Lexington, Kentucky, Monday April 23
Nobody does racing quite like Kentucky, and with two weeks to go until the world-famous Derby, you can sense the excitement.
Our journey up from Tennessee lasts about four hours and we head to Keeneland, one of America’s prettiest race tracks. We are guests of the club so we wear formal clothing – ties and jackets for the men, dresses for the women – lunch in the club room and get to join the horses in the parade paddock and view one race from trackside in the winners’ enclosure before having our photograph taken with the winning jockey. It’s an amazing experience and to cap it all I win $50. An altogether amazing Kentucky experience.
Our drive to Wild Turkey takes us through some of America’s wealthiest regions, as wealthy as Beverley Hills. We pass the property where the former ambassador to London lives and where the Queen stays when visiting her race horses. The properties are vast, with beautiful galloping on perfectly kept meadows. These are the breeding grounds for the world’s best horses, their bones strengthened by grass enriched by the very same nutrients that make for great bourbon.
To reach the new Wild Turkey distillery at Lawrenceberg you cross a unique S-shaped bridge which crosses the Kentucky River. Down to the right is the old Wild Turkey distillery, looking old and tired. Up to the left, only half a mile away, is the new distillery, and we’re met in the driveway by the legendary Jimmy Russell, who takes us on a tour, leads us through a tasting and joins us for dinner in the evening.
The new plant is capable of doubling the capacity of Wild Turkey to close to 50 million litres a year. Twenty huge fermenters are the main difference between the old and new properties, and Russell says he has settled well in to the new environment. and the biggest change product-wise is the successful launch of Wild Turkey 81, a 40.5% abv version of the famous Wild Turkey 101, introduced because many bars in America won’t stock the stronger whiskey.
“What the new distillery does is give us the chance to put Wild Turkey back at the front of bourbon,” Russell says later. “We’ve got the support which we’ve wanted for a long time.”
Dinner is at the Holly Hill Inn, one of Kentucky’s most exclusive restaurants. Here we’re joined by 12 craft distillers who set up stands so we can sample their whiskeys and then they join us for dinner. I dine with Jimmy Russell and his delightful wife.
And the new whiskeys? Many of them are too young and are works in progress but there is some fine rye and my favourite of the evening is a whisky with grain dried by peat, beech and cherry wood so that it has a fragrant incense-like smokiness. Exciting time.
It’s another long day but a good one.