A Grocery Exec’s Hunting Trip Inspired the Name for a Still-Famous Kentucky Bourbon

Wild Turkey, the most American whiskey, remains exceptionally fine stuff

The most American whiskey you can possibly pour was started by Irishmen and rescued by Italians. Kacy Burdette for Adweek

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.”

A look at Wild Turkey

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.

Wild Turkey grew from the bourbon made by the Ripy family, carefully watched over by master distiller Jimmy Russell (bottom, left.), both shown in this mid-1970s photo (1). Distilled from corn, Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey must be aged in charred oak barrels for two years before it can be bottled (2). The longest-serving master distiller in the world, Russell is joined by his son, Eddie, who is also a master distiller (3). After acquiring the brand in 2009, Campari sunk millions into improving Wild Turkey’s infrastructure, including building this new visitors’ center (4).
Courtesy of Wild Turkey

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.

While celebrity endorsement deals can sometimes leave consumers scratching their heads (remember when Kim Kardashian pitched Charmin toilet paper?), it’s hard to imagine a better fit for Wild Turkey than Matthew McConaughey. Grizzled and world-wise, eccentric and affable, the actor seems to have been born in faded jeans and holding a tumbler of bourbon. In a short online film, McConaughey isn’t so much an endorser for Wild Turkey as its plainspoken scholar, walking viewers around the distillery, questioning the Russells and, at one point, tasting a tiny bit of bourbon made before Prohibition. “Well,” he sighs in his classic drawl. “I feel like I just got a little wiser.”
Courtesy of Wild Turkey

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.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 23, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.