Wild Turkey Bourbon from Ripy to Russell
The story of Wild Turkey is in many ways the story of bourbon itself. From the struggles of nineteenth-century immigrants, to the triumphs of the longest-tenured master distiller in the world, a bold, uniquely American spirit emerges.
American Spirit: Wild Turkey Bourbon from Ripy to Russell is a tribute to the perseverance of two families, each perfecting their passion through extraordinary circumstances. It’s a testament to Jimmy Russell and his sixty-five years of unmatched dedication to quality. And much like a glass of fine bourbon, it’s a journey – a personal reflection on something carefully crafted over time. This book is a love letter to Wild Turkey that all bourbon enthusiasts can raise a glass to and enjoy.
Connected with David on Twitter this weekend as he gave me some information on the new Masters Keep BiB. Read a few of his blog posts on rarebreed101 and knew I had to read this book. Finished it in one day. Awesome information that is equal parts informative and entertaining.
Toast to you, DJ!
For anyone familiar with DJ’s blogs, you understand his excitement, his deep knowledge and passion for Wild Turkey 🦃.
This book captivates so much more than Wild Turkey and bourbon reviews. Honestly, it’s like a historian and a bourbon review made a baby, and that baby is “American Spirit: Wild Turkey Bourbon From Ripy to Russell”.
This book is a must read for any bourbon enthusiast, and will certainly appeal to many historians.
A must-read for whiskey enthusiats
David Jennings provided me an advance e-copy of this book for review on the Malt Review site. That review has been reproduced in edited form here:
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.
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.”
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.
The turn of the millennium accelerated the pace of change at Wild Turkey. 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 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. 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.
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.
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.
As a reference work, “American Spirit” 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.