Wild Turkey's new visitors center a cathedral to bourbon

jpatton1@herald-leader.comApril 15, 2014 

— LAWRENCEBURG — Wild Turkey, one of the most down-home of Kentucky bourbons, officially debuted a sophisticated new face Tuesday.

Owned by the Italian spirits company Gruppo Campari, Wild Turkey planned to christen its $4 million visitors center with an evening party honoring master distiller Jimmy Russell, who is celebrating 60 years with the distillery.

Gov. Steve Beshear was scheduled to attend the reception.

Russell, who will also be honored with a special Diamond Anniversary commemorative bourbon, said the new visitors center was designed to look like a Kentucky tobacco barn, albeit one with a spectacular view.

From a distance, the sleek, modern building might pass for a black tobacco barn. But up close, it is a cathedral to bourbon, all spare lines and glass, wood and light.

The 9,140-square-foot space has exhibits on the history of the distillery and a gift shop. But the highlight is the Angel's Share tasting room, with a view to the Kentucky River, 275 feet below.

The new attraction began receiving some visitors late last year but was not fully open until this spring. Before, Wild Turkey had a 1,000-square-foot house from the 1800s converted into a gift shop and tasting room in another location.

But Campari realized that the growing popularity of bourbon — and bourbon tourism — called for something more.

In 2013, Wild Turkey had 62,000 visitors; in 2014, the distillery expects to welcome 80,000.

"With our gleaming new architectural masterpiece, we finally have a visitors center worthy of Wild Turkey's legacy, as well as an outstanding calling card for Kentucky's bourbon industry," Jean Jacques Dubau, president and CEO of Campari America, said in a news release on the opening.

This caps more than $100 million in investments in Kentucky by Campari since buying the distillery in 2009 for $575 million. The company has built a new distillery, a new bottling plant and new warehouses to house even more bourbon to satisfy what the industry hopes will be an even bigger bourbon boom overseas.

In a statement, Beshear called the visitors center the crowning achievement for Wild Turkey and Gruppo Campari, which is now the sixth-largest spirits company worldwide.

"As we continue to elevate awareness for our bourbon culture, we look forward to welcoming our fellow Kentuckians, Americans and visitors from abroad to the Wild Turkey distillery and the entire Kentucky Bourbon Trail," Beshear said.

In 2012, the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority approved the visitors center for as much as $1 million in rebates on sales tax over the next 10 years.

In a decade, the Bourbon Trail has grown into a major draw for the state, and the distilleries have become an economic engine for tourism and industry. Last year, there were almost 750,000 visits to at least one Kentucky distillery.

Russell, who travels the world promoting bourbon and Wild Turkey, spends many days at the distillery. He greets visitors as they pass through his plant, and he sees the powerful worldwide attraction of Americana, and how that leads to a taste for Kentucky bourbon.

"As far as I'm concerned, (the trail) is one of the best advertisements we can have," Russell said. "Our guest book has a lot of foreign names in it."

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: janetpattonhl.

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