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.
Published: June 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.”

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.”