fication of bourbon,’” laughs Humphrey, of the grand new pavilion.

As at many Napa wineries, there’s an emphasis here on terroir, or the sense of place the whisky gets from its surroundings. We pass fluffy lambs and shiny black Angus cows grazing, and acres where heritage grains and oak tree strains are test-planted. We cruise past dozens of bee boxes, the location for an upcoming solar array and the spring-fed, limestone-filtered lake where the distillery gets all its water (a treatment centre on site processes distilling wastewater and byproducts).

Star Hill Provisions restaurant follows the farm-to-table philosophy. An innovation garden pilots new produce, with a larger chef’s garden, orchard and greenhouses also supply the kitchen (with no spraying or chemicals used on the property). Though bourbon nerds think of oak mainly for barrel-aging whiskey, it turns out that American oaks can be inoculated to produce indigenous local truffle varieties, a seasonal menu treat. Resident truffle dog Star trots with us to an old limestone quarry, repurposed for cultivating other mushrooms also used in savoury dishes and cocktails.

Maker’s is also innovating beyond the tall wooden rickhouses that dot rural Kentucky. It has experimented with moving barrels of whiskey to the cooler, indoor cellar where its Private Selection barrel program runs. The result is Maker’s Mark Cellar Aged, a whiskey even more toffied, fruity and delicately spiced than the original. Everything old is new again at StarHill Farm.

The Michter’s bourbon line-up. Photo courtesy of Michter’s

Michter’s: Details Matter

When wine and spirits importer Joe Magliocco bought the trademark for 19th-century Pennsylvania Michter’s whiskey in the 1990s, his goal was to resurrect a “cool old brand” he remembered from his college days. He started by sourcing existing whiskey for early bottlings, then temporarily producing whiskey at another distillery. Starting in 2015, Michter’s starting turning out fine whiskey in Kentucky, sold in bottles based on the 19th-century vintage design.

The phrase I heard often during a behind-the-scenes tour of the Shively, Kentucky, distillery (not open to the public, though anyone can tour the boutique-y Fort Nelson distillery in downtown Louisville) was: “Details matter.” COO and master of maturation Andrea Wilson (a Bourbon Hall of Famer) and Canadian-born Rick Robinson, a longtime distiller who’s now VP corporate development at Michter’s, repeat it frequently on a walk-through of the former auto-parts plant. “We are traditional in our methodology,” Wilson says, “but we operate with a modern culinary mindset” — that is: quality and flavour come first.

For instance, Michter’s uses only non-GMO, USDA #1 grain, milled on-site with a cage mill, versus the hammer or roller mills, which Michter’s believes can heat and change flavours in grain. New-make spirit goes into barrels at an unusually low strength of 103 proof (51.5 per cent alcohol by volume). requiring more barrels and warehouse space. “Water is a catalyst for a whole lot of other reactions,” says Wilson. “We prefer to add more water earlier in the process, and less before before bottling.”

Instead of using tall wooden rickhouses for maturation, low, insulated concrete warehouses and winter heat-cycling produce the uniquely rich, smooth Michter’s house style. Barrels crafted from naturally air-dried and seasoned oak are toasted before being charred. “Charring takes seconds; toasting takes hours,” Robinson says, but it creates different, richer flavours than a charred barrel alone.

Another flash of founder’s curiosity resulted in the recent limited-release Celebration bottling. “If Scotch whisky can create luxury products, then why can’t we?” Joe Magliocco wondered of the bourbon world. Distiller Dan McKee donned white gloves to take an elegant, gold-inlayed decanter from its luxe red box and pour the rare, 30-year-old, fruitcake-rich liquid Just a few hundred bottles of Celebration were released, for around USD$4,000 each, last year. It tastes like the future of luxe American whiskey.

—by Charlene Rooke

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