Wild Turkey History American Icons: Wild Turkey

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I n the modern American market, many new brands are met with scepticism or even the ire of the bourbon community for their propensity to borrow history and lay claim to founding dates and events that bear no relation to them beyond ownership of an old trademark. Established in the decade following prohibition when the legacy brands of the “Big Four” dominated the market, Wild Turkey is notable for always having been itself. Its no-nonsense marketing and bold whiskies made it a favourite of hardened drinkers, and today increasingly to connoisseurs accustomed to the big flavours of spirit-driven cask strength whiskies.

The story of the brand begins around 1934 when, in the wake of repeal, the Austin Nichols company of New York began to source American whiskies for their grocery business. Two years later, the company president, Thomas McCarthy, took some of their whiskey on a Turkey hunting trip. It was drawn directly from the cask, where it was resting at 101 proof. So popular was the whiskey with his cohort, they encouraged McCarthy to launch his “wild turkey whiskey” at that exact, now legendary strength. The first Wild Turkey 101 was then sold in 1942.

The majority of Austin Nichols’ casks were sourced from the Boulevard distillery. Distilling on the site, now known as Wild Turkey Hill, has taken place since 1850 when the Old Moore distillery was built there. It was acquired by the Ripy family in 1888, who despite falling foul of The Whiskey Trust in 1902, retained ownership of it until 1949. Such was its importance to the increasingly popular Wild Turkey brand in the years that followed, that Austin Nichols acquired it in 1971. The distillery became the sole producer of Wild Turkey bourbon, and renamed after it in the process. Both Wild Turkey bourbon and rye are produced there to this day, although Boulevard was replaced by a new, modern facility in 2011 by parent company, Gruppo Campari.

One of the key factors to the success of Wild Turkey was its ability to weather the storm of the bourbon market downturn of the 1970s and 1980s. This was in no small part due to its popularity in Japan. Drinkers on the other side of the Pacific were notable for their preference of strong, well-aged whiskey, and Wild Turkey offered both through its 8- and 12-year agestatements and take-no-prisoners proof. The distillery wisely embraced this, and like Heaven Hill, Very Olde St Nick and the Van Winkle Family Reserve, they gave the market more of what they wanted. Unusual Japanese exclusives, and the 101 proof releases that were discontinued domestically in the 1990s are now some of the most sought-after bourbon on the market, increasingly repatriated by American collectors after being packed off to save the industry many years before.

As the domestic market recovered and subsequently exploded in popularity at the end of the century, the distillery was well-placed to position the brand as one of the country’s best-selling. The years following the turn of the millennium saw the introduction of a wealth of new products, from single barrels, premium agestatements and limited editions, as well as a new line named Russell’s Reserve, named after legendary Master Distiller, Jimmy Russell.

Jimmy Russell has proven as important to Wild Turkey as any other part of their story, and began work at the Boulevard distillery back in 1954. He became Master Distiller in 1967, four years before Austin Nichols took over, and the legacy of Wild Turkey is a much his as it is theirs. Eventually joined and then succeeded by his son Eddie, by 2018 the Russell’s had a noteworthy combined distilling experience of 101 years, all spent in the service of Wild Turkey.

In the end, Wild Turkey was a brand that didn’t need to borrow names from the past or cling onto the family history of a tenuous relative. Austin Nichols let the product speak for itself, that Wild Turkey whiskey told its own story, and the family heritage was well-earned from over a century of dedication to the craft which has produced one of America’s best-loved names.