There’s been many a tall tale come from hunters sipping whiskey. Heck, you may have a few yourselves. But did you know this ritual represents an integral part of whiskey history?
Hunters originally packed whiskey for medicinal purposes.
In an 1869 issue of Hunters & Trappers, the publisher explains how to treat a rattlesnake bite: “When bitten, take a good whiskey and drink as fast as you can stand it; allow yourself to feel the liquor before you stop taking it; I mean, drink a half a pint...”
Of course, that half a pint would taste nothing like today’s whiskey. Back then, laws did not protect the quality of the spirit, and early Americans drank whiskey colored with tobacco spit and flavored with snake heads. True story. An 1837 The Sporting Magazine author writes about enduring bad whiskey on a quail hunt: “And to my sorrow I did taste it – old apple whiskey, with Lord knows how much snake-root soaked in it for five years. ...”
Thankfully, today’s whiskey recipes avoid snake-root, and hunters need not pack whiskey for health reasons.
In the modern era, hunters still carry their whiskey jugs, flasks and bottles to toast a hard day’s hunt. Whiskey companies also target hunters.
When you walk down a whiskey aisle in the liquor store, you’ll see many bottles donning birds, deer and other game. A quick count at my liquor store discovered 28 whiskey brands with hunting-influenced labels, including jackrabbits on High West whiskey, antlers on Red Stag black cherry-flavored whiskey and a squirrel on Aberfeldy Single Malt Scotch whisky. Some named their whiskey after the hunter’s prey, such as the Famous Grouse blended Scotch whisky or Caribou Crossing Canadian Whisky, while others named brands after hunting dogs – see Wolfhound Irish whiskey or Bird Dog whiskey.
One brand was created for hunters by hunters. As an executive for Austin, Nichols Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, Thomas McCarthy had access to great whiskey. When he and his pals went for wild turkey hunts in the Carolinas, McCarthy regularly poured handsome shares of his distillery’s best whiskey.
This whiskey was not available on the market by itself. Its richness and smooth finish were blended with lesser whiskey. In the late 1930s, most good whiskey was gone thanks to Prohibition and distillers lumped most product for one big batch.
So, McCarthy’s friends understood this whiskey was special. Before every hunt, they asked their distillery friend to keep bringing that “Wild Turkey” whiskey.
McCarthy saw an opportunity and created the Wild Turkey bourbon brand in 1940. And to this day, Wild Turkey is steeped in hunting tradition. The bourbon maker is a significant corporate sponsor to the National Wild Turkey federation, nearly all of its employees hunt and its distiller, Eddie Russell, trains his own bird dogs for quail and pheasant hunting.
“Nothing’s changed since the beginning,” Russell says. “We make our whiskey with the same recipe, the same yeast culture and all our employees hunt.”
When he’s not working with his English setter, Russell and his father, legendary master distiller Jimmy Russell, are whipping up new batches of Wild Turkey 101, Wild Turkey Rye, Russell’s Reserve, Rare Breed and American Honey.
Without a doubt, Wild Turkey is one of my favorite American whiskey portfolios. You can taste raw, unfettered character in every sip. I also believe Wild Turkey’s beginnings reflect bourbon’s culture and its social connections that still exist today. So many distillers and workers hunt that it’s a reminder the good stuff was introduced to share with friends.
Whether you’re a hunter, fisherman or card player, it seems a good bourbon enlightens the moment, and that, my friends, is what we call the good life. With friends.