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RFID Tracks Bourbon As It Ages

Wild Turkey has employed a UHF RFID system to monitor the aging process of its liquor at three storage locations, while eliminating the time and potential errors related to manually counting its 650,000 barrels.
By Claire Swedberg
Jun 11, 2019

Bourbon distillation is a time-honored process that hasn't changed much at Kentucky distillery Wild Turkey. Since the family-run company opened 101 years ago, its bourbon has aged in charred oak barrels, drawing flavor from the barrels over the course of a decade or more, before being distributed into bottles that are then sold to consumers at stores across the world.

But RFID technology has provided a modern tool for tracking the identity and status of each barrel. The company began testing UHF RFID technology in 2012 and has since deployed the system across all barrels at its three storage locations. The system, built by Wild Turkey, consists of handheld RFID readers, UHF RFID tags on barrels, and the company's own software to capture and manage data regarding when each barrel was filled.

Eddie Russell
Bourbon whiskey is a barrel-aged spirit, typically made from corn. It's most commonly produced in Kentucky and neighboring states and was historically introduced to the area by Scots and Scots-Irish immigrants. Wild Turkey says four components make its brand of bourbon unique: its color (created by lengthy aging in barrels, it has a deep char hue), its aroma of vanilla and oak, its unique taste and its full-bodied finish. These components result, in part, from the aging process in its barrels.

The distillery produces approximately 100,000 of these barrels of bourbon each year at its facility in Lawrenceburg, Ky., while 650,000 barrels are in storage at any given time. Tracking the barrels was a manual process until recently, when the company opted to install an RFID-based solution to bring digital visibility to its product. The firm has been adding new technology to its operations throughout the past decade. In 2010, for instance, it added a control room to track the fermentation processes, using data from sensors. It then began looking into how to improve efficiency in its barrel identification process.

The company has traditionally utilized a manual process to track each barrel spread throughout three sites in 29 buildings, according to Eddie Russell, Wild Turkey's master distiller. The company tracks which barrels were filled and when this occurred, then manage the batches based on those dates. "Before we started [using] RFID, we read each barrel by the date code," he says. That meant walking among the barrels and looking at the code printed on each barrel face to know which barrel was filled and when. That was an arduous and time-consuming task, he recalls. At times, Russell says, "It could get confusing because you have lots of different date codes in each warehouse."

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