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How Wild Turkey is capitalizing on the bourbon boom

Like penicillin, the Slinky and the chocolate chip cookie, the hottest category in the wine and spirits industry was, in fact, a mistake. Around the 1870s, a clergyman and whiskey distiller from Bourbon County, Kentucky, found that the cheapest way to clean a fish barrel in preparation for storing whiskey for transport was to burn the inside of it. When the whiskey arrived at its destination months later, it had changed. Mellowed by the interaction with the charred barrel, bourbon, America's only native spirit, was born.

In 2013, the United States' bourbon and Tennessee whiskey industry generated $2.45 billion, up from $1.82 billion just five years ago according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. That 35-percent growth was driven by high-end premium and super-premium brands, which saw 31-percent and 104-percent growth, respectively, over that same time period. On a global scale, American distillers exported $1 billion worth of bourbon and whiskey last year; that's nearly triple the value of exports a decade prior.

Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell sniffs a glass of bourbon.
Source: Campari America
Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell sniffs a glass of bourbon.

But just 30 years ago, the category was practically left for dead, as consumers moved towards lighter spirits like vodka and rum. Enter today's millennial consumer who is now looking for more flavor in their spirits choices and is being shepherded toward bourbon by bartenders rediscovering classics like the Manhattan or Old Fashioned.

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Dating back more than 100 years, Wild Turkey is one of the oldest, most illustrious brands in Gruppo Campari's expansive spirits portfolio. Purchased in 2009, the company is focused on the iconic brand and famed distillery on Wild Turkey Hill in Lawrenceburg, Ky.

Here are three things we're doing at Wild Turkey to capitalize on the bourbon boom:

1. Investment in Wild Turkey Hill and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Gruppo Campari's financial commitments to Wild Turkey since it was purchased in 2009 for $575 million has surpassed $100 million, including a $50 million distillery expansion that more than doubled the plant's production capabilities; a $43 million packaging facility; and multiple new barrel warehouses. Plus, Wild Turkey recently unveiled a new multimillion-dollar visitor's center to capitalize on the expected increase in visitors. The Lexington Herald-Leader described the 9,140-square-foot space, which overlooks the Kentucky River, as a "cathedral to bourbon." Last year, we had 62,000 visitors and expect 80,000 to visit the new center this year. This represents only a portion of those who tour the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a multi-distillery experience created by the Kentucky Distillers' Association that's an important economic traffic driver for our area.

Turkey barrels outside of bourbon maker Wild Turkey, which is owned by Italy's Campari.
Image source: Cindy Perman | CNBC
Turkey barrels outside of bourbon maker Wild Turkey, which is owned by Italy's Campari.

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2. Innovation. The increased interest in bourbon has created a market ripe for experimentation. Master Distiller Jimmy Russell, who's been at Wild Turkey for 60 years, and his son Eddie Russell, who joined in 1981, consistently merge innovation with tradition to create bourbons that will drive the category's growth to new heights. Jimmy invented the honeyed-bourbon category in the 1970s with the launch of Wild Turkey's American Honey.

Just within the past year, Wild Turkey released two unconventional new products. Wild Turkey Spiced, bourbon with spices typically found in island spirits, is aimed at bringing spiced rum drinkers into the category. Wild Turkey Forgiven was created by mistake after our distillery crew accidentally mixed bourbon and high-proof rye whiskey. Despite its accidental beginnings, Eddie enjoyed it and embraced the mistake, allowing us to capitalize further on the red-hot rye whiskey category, which is up 44 percent according to recent Nielsen figures.

3. A marketing makeover for millennials. Wild Turkey saw an opportunity to bring the brand squarely into the hearts and minds of millenials with its largest marketing investment to date and first-ever TV campaign called #Nevertamed. The campaign highlights individuals who embody the Wild Turkey spirit and aims to capture the next generation of bourbon drinkers. (You can see the commercials at www.nevertamed.com.)

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Commentary by Jean-Jacques Dubau, president and CEO of Campari America, the parent of Wild Turkey. Follow Campari on Twitter @GruppoCampari and Wild Turkey @WildTurkey.