When David Jennings was in college, he didn’t particularly like Wild Turkey: It was the inexpensive stuff, a shooter to throw back before going out, something to mix with Coke. So he was as surprised as anyone to discover a few years ago that, actually, Wild Turkey is delicious. That realization has led him down a life-changing path to extreme fandom, which has so far yielded a successful blog, a book, and a following of paying Patreon supporters called Russell’s Renegades who get access to Jennings’ private barrel picks and other benefits.
It all started around 2013 with a pint of Wild Turkey 101 that Jennings bought on a whim. He was just getting into whiskey seriously and wanted to try something new—or retry it, years after his first casual tastes—to potentially review on Reddit. “In my mind I’m thinking this is going to be bottom-shelf whiskey,” he says, “and it ends up tasting really good.”
Although Jennings was surprised, his newfound appreciation kick-started his obsession. Other Wild Turkey fans started sharing samples, many of them from antique bottles, or “dusties,” including a sample of 8 year old Wild Turkey 101 from 1981. “The very first time I nosed [that whiskey], I was in love,” Jennings recalls, comparing the experience to discovering a new band. “You buy their CD and you just fall in love with it, then you go and buy their whole catalog. You can’t explain it: You just like it. It happened that way for me.”
By 2016, Jennings’ habit of posting whiskey reviews on Reddit had turned into a blog, RareBird101, that focused solely on Wild Turkey. As he spent more time—and money—on the hobby, he developed a reputation as an authority on the distillery and its whiskeys, sought by other writers for his expertise and deep tasting experience. By 2018, he was working on a book about Wild Turkey—the distillery, its whiskeys, and its famous master distillers, Jimmy and Eddie Russell. Jennings now knows both men—he even texts Eddie from time to time—but the first time he met them, he was rendered speechless.
“It was like meeting Santa Claus when you’re a kid, when I met Jimmy,” Jennings says, recalling the drive from his home in Georgia to a South Carolina liquor store where Jimmy and Eddie were signing bottles. He was thinking about the things he wanted to say the entire trip, but by the time he got to the front of the line at the store, his mind was blank. “[I decided] I’m going to just chill out and enjoy this moment,” Jennings says. “So I sipped some Russell’s [Reserve private-barrel picks] and I sat there and just enjoyed and talked to Eddie about the barrels. I realized I was kind of leaving Jimmy out of the mix, so I walked over and squatted down and spent a little bit of time talking to him and got some pictures. It was just a great day. … They say don’t meet your heroes because they might not turn out like you [expect], but to me it was exactly like I thought they were going to be, or even better.”
After lengthy research that included working with Tom Ripy, a descendant of T.B. Ripy who co-founded the original distillery, then called Ripy Brothers—and even correcting a few facts displayed at Wild Turkey’s visitor center—in 2020 Jennings published his book, “American Spirit: Wild Turkey Bourbon from Ripy to Russell,” thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign. He’s continuing to blog and trade samples, though he finds that reviews of readily available whiskeys, rather than rare dusties, draw the best response from readers. “The most popular articles are when I review the latest 101 or the latest Rare Breed,” he notes.
Jennings estimates that he currently has more than 150 bottles from Wild Turkey—whose core range only includes a dozen or so whiskeys—the majority of which are open, although he doesn’t have “the best Turkey I ever tasted,” a 14 year old Master Distiller Selection bottled for export. But even without those unicorns, he’s content to enjoy the steady stream of Russell’s Reserve single-barrel picks—he himself has done nine, both at the distillery and virtually—or anything from Wild Turkey’s core lineup. His enthusiasm only feeds his inspiration. “If I didn’t like how the whiskey tasted, I wouldn’t be talking about it,” he says. “You have to have that passion to cover the subject matter. If you don’t like it, that just ain’t gonna last.”
Super-Fan Facts: David Jennings
Daily drinker: Russell’s Reserve 10 year old
The one he dreams of trying: The first bottling of Wild Turkey 101 (ca. 1942) or the Master Distillers’ Unity, a blend of bourbons from seven Kentucky distilleries, including Wild Turkey, created by Heaven Hill’s master distiller emeritus, Parker Beam
Three words that best describe his relationship with Wild Turkey: Bold, genuine, true; the whiskey’s tagline. (“Of course,” Jennings says.)
Most memorable Wild Turkey moment: “Sipping bourbon straight from the barrel with Eddie, Bruce [Russell, Eddie’s son], JoAnn [Street, Eddie’s niece], and ten of my good friends in Wild Turkey’s legendary rickhouse A. I’ll never forget that wonderful day and look forward to a time when we can do it again.”
Most extreme thing he’s done for Wild Turkey: Traded a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23 year old for several dusties, including a “donut” bottle of Kentucky Legend single barrel, a “cheesy gold foil” 12 year old 101, and his first love, a 1980s-era 8 year old 101