The Wild Turkey Distillery is part of the international mega-corporation Campari America that produces over 35 brands, labels and variations of North American whiskey including bourbon. Campari America is a division of the Italian spirit giant Gruppo Campari headquartered in Sesto San Giovanni, Italy. The company's North American headquarters is located in San Fransisco, California (where Skyy Vodka is made) but its biggest distillery is still in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Its Distilled Spirit Plant number is “DSP-KY-67” and a secondary “DSP-KY-71.” The main distillery grounds has 29 warehouses and over 700,000 barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky. The company and its distillery is now the sixth largest producer of Bourbon and North American whiskies in the world.
According to their website, the founder of Wild Turkey was Austin Nichols who started selling whiskey and wine as a small wholesale grocery business in New York City way back in 1855. Even earlier than that, James Ripy an immigrant from Ireland settled in a small town in Kentucky called Lawrenceburg around 1830. In his twenties James became a clerk in a dry goods store. Ripy later became a successful merchant and distributor of household goods including whiskey in the mid 1840’s and 1850’s. He started buying up a number of small distilleries in and around Anderson County. James had two sons that lived to adulthood, James P. Ripy was born in 1844, he served as a junior officer in the Confederate cavalry and after the war married into the family that produced “Bond & Lilliard” Whiskey. Like his father he went on to become become a distiller. The younger son Thomas Beebe Ripy was born in 1847 and was sent off for a fine education for both prep school in Louisville and then college in Franfort.
In 1869 James and his two sons built their own larger distillery on the Kentucky River in the town of Steamville, that James later renamed Tyrone after the County in Ireland that he was from. The distillery was called the Rippy Brothers Distillery named after the two sons that he had hired to run the plant. Thomas Ripy would go on to become the largest distiller in the world over two decades between 1880 and 1905. Thomas Ripy's Bourbon called “Old Ripy” was chosen from over 400 to represent the State of Kentucky at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The brand name changed later to reflect their owners success and was simply called, “T. B. Ripy.” Their slogan used throughout their marketing efforts was “From Father to Son Since 1831.”
In the 1930's Austin Nichols & Company was one of the largest wholesale grocery businesses in New York State so when the repeal of Prohibition took place in 1933 he had the perfect channel to purchase, bottle and distribute distilled spirits. In 1935 Earnest W. Ripy, the son of Thomas Beebe Ripy rebuilt the distillery from scratch after prohibition, that facility would one day produce twenty plus brands whiskey including Wild Turkey. Earnest also assumed the title of Wild Turkey's very first Master Distiller. Two of Earnest’s sons; T. B. Ripy III and E. W. Ripy Jr. ran the distillery and helped expand the production four-fold during their time.
In 1940, a distillery executive by the name of Thomas McCarthy took a barrel of the Ripy Bourbon and two of his brothers to a hunting trip in North Carolina. On that trip, McCarthy hosted a Turkey Hunt and invited some of their distributors including Austin Nichols. McCarthy was entertaining the hunters throughout the hunt and stopped on four occasions to share some of his fine whiskey right from the barrel that day. As it came out of the barrel it was smooth, spicy and at 101 proof. Everyone on the trip raved about the taste and less than two years later the Wild Turkey 101 brand was introduced in 1942. Austin Nichols sells off grocery chain to concentrate on the spirits business.
In 1949 the Ripy brothers sold their distillery to Robert and Alvin Gould and renamed the facility the J.T.S. Brown Distillery. T. B. Ripy III and E. W. Ripy Jr. continued on at the JTS Brown Distillery and Junior (as E. W. Ripy, Jr. was referred to) stayed on as Plant General Manager until late 1972. In 1950, Bill Hughes becomes the second Master Distiller at the JTS Distillery (later to be renamed the Wild Turkey Distillery). Hughes releases a Rye Whiskey made in te Baltimore Style later that same year calling it “Wild Turkey Rye 101.” On September 10, 1954, Jimmy Russell was hired on at the plant sweeping floors at JTS. In just six years in 1960 later Jimmy Russell is named a distiller and in 1967 he is named the third Master Distiller in Wild Turkey's history a position that he would hold for the next 60 plus years.
In 1971, the Ripy Distillery in Lawrenceburg was purchased by Austin Nichols, the name was changed to The Wild Turkey Distillery and Jimmy Russell was retained as the Master Distiller. In 1976 Wild Turkey releases its third brand and the world's first flavored whiskey, called “Wild Turkey Liqueur with Honey”, this brand over the years is morphed into "Wild Turkey's American Honey." In 1980 the distillery and all its subsidiaries are purchased by French beverage giant “Pernod_Richard” for almost $100 million. In 1981, Eddie Russell, Jimmy's son takes a job as a relief operator on the weekends at the distillery.
In 1991 the distillery launches its first Super Premium brand in "Wild Turkey Rare Breed." In 1995 Jimmy Russell launches their first Top Shelf brand in "Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel" at 101 proof (of course). Two of E. W. Ripy's great-grandsons still work at the Wild Turkey distillery today. Jimmy Russell is inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2000.
In 2006, Wild Turkey repackages and its Wild Turkey Liqueur into the brand now known as "Wild Turkey's American Honey." In 2007, a 15 year-old bourbon was released to honor September as Bourbon Heritage Month, it is called "American Spirit." In 2009 Italian super conglomerate “Campari” buys Wild Turkey and pays almost six times what it sold for a quarter century earlier.
In 2010, Eddie Russell is inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame and his father Jimmy presented the Award. In 2011 Wild Turkey builds a new state of the art distillery and then in 2014, the distillery releases "Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary" a combination of 16 and 13 year old bourbons in honor of Jimmy Russell's 60th year with the company.
In January 2015, Eddie Russell is appointed as only the fourth Master Distiller in Wild Turkey history. Jimmy stays on as Master Distiller Emeritus and travels the world spreading the news about all things bourbon and Wild Turkey. In August 2015, the distillery releases its first of the Wild Turkey Master's Keep line in “Master’s Keep 17 year-old” bourbon. In 2016 Wild Turkey creates a new position appoints Hollywood star Matthew McConaughey its Creative Director. In 2016 the second Master’s Keep version is released as “Master’s Keep Decades” and in 2017 “Master’s Keep 1894” (which was produced to export to Australia). In April 2018 Wild Turkey releases a mesquite finished bourbon called “Longbranch” through the joint collaboration of Eddie Russell and McConaughey. Also in 2018 the distillery released “Master’s Keep Revival.”
Click On first Slide to see all of Wild Turkey's North American Whiskies
All photos of Wild Turkey are provided by Wild Turkey Distillery