Let’s Talk Turkey: An Interview With Rare Bird 101’s David Jennings
Let’s Talk Turkey: An Interview With Rare Bird 101’s David Jennings
Author David Jennings is widely regarded as the most prominent Wild Turkey historian in the whiskey world. After spending years among the ranks of bourbon enthusiasts on Reddit, David’s insight on obscure laser codes and his methodical approach to identifying the characteristics of “Dusty Turkey” was rewarded with recognition in major publications. From there he soon graduated to writing his own blog, Rare Bird 101, dedicated to all of his musings on the brand he loves above all others.
Then in 2020 he released his first book, American Spirit: Wild Turkey Bourbon from Ripy to Russell, which charted the legacy of the brand and solidified Jennings’ transition from super-fan to authoritative figure. Now, comfortably cemented as the go-to source for all things Wild Turkey, David Jennings is back with a new book. Wild Turkey Musings: A Whiskey Writer’s Retrospective highlights some of his most sagacious insights from his years writing on the web and distills them down to a sort of “greatest hits” that he’s then accentuated with updated information, relevant context, artwork by Ricky Frame, and images by Victor Sizemore.
As one of the early Kickstarter supporters for both of David’s books I was anxious to speak to him about how this latest tome came to fruition and so I spoke to Mr. Rare Bird himself to learn more. Read ahead to hear a bit about his journey, his favorite Wild Turkey expression of all time, and what the historian hopes to see for the future of his favorite brand.
Drinkhacker: In the foreword of your latest book, written by Fred Minnick, he says to be a whiskey writer, “you need passion to tell a story that no one else can tell.” What is it about Wild Turkey that really stirs your passion?
David Jennings: I guess I’ll have to answer your question with more questions. What makes someone your favorite musical artist? Why is a certain sport or sports team your favorite?
I can’t say exactly why I love Wild Turkey as much as I do, but I can say that it speaks to me. I love the flavor profiles. I love the brand’s history. And I love the Russell family and everything they’ve done, and continue to do, to make Wild Turkey what it is and has been for decades.
Drinkhacker: How did you get your start as a whiskey writer?
David Jennings: I started out writing whiskey reviews on Reddit’s r/Bourbon forum. Looking back, it taught me a lot about respecting the opinions of others.
Drinkhacker: What was the process like for you in compiling this book compared to your first?
David Jennings: The first book, American Spirit, was very much like sampling a whiskey blind. I had no clue what I was getting into, but I was excited to dive in and figure it out. The second book, Wild Turkey Musings, was interesting because a bulk of the writing was already completed. The challenging part was compiling and editing it – figuring out which blog posts would be included and if they flowed with the overarching theme of my retrospective.
Drinkhacker: Was it easier or more difficult to craft your second book?
David Jennings: Wild Turkey Musings was much more difficult than I’d originally envisioned it. I thought it would be a simple process – select the blog posts, edit the blog posts, add my author’s notes, throw in some pics, whip up a design, and done! Ha! I probably spent just as much time on Musings as I did American Spirit (and Spirit was written from scratch).
Drinkhacker: What are some standout lessons that you’ve learned in your journey as a whiskey writer since starting your blog, Rare Bird 101, in 2016?
David Jennings: That assumptions are dangerous things.
Drinkhacker: As perhaps the premier Wild Turkey historian, I know people frequently ask you to name the “best of the best” from the brand. What answer do you tend to give people?
David Jennings: Best is a relative term. To me, there’s no such thing as a single “best whiskey ever” or “best whiskey in the world.” People are different and dynamic. Palates develop and change. And then, there’s so many styles of whiskey. Zero in on Wild Turkey and you have at least three primary categories – bourbon, rye, and whiskey-based liqueurs (not to mention finished whiskeys, bourbon and rye blends, RTDs, etc.). But if you were to pin me under a barrel and ask for “the best,” here’s a few releases I’d probably utter: the 2006 Master Distiller Selection (export), Russell’s Reserve 1998, Master’s Keep Revival, and the 17-year Bottled in Bond.
Drinkhacker: For a long time Wild Turkey was somewhat overlooked, but with more recent expressions like Russell’s Reserve 13 and Single Rickhouse flying off the shelves that’s clearly changed. When do you think that began and why do you think that is?
David Jennings: Interestingly, this topic comes up in Wild Turkey Musings. First, and most importantly, it’s high-quality whiskey. If it weren’t, I don’t think we’d see it as popular as it is today. Second, with bourbon’s boom the more commonly lauded expressions (many from Buffalo Trace) became even more scarce. That led to people branching out and overcoming the “frat boy/biker bar” stigma Wild Turkey unfortunately carries. It’s been a slow battle, but tasting is believing.
As for when the present level of attention started, Master’s Keep Cornerstone’s release (2019) was the first time I noticed folks having difficulty finding a bottle. By the time Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond came out (2020), the Turkey craze was in full swing.
Drinkhacker: Wild Turkey has long been the “everyman’s whiskey” and part of that is due to their historically affordable prices. However, lately they’ve been pricing their limited editions more in accordance with industry standards. Do you think that’s reflective of a change in Wild Turkey or a change in the market?
David Jennings: I think a little of both. No business wants to leave money on the table, and bourbon has been underpriced for scores. Brands know this and are currently adjusting to meet heightened demand. Heritage distilleries, like Wild Turkey, have been careful to keep their core products affordable. The hefty increases you’re seeing are with more of the enthusiast-oriented and limited-edition offerings. If Master’s Keep is out of your comfortable or ideal spending range, there’s always Wild Turkey 101 or Rare Breed (which remain two of the best values in American whiskey).
Drinkhacker: In your first book, American Spirit: Wild Turkey Bourbon From Ripy to Russell, you cover the full history of the Wild Turkey brand in depth. What was the most interesting part of that history that you uncovered during your research for the book?
David Jennings: It wasn’t a factual discovery, but more of an understanding or acceptance that Wild Turkey started as a grocer’s house brand, not a distillery. Prior to 1971, and arguably for a short time afterwards, Wild Turkey 101 was produced with sourced bourbon. Most of it came from Anderson County, but not all of it. So anyone who has a problem with sourced whiskey in 2022 should consider that the expensive dusty stuff could’ve originated anywhere in the Bluegrass State.
Drinkhacker: Finally, what would you like to see for the future of Wild Turkey?
David Jennings: Staying true to what Jimmy Russell has built, but at the same time, not repeating it. I like that Eddie, and now Bruce, have offered their own takes on Wild Turkey. What they do, they do with respect to Jimmy. It may not always be things Jimmy would like or do, but they do them in the Jimmy way. I hope that continues for years to come.
David Jennings’ new book, Wild Turkey Musings: A Whiskey Writer’s Retrospective is available for immediate purchase now at mascotbooks.com
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