Following on from my epic Wild Turkey tasting, I reviewed my conversations with David Jennings, a.k.a. Rare Bird 101.
Beyond the material that was germane to the set of reviews we collaborated on, there was so much meat on the turkey’s bones (sorry; not sorry). David is a fount of wisdom and an entertaining conversationalist, with a sing-songy southern accent that pitches and rolls like a rowboat on a windy day. He’s a great deal of fun to chat with, and our conversation was more jazz improvisation than proper interview. Proceeding along no obvious narrative arc: we talked Turkey, whiskey, and writing. I thought the output might be of interest to MALT’s readership.
However, I am aware that some in the audience would prefer reviews every day. For them, I am happy to report that the kinds folks at Single Cask Nation were able to spare some samples of their Wild Turkey barrel picks. I have appended those reviews to the end of the piece.
First, though, a chat with David. Our conversation is reproduced here, condensed and edited for clarity, though it necessarily jumped around as we free associated.
MALT: You’re in a position of prominence with regards to Wild Turkey. How are your interactions with that team, and the Russells? When you’re sitting down with those guys, what are you talking about?
David: Most of my interaction takes place with Campari America PR. If I’m trying to communicate about releases, release dates, different programs that the distillery has going on, promotional, limited editions, news – all that has to go through Campari. You’re not going to talk to Eddie about that kind of stuff. He’s got a job to do.
With Eddie and Bruce [Russell], when we’re around each other – which is not that often; I see Eddie a couple times a year, I see Bruce a little bit less. I see Eddie at the distillery, and I see Eddie when he comes to visit [South Carolina]. He usually comes to our state at least once a year, sometimes twice a year. I might see the Russells twice a year.
We have a very friendly relationship. I met Eddie up at Columbia a couple weeks ago; he said “When you did your first barrel pick with me last year, I was real nervous. I just thought you were going to be real judge-y and critical of everything. I thought I wouldn’t be able to find a good barrel for you… and you were the fastest person to pick a barrel!”
When I’m doing that stuff, I’m just in it for the moment. I was more interested talking to Eddie than what barrel I picked, to be honest with you. I went with my gut. I’m not going to get nerdy with him; I’m not going to sit down with a notepad and start picking through the details. I told him, “Pour them blind, I’ll pick my favorite, and then let’s just talk.” He poured me four blind samples, I picked my favorite one, he asked me if I wanted another one, we threw a fifth in there, picked one, and that was that.
I did the same thing a couple months ago at Wild Turkey. I did a lot more tasting when I was at Wild Turkey. When you’re in the rickhouse, you don’t want it to end. I tasted 11 barrels!
MALT: Compared with the regard in which it’s held, and the demand for bourbon overall – these things sell out, which tells you the market could bear more than people are charging?
David: Now that prices have gone apeshit – for lack of a better word – it almost warrants [a price increase]. When you’ve got Kentucky Owl from an unknown distillery wanting $200 for a bottle, you’re like, “I might just be buying Knob Creek rye here.” You don’t know, and they don’t disclose.
MALT: Does Wild Turkey think it’s leaving money on the table when it’s setting out releases at more reasonable prices compared with what it could fetch?
David: I think that Campari thinks that. Obviously they do. Master’s Keep went up from $150 to $175. In my opinion, Revival should have had a higher price tag than Cornerstone, because Revival went through an extra finishing process with very rare casks, which are not easy to get now. It was twelve-year Wild Turkey bottled at 101. Just look at how much 101 12 year sells for on the secondary. And now you’re taking that 101 12 and you’re finishing it in legit Spanish Oloroso Sherry Casks under the watchful eye of Eddie, and they’re just charging the same thing they charged for Decades.
MALT: How do you think about the tension between operational and commercial considerations?
David: You have two camps: Wild Turkey the distillery, and Wild Turkey the brand, which is Campari. There is some push and pull there.
Eddie and Bruce and Jimmy – all they care about is making good whiskey. They love the folks they work with. They love Lawrenceburg. They’ve been through several owners. They’ve been through Pernod, they’ve been through Austin Nichols. They’re used to doing their own thing and another company’s writing the checks. If somebody comes in with all this experience, “I’ve been around the world for 30 years, I know what good whiskey is all about; y’all need to do this and y’all need to charge that…” they’re going to be like, “Wait a minute… who the hell are you?”
There’s that push and pull. I don’t think it’s confrontational. Like with any work situation, you’re going to have departments disagree, and you’re going to have people in charge of departments disagree. It’s not that it’s unfounded; everyone’s passionate about this stuff. They’re just trying to make sure that it’s what they feel like it should be. There’s an art to it.
Eddie has said some very nice things about Campari. He kind of felt like Pernod was giving up on him. Eddie had all kinds of ideas, new expressions he wanted to try and things he wanted to do, and they just weren’t interested.
When Campari came in, they wanted to listen to him, they wanted him to try things. All the new expressions have come out since Campari bought Wild Turkey. Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye, the Master’s Keep line, Wild Turkey 81 – which is a great improvement over the 80. All these things – Forgiven – all this stuff came out after Campari came on board and they started listening to Eddie. Credit to them, and he’s grateful for it.
MALT: When you’re talking to Eddie vs. Jimmy or Bruce, is there a big stylistic difference between what they like?
David: Jimmy only likes bourbon, and he only likes their bourbon. He’ll tell you anything else isn’t good. It’s always funny listening to Jimmy. He’s just set in his ways, he’s old-school, and he’s home team only. That’s just how he was raised in the business. You don’t divulge secrets. He’s not going to tell you about mash bills or sources or barrels – nothing. Even now, they’ve confirmed their bourbon mash bill and he will not. If you ask him what their bourbon mash bill is, he probably won’t tell you.
If I were to ask him where Austin Nichols sourced barrels from before it was 100% Wild Turkey [their Lawrenceburg distillery], he probably wouldn’t tell me. He still honors the wishes of Mr. Hughes and Mr. McCarthy, his bosses from the 50’s and 60’s. If they told him, “You don’t tell this information,” that means “You don’t tell this information until the day you die.” He’s loyal and faithful to that brand, period. He’ll tell you he only likes Wild Turkey bourbon, and he likes it neat, and that’s about it. He doesn’t like cocktails; his idea of a cocktail is putting a piece of ice in it. Jimmy ain’t going to retire. I hope Jimmy lives to 101 years.
Eddie, for the longest time, was very much a bourbon guy. Didn’t really have any interest in rye; Bruce kind of turned him on to it. He’s very “Kentucky rye”; he told me he doesn’t like MGP, he’s not into the dill notes. I think some of that’s home-team spirit. He likes Beam a lot. He’s really good friends with Fred Noe; he hung out with Booker [Noe] and Elmer [T. Lee] when he was young. He gained some really good experience travelling with them; he has a lot of good stories from hanging out with Booker and Elmer. They would go fishing – and Jimmy doesn’t swim – so when they would go fishing, it was just Eddie, Booker, and Elmer, sipping each other’s whiskeys.
Now, Bruce is a huge rye fan. He might even say he likes rye more than bourbon. He’s big into rye and he’s instrumental in their rye program being what it is now. He’s also willing to try new things. Bruce will drink Scotch, he’ll drink rum. He’s very into experimentation. He was good friends with Dave Pickerell; Dave Pickerell was kind of a mentor to him. Pickerell was all about trying new things. He was all about experimentation. So, I think Bruce picked that up from hanging out with Pickerell and his friends, the folks he associated with out in Texas when he lived there for several years. He’s very open-minded. He’s brand loyal, he loves Wild Turkey. I think he’s itching to get his hands dirty as a distiller. I think he would love that opportunity. We’ll see what happens.
MALT: What are the tough questions about Wild Turkey?
David: I’ve always wanted to know where the original sources were from back when it was Austin Nichols. I think Jimmy probably knows, I don’t think Eddie does. Jimmy ain’t talking. I would love to know – Eddie is on the record saying by the time he signed up, which was in ’81, even though the label says “bottled by,” they were only using their whiskey.
Prior to that they still could have been using Old Boone barrels or whatever they had around wholesale from Austin Nichols. Because before Austin Nichols purchased the distillery in ’72, they were bottling Wild Turkey with whatever they could get their hands on. There was a phase-out there. I would love to know: when was the last non Ripy Bros. distillery barrel dumped into the batch? When did that stop- ’72, ’73, ’74? When did they strictly use Ripy Bros./Anderson County/J.T.S. Brown barrels, when did that transition happen? I would love to know that, I’ll probably never know.
Me and Eddie sat down and tasted a ’68 Wild Turkey 101 and a ’69 J.T.S. Brown side-by-side, and they were eerily similar. Eddie said he tasted some difference, and he felt like the 101 had something else in it from another distillery. I trust him.
As far as being critical, I really have a hard time being critical of Jimmy and Eddie. I think they are no bullshit. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love them so much – there’s this genuine passion there. It’s like Fred Minnick told me one time: Wild Turkey, they’re the quintessential bourbon story. They’re the only one left. All these others have changed owners so many times, changed label names. Wild Turkey that we have now goes all the way back to when Jimmy started. No other bourbon producer [except maybe Beam] has that legacy. They all have family names, but a lot of it was purchased-in or revived.
When you go to Wild Turkey, it’s not a glorified tour. It’s not pretty like Woodford. It’s very much industrial; you’ll have overgrown foliage, the rickhouses are old as hell. It’s real bourbon. It’s not a marketing ploy. The old way of doing things. Will it stay that way? I don’t know. I worry that it will get over-commercialized at some point; there’s money to be made there.
MALT: When you’re picking barrels, what is the flavor profile you’re looking for? What makes a barrel stand out to you?
David: I’m definitely not looking for a [specific] profile. I’m looking for something that strikes me. I want the profile to find me, to grab me and say, “You need to pay attention to MY ass, because I’m different.” If I’m looking for a single barrel, I’m looking for something that strikes me as different. If it’s super spicy, or super fruity, or a ton of bakery notes, or an oak bomb, whatever it might be, it’s got to have something.
You’re going to detect that on the nose; it has to carry on. You might say, “Man, this is the most amazing fruity nose I’ve ever had, it’s so great,” and then you go taste it and you’re like, “Uh, this tastes just like every other Russell’s.” Or maybe it finishes out real flat or dry. You want something that grabs your attention from nose to finish, and it doesn’t have to fit any profile. You might give it to me, and it tastes like some kind of crazy coffee or something.
What’s great about Wild Turkey is they have these rickhouses spread out all over the place, built from all different years, and they all have unique profiles to them. They don’t have to manufacture the variance; they don’t have to blend recipes to get a certain new profile. Mother Nature’s going to do that for us. You can have two barrels from the same rack and the same rickhouse and they may be totally different. Then if you stretch it out from a different location – man – are they going to be really different. I think that’s one of the things that really sets them apart.
I wish they would do barrel proof; they don’t. They do 110, which is only 5 points away from the entry proof, which is not too bad. I taste something like Elijah Craig Single Barrel which is 94 proof with an entry proof of 125; that’s a lot of freakin’ water! Every Elijah Craig Single Barrel I’ve ever tasted tastes like Elijah Craig Single Barrel. There might be slight differences, but none of them are ever like, “Whoa, this is crazy different.” You just don’t get it. You’re never going to.
Same thing with Buffalo Trace; I’ve had people go, “Man, this Buffalo Trace is the best Buffalo Trace ever bottled, it’s so unique.” I taste it and I go, “Tastes like Buffalo Trace.” What I’m saying is, you get something crazy different [with Wild Turkey]. I’m just looking for a profile that calls out to me. I don’t necessarily have a preference; it doesn’t have to be fruity or floral. If it hits right, I know it.
MALT: You’ve had this explosion of Russell’s Reserve; how does the growth of Wild Turkey evolve, in your opinion?
David: I think they’ve still got room. They could offer it at barrel proof. Look at how it sells out already! You put a store pick, in a lot of areas it’s gone that day. In Nashville, they don’t stay on the shelves. The barrel I picked last year, “One & A Century,” it sold out in three hours. I’m not saying that’s on me; that’s a reflection of how hot people are for these things. Beast Masters just recently had a K barrel they put up online. It sold out in like 10 minutes. Single Cask Nation with their picks bottled at Cask Strength; they had to go to lottery, they were selling out in 2 minutes. I keep telling Campari: look!
MALT: What’s their response?
David:: Eddie tells me that it’s going to happen. It was supposed to happen this year; they relocated their headquarters and lost about 30 people. It really affected the brand. They lost a brand manager. They had to start from the ground up. I would suspect we’ll probably see something by next year with barrel proof. There’s room to grow there not just on the bourbon side, but on the rye side as well. You could have barrel proof rye. What I would do, if I were them, is keep the retail version 110 and 104 for the rye, but private selections, do those barrel proof.
I think they’ve got room to grow on blends. A lot of people liked Forgiven. I didn’t like Forgiven, but that’s because it had a lot of young whiskey in it. Forgiven’s like 4 to 6 years, max. If they were to do a Forgiven with mature whiskey, I think it would have a lot better market response. Eddie told me that Bruce is working on a new rye-bourbon blend. I think it involves 9 year bourbon with 4 to 5 year rye. Rye at 4 to 5 years can be really good for a blending element, because it has that spiciness.
Then you’ve got Rare Breed rye, which I pitched [on my blog] a year and a half ago. Finally, Eddie announced a couple weeks ago that they’re going to do a Rare Breed rye, which is going to be a 4, 6, and 8 year rye. The name hasn’t come out yet. Rare Breed rye is what they should probably go with, but Rare Breed is Jimmy’s baby, and Jimmy hates rye. I say “hates” it: he’ll spit it. He’ll sip it, but he won’t swallow it. If he’s going to drink, he drinks bourbon. I think they were kind of hesitant to name it Rare Breed Rye because it’s kind of anti-Jimmy, but it’s smart to market it that way, in my opinion.
They could do more finishing. I had an idea: why don’t you finish a bourbon in a rye barrel? And why don’t you finish a rye in your own bourbon barrel and see what it tastes like? If it turns out cool, you’ve got a new product right there!
I think the room to grow is still well above where they’re at right now.
MALT: Any advice for aspiring whiskey writers?
David: You first have to be honest. If you’re not honest, you can just stop right there. When you’re giving an opinion on whiskey, you have to be honest. I’ve done that, and it’s been hard. I don’t know if you’ve ever read my review of 1894, which was a very high-dollar Australian release? I ripped it a new one. It sucked. “Why are you charging people this much money?” I tried to do it tactfully. I didn’t just come out and say, “This is a rip-off!” I tried to explain my dissatisfaction logically.
The second thing is you need to have a balance between your emotions and your objectivity. If you just go in there and just say something sucks and you hate it and they’re ripping you off, nobody’s going to care about your blog. They’re going to tune out. You want to have some objectivity.
You want to say, “I’m not happy with this release, and here’s why, and here’s how I think it could be better.” I always try to have a positive spin on things. When you end on a sour note, people are put off by that. Even people that agree with you are sometimes like, “Damn, that was harsh!”
You’ve got to be honest, you’ve got to be objective, and you have to show people that there’s a better way.
Excellent advice there from David, who remains a fantastic resource for me personally and for the whiskey community more broadly. If you haven’t already checked out his site, I’d strongly urge you to do so. If you’ve got a Wild Turkey question, or indeed a bourbon question more generally, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me encouraging you to get in touch with him directly through your social media platform of choice.
A few times, David had mentioned the Single Cask Nation bottles as being worth seeking out. Regular readers will be familiar with the company’s several offerings which I have reviewed on this site before. I begged Jason Johnstone-Yellin and Joshua Hatton for any remaining Wild Turkey samples they had around, and they kindly obliged. I offered to pay whatever they wanted, including shipping, but they demurred. It’s worth noting these bottlings sold out instantaneously, so there’s no direct commercial benefit to them from providing me tastes. That said, I’m disclosing all this in the spirit of maximum transparency which governs this site.
With that out of the way, I am giddy with excitement to have a chance to try these. I chatted with Jason from TJWC/SCN and he mentioned that their approach to cask selection is similar to David’s; they’re looking for something different, something unique. The first of these barrels, for example, was found in the warehouse with “Rejected” scrawled across the head in chalk. Apparently it was deemed too deviant from conventional Wild Turkey profiles, much to the delight of the denizens of Single Cask Nation.
It’s worth noting that all these are bottled at barrel strength, which is not available anywhere else across the official Wild Turkey line. These bottlings are also unique in that they are bottled at cask strength, something which does not occur with the official Wild Turkey bottlings, as noted above by David.
The first is a nine year old whiskey from cask #1075. Distilled in December 2008, 150 bottles were produced in March 2018 at a strength of 56.8%.
Single Cask Nation Wild Turkey Cask #1075 – review
Color: Golden brown
On the nose: Rich sweetness galore. Caramel, sticky toffee pudding, and a heaping dollop of vanilla. There are also creamy scents of salted butter, a touch of fluoride, and a faintly meaty note. Some pine trees and smoky whiff of kielbasa emerge with time. A topnote of acetone gives this a bit more of a nasal kick than the official bottlings.
In the mouth: At first incredibly tart, before this crystallizes into the purest bourbon flavor I have ever tasted. It’s all wound up at midpalate, with ample limestone, some nutty flavors, and a lick of furniture polish. This lasts forever, lingering all over the tongue with a cherry-accented sweetness and a sweet nip of cinnamon sugar.
A really special barrel. The nose is so expansive and inviting, but this surprises on the palate by being very focused and linear. Both David and Jason had mentioned the appeal of barrels that demand to be noticed, and this is an eye-opening example thereof.
The next sample is from the Whisky Jewbilee Chicago festival bottling from 2017. This is cask #3426, which produced 150 bottles at 61%. The whiskey is nine years old.
Whisky Jewbilee Wild Turkey Cask #3426 – review
Color: Also golden brown
On the nose: Sweet as well, but in a smokier way. Crème brûlée, some savory notes of deli meat. Cedar wood, and another note of fluoride. Mexican brown sugar. Most similar in profile to a Russell’s Reserve barrel.
In the mouth: Round and fruity throughout, again similarly textured to Russell’s Reserve. There’s the added nip of some piquantly woody notes on the front of the tongue, as well as a sweet and salty peanut brittle. The midpalate is accented by a squeeze of lemon juice and the tongue-coating sweetness of honey. This lingers with a stony-minty note but does not persist endlessly like its predecessor.
Somewhat of an in-between-er for me. It’s less self-possessed than the first barrel, but still has some sumptuous goodness in it. About the equal of some of the better Russell’s Reserve single barrel picks I have had. Solid, but not extraordinary.
Single Cask Nation Wild Turkey Cask #16-313 – review
Color: Golden brown, again.
On the nose: The least immediately expressive of the three. Caramelized sugar and ham. Vanilla custard, more acetone, and that’s about it. Maybe a very faint whiff of barbecued pork shoulder.
In the mouth: Very middle-of-the-road. Less linear than the 9 year old, but less plump than the Jewbilee bottling. There’s a muted woodiness to open. At the middle of the palate, this hits a hot high point before fading very rapidly. Again, a fruity note of cherries remains, though this is far less persistent than the 9 year old.
For being the highest strength of the bunch, this is the least forceful in terms of personality. It seemed that the harder I tried with this one, the less I was able to discern. In the grand spectrum of bourbon whiskey this has plenty to like, but in this lineup it suffered from the comparison to some really distinguished competition.
Each of these was a pleasure to try, and I once again must extend my heartiest thanks to the Single Cask Nation folks for passing along these samples.
If there’s a difference from the slightly diluted Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel picks, it’s most evident in cask #1075. This goes to a different level entirely in terms of the intensity of the aromas and flavors, as well as in the dominating mouthfeel. The expectations built up by the toothsome nose are turned on their head by the hyper-delineated and exceedingly focused palate which goes on interminably.
The remaining barrels are good bourbon, and indeed are valuable indications of how much variation can be extracted from a single distillery’s lone bourbon mash bill. In isolation, either would be a credit to Wild Turkey, with the Jewbilee festival bottling edging out the second Single Cask Nation cask. However, cask #1075 remains the best of the three, perhaps the best Wild Turkey I have yet tasted.
Between the two tastings, I’ve had quite enough Wild Turkey for a while. I hope these deep dives have given the MALT readership a sense of this very special distillery’s manifold possibilities, and has encouraged a Turkey hunting trip or two. Thanks once again to David and the Single Cask Nation guys for making all this possible.
Please note that David is not employed by Wild Turkey or Campari, and his thoughts and opinions expressed are from his own observations and interpretations. Images kindly provided by David and Single Cask Nation.