Wild Turkey’s Accidental Success

Photograph by Michael Pirrocco

When he first tried it, Eddie Russell was intrigued by the taste of Wild Turkey’s new Forgiven whiskey, a blend of rye and bourbon. And that means something. Russell is a master distiller at the Kentucky whiskey giant who has been with the company for 33 years – 26 less than his distiller father, who followed his own father into the business. But Russell was not tasting the liquor for quality-control purposes. He was trying the accidental mix for the first time after finding out from a very frightened employee that thousands of gallons of rye had accidentally been pumped into a tank of six-year-old bourbon

“A lot of employees would have tried to slide it through and forced me to investigate, but at least he told me,” Russell says of his employee (who wasn’t fired). “He messed up some good bourbon whiskey and rye whiskey.”

Years ago, the mistake would have been more serious. Russell says that young mixologists have fundamentally changed the whiskey business by constantly churning out new Old Fashioned and Manhattan recipes – recipes that call for less traditionally flavored whiskey. Forgiven has a sweeter taste that many whiskeys, offering notes of vanilla and butterscotch that fade toward a more peppery, earthy finish. It is very drinkable neat, but better suited to cocktails, which offer a better forum for intricate flavors.

Because this whiskey is far from traditional, Russell had a hard time convincing his bosses, including his father, of its virtues. Until an Australian buyer’s extreme interest in an approachable product sparked interest from the American buyer, it looked like the batch, some 5,000 cases, might be bound for the drain. But Russell knew that “new” is no longer pejorative in the whiskey game.

“It used to be that our consumers were older and whatever they drank, they stuck with that,” says Russell. “But now our consumers will hear about something and want to give it a try.”

After he tried and failed to package it as Unforgiven – the name was already taken – Russell shepherded the single batch of Forgiven from his distillery in Kentucky to stores around the country, where it hasn’t stayed on shelves. This drinkable, not sipable, whiskey may not totally satisfy traditionalists, but it is the perfect bottle for drinkers new to bourbon and rye and amateur bartenders looking to garner their first rave review. [$46 for 750 ml; thewineandcheeseplace.com]

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