Six AM Sunday morning found me wide awake with a full day that needed some sort of entertainment. I’m in Louisville, so bourbon sprang to mind. I plotted a few distilleries in the map and then concluded that I’d rather drive to the destination and attend church within minutes of the Wild Turkey Distillery. One of my smarter decisions…
After church I planned to arrive just as the distillery opened at 11 AM.
The welcome center was very new, built by the new Campari Group, the Italian company who bought them in 2009, returning the vaunted Wild Turkey name to it’s home in Lawrenceburg KY.
11 AM was sold out, but 11:30 was available. The cashier asked if I was military. I said “former”. She asked for proof. I offered that crass mass of brass and glass from my rockbound highland home on my hand and she said “good enough for me”. Admission was free. I was shocked. I honestly thought it would be a $2 discount or something, not simply on the house.
At the appointed time, we boarded a bus and headed for the distillery. This was the first industrial grade facility I have toured. The mechanical engineer in me leapt at the chance to see some real manufacturing.
All bourbon is some combination of the grains above, corn, wheat, and barley. The barley comes from Wisconsin and the rest from the local area, if I remember correctly.
The grains are ground and then introduced into the cooker.
Those bottles against the wall are the yeasts that have been pulled out of the yeast vats for testing and later storage. The particular strain used at Wild Turkey is considered important enough that some is stored around the country in case something happens to the distillery, as insurance. They could get back up and running in case of some sort of disaster.
All that fermentation looks a lot more modern than the vats at Woodford Reserve. Like I said, industrial.
All the operations are “automated”. That means they can be controlled by the folks in this room by computer. There are two people in here 24 hours a day, playing on their phones, making sure nothing goes awry.
Once yeasts have done their thing, the brewer’s beer is distilled. Again, the scale here is tremendous.
First step is the brass distiller on the right, then the one in the hole on the left. Note the little brass houses labeled “High Wine” and “Low Wine”. Gotta keep the revenuers off your back when your moonshining…
Wild Turkey is not really climate controlled, so they shut down during the summer because the outside temperature is too hot for the yeast and the rest of the process to function properly. They fill barrels for about nine months of the year, and the other three they conduct maintenance and bottle. My industry shuts down for a consistent time every year, so I feel even more kinship with these guys.
I love finding the quality control station when I see any type of manufacturing process. The guide described how everything is tasted by a panel of judges, nothing is swallowed, and after 15 minutes of fun, you have to go find something else to do for 45 minutes to get your taste buds rejuvenated.
I really love how everything has a purpose and nothing is wasted. The mash at the bottom of the fermenters is sent to some really happy livestock.
We boarded the bus again to visit the warehouses. Pretty typically, they keep the barrels in the same place for years, with quality control people tasting them to figure out what they’re going to eventually turn into. Where they’re stored and how the seasons treat them changes the flavors. Our guide said the barrel aging process was discovered by a preacher in Bourbon County, Kentucky, who wanted to ship some moonshine down to New Orleans. He only had an old barrel that still smelled like fish so he charred the inside, trying to burn the fish smell out. The trip south took long enough that the alcohol in the barrel aged and interacted with the wood, changing the color and the taste, thus a new spirit was born. That may just be a legend, though. One never knows.
What is that black stuff? It certainly looks unhealthy.
We boarded the bus and headed back to the welcome center for our tasting.
We watched a video of the new face of Wild Turkey, Matthew McConaughey, introducing us to the master distillers, three generations of Russells. He’s the face of Lincoln commercials, too. The video was great, but we reached the welcome center before it ended.
The Russell Reserve was very good, and when you’re feeling ill, beset by a cold bug, grab yourself some American Honey. It’s essential Mr. Russell’s mother’s hot toddy recipe. Sweet and I could feel my throat healing, even though I don’t have a hint of cold. That’s going on the shelf when I get home. Wow, was that medicinal!
The glass with the Wild Turkey logo on it was a take home gift, too.
Some of this video of Matthew McConaughey was played on the bus back to the visitor’s center: