Today, I’ll be reviewing “American Spirit: Wild Turkey Bourbon from Ripy to Russell” by David Jennings.
As a frequent collaborator, occasional interlocutor, and full-time friend of David’s, I’ll need to declare my allegiance in advance for the purposes of transparency. However, as a mentor to me in the craft, I know that David would be dissatisfied with a review that was insufficiently honest and critical. Hopefully, the net result will be a synopsis which is useful to a prospective buyer/reader of his opus. Off we go, on the wings of a turkey:
David starts out in relatable fashion, recounting his beginnings as a naïve drinker, mixing mass-market whiskey with cola. Though he knew little, he “knew” Wild Turkey was rotgut, the type of whiskey best left to those at the margins of society. A chance encounter with the 101 bourbon changed his mind and sparked a passion for this distillery, the result of which is the volume in our hands today.
The first part of the book, “From Ripy to Russell,” tells the story of Wild Turkey through its predecessor entities back to 1830. The tone of this section veers between conversational and evangelical; David lays his partisan cards on the table early. He states his thesis upfront: “Wild Turkey embodies the essence of America… From the rigorous struggles of mid-nineteenth-century settlers to the stubborn determination of the longest-tenured master distiller working today, Wild Turkey is in so many ways a product of the American Dream.”
As a cognitively dissonant believer in both American exceptionalism and Zinn-ian skepticism of the post-colonialist American order, this conceit strikes me as simultaneously comforting and problematic. To start: Wild Turkey is currently owned by Gruppo Campari, an Italian beverage conglomerate known for the eponymous red aperitivo best appended to a heavy-handed pour of gin. While Russells padre, figlio, and nipote have a remarkable tenure in the fraught history of bourbon whiskey, they are not ultimately masters of their own destinies in any meaningful economic sense. This knot will require some untangling; what is Wild Turkey?
Starting from the founding Ripy (then Rippey) family, David does an admirable job placing the distillery in its context both locally and nationally, with respect to the events unfolding at the time. The book is meticulously researched throughout, with primary source material supplying the bones on which the meat of narrative and the fat of conjecture hang.
David tacks romantic rather than cynical at times, as is his wont. For example, he attributes the late 1880’s partnership between erstwhile Rebel James P. Ripy’s brother and Union captain Wiley Searcy to the conciliatory power of whiskey, rather than to naked economic self-interest. As a northerner gazing upon the accumulated myths of the south, to me this seems to fit into its own category of revisionism with which I fear the history of bourbon – indeed, the history of America – is fraught.
The book is lavishly illustrated in a relevant manner; readers are treated to photographs juxtaposed with the explanatory text, rather than sandwiched together in the middle of the book. Not having to flip back and forth is its own small joy; Victor Sizemore should be praised for the vibrance of the photos, while designer Ricky Frame should be praised for their judicious integration.
As the vicissitudes of whiskey fortune were more often driven by commercial (rather than gustatory) concerns, David does well by providing a sense of the competitive landscape and business conditions attendant each purchase, sale, and strategic decision in the thorny history of this brand.
The book really hits its stride once the Russells come into the picture in the mid-1950’s. The material for the section around Jimmy’s early days is clearly derived from first-person conversations. The reader’s frustrations about vagaries are balanced with a sense of respect for the privacy of those who later became bourbon royalty. Approached from a more pragmatic standpoint: we are here dealing with living people and their progeny, whose personal particulars are not relevant to the trajectory of Wild Turkey.
Still, there is enough juice to keep even a generally well-informed reader captivated. The book provoked an audible gasp from me when I read of Jimmy Russell (he who will, reputedly, not drink rye whiskey) distilling gin. The rise of Eddie Russell coincident with the reinvigoration of the brand elicits the mental swelling of orchestral chords in the manner of epic moviemaking.
That said, I feel a sense of overriding concern for the Russells. They’re not owners; they’re staff. If I phrased this through a plausible (which is to say, not impossible) and characteristically old-world hauteur: they’re the help. While I vehemently disagree with this prospective assessment: it’s easy to conceive of someone sitting in Milan, fundamentally misunderstanding the role of Master Distiller and seeing the Russells as, at worst, a marketing ploy.
