You may dimly recall a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup ad campaign years ago where a guy walks down the street munching on a chocolate bar. A second person rounds the corner spooning out peanut butter from a jar (as one does). They bump into each other, treats are "accidentally" integrated, and the rest is history. Wild Turkey claims this is how Forgiven came about: the distillery staff accidentally blended barrels of two distinct, maturing spirits—one rye and one bourbon. Master distiller Eddie Russell claims in the press materials he was "angry at first," but after tasting the finished product, all was forgiven (hence the name).
Several writers have speculated that this "accident" is a marketing scheme designed to introduce a new category to the brand (particularly in an era of deliberate "hybrid" booze products like Absolut Tune or Malibu Red), to expand shrinking bourbon or rye supplies, or simply to spice things up (along with the new Wild Turkey Spice hitting markets now). The industry-focused site DrinkSpirits.com called the release "farcical" with a back story they "just aren't buying." Apparently all of this speculation is incorrect (or, at least, the back story is equal parts reality and marketing opportunism).
We spent time chatting with Wild Turkey distiller Eddie Russell over the phone about the new product. Unless he's the best actor in the world, we'd swear that, three years after the initial incident, there's still a hint of anger in his voice. "In our process, our time curve, we have about 20 different times a year where we are blending and dumping the aged bourbon or rye into large tanks," Russell explains. For example, "I'll dump the six-year or the seven-year barrels into each tank and then start blending them." After each blend is complete, the tank is emptied via a large hose. Tank and hose are thoroughly cleaned before the next liquid is poured in for blending.
Bourbon and rye each have government-mandated grain content minimums (bourbon must be 51% or more corn, rye 51% or more rye), supervised by the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). Any new expression—a different age statement, different proof strength, different blend, new flavored product—must be reviewed and approved by the TTB, and each new batch of an approved label is supposed to be inspected by the TTB to make sure it passes legal muster. In addition, of course, Wild Turkey has its own specific recipes and blend profiles it promotes.
"This time, the person working for me started dumping some ryes and didn't change the hose," says Russell. "I was trying to figure out my yield—why I got so much out of my bourbon barrel. When the employee realized the error, they came and told me about it. I looked at the percentages, tasted it, and couldn't tell if it was a straight bourbon or a straight rye." Also challenging: The rye involved was a four-year-aged 101 rye, which was in short supply at the time, due to increasing demand. The bourbon being poured into the tank: a six-year aged bourbon integral to many of Wild Turkey's blends. The error, according to Russell, represented a lot of hard, careful work and risked the discarding of not one, but two entire batches of increasingly in-demand product and many years of hard work.
In addition, according Russell's father Jimmy (Wild Turkey's master distiller of 59 years, with whom we casually chatted at the recent WhiskyFest NY), the company and the employee in question risked the wrath of the TTB whether the company kept the booze and tried to slip it under the radar, or dumped the whole thing (the TTB tracks all production records and dumping the product could look as if something intentionally went "missing" or metaphorically "fell off the back of the truck").
Eddie Russell's immediate response to his on-the-spot taste test? "I liked the taste. What I thought was so unique is that you really get both spirits: In the bourbon (78% of the blend) you have the sweetness, the vanilla and caramel. In the rye (22%), you get spice. You start with a sweet vanilla, but as you moved over your mouth, it really got into the black pepper and earthy tastes." Being "the good son," Russell passed it around the office to gague other people's responses. "Some people liked it, but they didn't know if it would sell." Early positive feedback from distributors suggested it was worth lobbying the TTB for the right label and sell the product ("We had a guy who buys for Australia, who wanted to buy the whole batch.") Working with the TTB on what was, essentially, a new category for Wild Turkey (blended whiskey), took about two years.
Needless to say the whole thing was a lot more complicated than Russell and team would have planned on without the employee error. "It's very nice having someone who works for you who would tell you up front about the mistake instead of trying to hide it. This is the kind of person who would report the error, even though they knew they risked an official reprimand." Jimmy Russell says that, in cases like this, it's not just Wild Turkey who files a report, but the TTB as well. "The employee says nobody believes the story and they respond, 'I've got the discipline report in my file if you want to see it.'" says Eddie Russell. "It was a pretty big mistake, the kind where people could get fired pretty easily over it, if it wasn't reported" (this is where you can almost hear Russell's tension levels rising).
It's also the sort of mistake that Russell suspects happens "more often than you know of" throughout the industry. Indeed, more than one bourbon and Scotch whisky producer participating in a group of master seminars at WhiskyFest NY noted how many people are still tracking inventory using pencil and paper, or are just now moving to computers.
In this case, a good deed went both punished and rewarded. The TTB approved the new label, instigating a limited-edition run of about 5,000 bottles. "Now am I forgiven?" Russell says the mystery employee joked as they received the finished bottle.
The result is indeed an intriguingly complex blend of sweet-and-spice, and a very drinkable whiskey. On the nose it is warm and soothing, with notes of vanilla, cinnamon and baking spices. On the palate, it opens sweet and slightly woody, rich with marzipan, candied almond and toffee. As it hits the mid-palate things begin to warm up with a medium-weight brightness, drawing the spice notes towards the back palate. Black peppercorn, a light breadiness and the tang of rye wash along down the throat. It is bright and bold without being harsh or hot.
Since the blend wasn't further aged, could it be replicated at home with a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon and one of rye? "It would be hard to replicate," says Russell. "The bourbon was our six-year, which we don't release, it goes into blends. The rye was our 101 (proof), which we're not doing for the public right now."
Will the company replicate the formula for future bottlings in the future? "We haven't replicated it yet. This was a one-time deal," insists Russell.
"It turned out to be a good mistake. Hopefully it won't happen again."
Wild Turkey Forgiven has an ABV of 45.5% and retails for about $50. Distribution is limited to specific cities around the country.
Thirsty for more? Check out National Spirits Examiner or NY Drinks Examiner.
Do you have a cocktail trend, new product, bar or teahouse you'd like me to review? Want to give me a heads-up on your favorite hot spot? Please email me at NYDrinksExaminer AT gmail.com. Or follow me on Twitter @roberthp.
FTC Disclaimer: The author sometimes receives product samples for review, which carry no cash value and cannot be re-sold, and sometimes attends press events such as lunches or cocktail parties, designed to promote a given product. The author is not paid by any alcohol manufacturer, retailer or distributor, or provided compensation apart from revenue from an assigning publishing company for editorial publication. Opinions are the author's own. By the way, you should be 21 or older to read this page. Author received a sample of Wild Turkey Forgiven for review. He's fairly certain he would pee his pants if had to face the collective wrath of Jimmy and Eddie Russell.