Erinn Diaz: Entrepreneur, Performer, Author, Optimist
Today, in honor of the anniversary of prohibition ending on December 5, 1933, we visited the Wild Turkey distillery right along the beautiful Kentucky Bourbon Trail. What an experience!
The distillery is a true American icon and embodies a real tradition of rural craftsmanship of the highest quality. In 1891, Thomas Ripy built the Old Hickory Distillery in Tyrone, Kentucky, and after the prohibition, the Ripey family repaired the distillery and began to again produce bourbon. The Ripys sold the bourbon produced at this distillery to various wholesalers who bottled bourbon under their own brands, and the "Wild Turkey" brand arose when a young executive took some warehouse samples on a wild turkey hunting trip in 1940. The bourbon proved so popular among his friends they continued to ask him for "that wild turkey bourbon."
Outside the distillery, there were three silos, one of corn, one of rye and one of barley…. The silo for corn being the largest, because for whisky to be named bourbon, it has to be at least 51 percent corn! How “corny” is that? As we walked in the distillery, the strong scent like freshly baking bread filled the room.
The first room was where the “mash” was being made, mainly sugar water was being created from grain. My favorite room was where they mixed the mash with the yeast in these massive vats called “Wash Backs.” This is where yeast is added and the fermentation process begins! It was amazing to see the vats bubbling with the “live and active culture” that yeast is! The entire operation is run by surprisingly few staff, and they have it down to a science.
There is a TRUE family sense around the distillery- proven by the loyalty of employees like Jimmy Russell who holds the record as longest master distiller in the industry! He started working for Wild Turkey in 1954, and STILL comes to work 7 days a week at age 81! The family named a special batch of whisky after him that we got to taste called “Russell’s Reserve”, and it was smooth and delicious! We weren’t lucky enough to catch Jimmy at work today, but everyone speaks very highly of him!
We also got to walk into the warehouses where they actually keep the aging barrels. Currently, there are 700,000 barrels of whisky on the property! (And that is NOT a typo)!
The warehouses and surrounding areas have a black residue all over it, and it is a type of fungus known as “angels share fungus”… it’s not harmful, but it used to cause a heap of trouble during prohibition, as it would expose those illegally making moonshine! “Angels share” is a term that is used to describe the evaporation that occurs when the whisky is aging in the barrels.
The entire family is into the business… which is no surprise considering Wild Turkey makes so much money that they are paying 1.5 million dollars in TAXES alone EVERY 15 DAYS. Now THAT’s wild!
But one of the things that was just wonderful to hear from the staff is that bourbon and whisky distillers just love one another and don’t even bother feeling or feeding into the word “competition”. Many distilleries along the Kentucky bourbon trail are just one big family, and enjoy helping each other out and lending a hand when they can. I believe that “riches” come freely to those who do their work with an open heart and wish to see successes for everyone.