Jimmy certainly filled this marketing role during the lean years; David recounts the era of Booker Noe, Elmer T. Lee, and Parker Beam traveling the trade show circuit as bourbon hucksters, while increasingly competing with their high-end offerings like Blanton’s and Kentucky Spirit as they waited for broader enthusiasm to return to bourbon.
The turn of the millennium accelerated the pace of change at Wild Turkey, including the introduction of new expressions (Russell’s Reserve in 2001 and Russell’s Reserve Rye in 2007), and the increase in barrel entry proof (to 110 and eventually 115, from 107). Eddie Russell was formally appointed associate master distiller in 2008, a year before then-parent Pernod Ricard announced the sale of Wild Turkey to current owners Campari. From a reader’s perspective, this whirlwind decade passes in what feels like the blink of an eye. I’d love to hear more of the warts-and-all stories behind these fateful decisions, though I suspect politics and politesse prevent their being recounted at the moment.
The arrival of Campari is here noted as a time when Eddie Russell was given more of his due as a strategist and innovator; the relaunch of the maligned entry-level bourbon in its current 81 proof format and the birth of Russell’s Reserve single barrel are credited to Eddie. The string of high-profile releases in the Master’s Keep series are recounted as serial successes for both Eddie personally and Wild Turkey generally, serving to enhance the perception of the label and support the brand’s premium positioning. Augmenting this push was the appointment of Jimmy’s grandson Bruce Russell as full-time brand ambassador, following in his grandfather’s road warrior footsteps.
Turning toward the future, David strikes an optimistic tone at the end of the first section, trusting in the partnership between the trio of Russells (indefatigable Jimmy, steady Eddie, and ascendant Bruce) and owners Campari to preserve and build upon the brand’s legacy. Suppressing my knowledge of whiskey history and my natural tendency towards skepticism, I’ll say only that I wish the best of luck to all involved.
The remaining sections of the book provide a review of Wild Turkey’s core and limited-edition bourbon and rye expressions as well as some sought-after vintage bottlings, with history and editorial added for color and flavor. Frequent readers of David’s site will be familiar with the majority of the content herein, though this will be an increasingly valuable snapshot for reference as time goes on. The appendices are a potpourri of some content from David’s site aimed at a general audience, cocktail recipes, distillery technical information, and a chronological timeline. Again, I can see these sections supporting interest in this book into the distant future.
To be (necessarily) critical: the prose is occasionally staccato, in a way that would seem naturalistic when spoken but reads as disjointed. David is a pleasure to chat with and he has a command of rhetoric that engages the listener; I found his style most successful when I imagined it said in his voice. Though the historical purist in me initially chafed at the “In my opinion”s and “It’s possible that”s which punctuate the body of the text, they also carried me along on a narrative voyage that is as much about one man’s journey piecing together the past as it is about that past itself.
In total: this book is best read as a “One Thousand and One Nights”-style series of yarns, all of which weave themselves into a portrait of one of America’s most important whiskey concerns. As our Scheherazade, David is a master raconteur, unafraid to inject his personal viewpoint into what might otherwise be a dry historical list of names and dates.
Overall, “American Spirit” is an engaging read that should appeal to both whiskey novices and veteran bourbon enthusiasts. David is a generous and welcoming host; his passion is contagious and he devotes substantial sections of this book to laying the groundwork and equipping rookies with the tools they’ll need to understand not only Wild Turkey, but bourbon more generally. At the same time, the pedants among us will delight in the technical nitty-gritty and the obscurantia of hunting trip libations metamorphosing into the well-known and better-loved trademarks of the current day.
I once wrote that “Every great distillery deserves a fan like David,” and this tome only increases my conviction in that conclusion. As a reference work it is useful; as a story it is entertaining; as a philosophical treatise it provides food for thought and fuel for debate. Most importantly, however: as one superfan’s love letter to his muse, it is inspirational. David set out to write a book about Wild Turkey but in the end, he has produced a book about (and energized throughout by) passion for whiskey. As a consequence, I can happily recommend this to drinkers of Wild Turkey, bourbon, and just about anything else.
Our thanks to David for providing an advance copy to review. Photographs by Victor Sizemore and book design from Ricky Frame.