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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

Inventory visibility is important not only to ensure a product's quality and quantity, however; it is also required by the U.S. government. The distillery needs to manage paperwork for both federal and state agencies. The company must report all alcoholic products onsite so that each barrel and gallon of product can be taxed accordingly. Additionally, Russell says, "The law dictates that to be a bourbon, you have to use a new oak barrel each time," and that needs to be accounted for on a regular basis.

Wild Turkey purchases an oak barrel for each batch, then uses it for six to 13 years. Thus, RFID provides a digital trail of that process. First, a tag is applied to a barrel; Wild Turkey employs off-the-shelf passive UHF RFID adhesive tags, as well as handheld readers from a variety of suppliers. When a tag is applied, its unique ID number is read and entered into the company's in-house software, developed for Wild Turkey by a third-party systems integrator.

To make the bourbon, a sour mash is fermented, distilled and then poured into the barrel, where it will age. At that time, a worker reads the tag ID via his or her handheld reader, inputting data about the batch that will be aged in that specific barrel. Once the barrel enters the warehouse, another employee uses a handheld to read the tag ID again, thereby creating a record of where and when it was stored.

From that point forward, the software thus knows what is located in each of the company's three warehouses, including the type of bourbon and its age. If Wild Turkey ever needs to locate a specific barrel during that process, a worker can utilize the handheld reader to ensure he or she has located the correct product. If agencies require documentation of the goods being stored onsite, that information can now simply be provided via the software.

The system prevents the need for manual counting of barrels for stock-keeping purposes, Russell explains. "The costs of counting barrels one at a time was very expensive and time-consuming," he says. When this was being done manually, using pen and paper, "mistakes of handwritten notes were constant." These days, the company has an automatic record of what is located at each storage site.

The RFID system is one piece of a technological leap for the company from the manual processes of its earlier years. "The technology in all of our systems has changed completely in the last 10 years," Russell states. "The distillery is completely computer-driven." Going forward, he says, "Any new technology that reduces time and errors will be looked at."

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