Smoked Turkey Recipe with Bourbon Brine

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This Smoked Turkey is packed with incredible flavor, from a bourbon citrus brine, to an herbed butter tucked under skin, to the best turkey seasoning. Your Thanksgiving turkey is going to be the star this year. If you are looking for truly best smoked turkey recipe, with hundreds of success stories, that will have your guests going back for seconds, this is it.

Looking for another creative way to smoke your turkey? Check out our recipe for Cajun Spatchcocked Smoked Turkey.

A Smoked Turkey with a Bourbon Brine on a serving platter
The Best Smoked Turkey with a Bourbon Brine
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Vindulge Recipe Highlights

  • If this is your first time smoking a turkey check out our tips on smoked turkey from the pros.
  • Smoked turkey needs a brine in order to maintain moisture and tenderness during the smoking process.
  • Season the turkey both inside the cavity and on the skin using a compound butter and turkey seasoning.
  • Smoke at the proper temperature for good skin texture.
  • Carve and serve and enjoy an amazing Thanksgiving dinner with your family and friends.

The Best Smoked Turkey

As the owners of a critically acclaimed catering company, we’ve cooked turkey pretty much every way you can. From brining, to not brining, whole turkey to spatchcock, to smoked turkey breast. Cooking on everything from pellet smokers, offsets, gas grills, and our Weber kettle, to even a tiny portable grill. We’ve experimented and cooked with it all, and this is our favorite smoked turkey recipe of all time. Follow these steps for truly the best smoked turkey recipe that you and your family will enjoy for years to come!

Ingredients for Smoked Turkey

  1. TURKEY: It is important to purchase store-bought turkeys that have not been previously brined in a saltwater solution. Over brined turkey will lead to a very salty flavor in the smoked turkey. Look for a whole bird without a label that says “previously brined”, or “brined in a 4% saltwater solution” (or another percentage). Another consideration is to avoid buying a large turkey. A larger bird can overcook easier because the turkey cooks from the outer edge to the inner parts of the bird. Instead of one large turkey, we prefer two 12 – 14 pound turkeys. This will also allow you to smoke them faster. It also provides more of the legs and thighs that people tend to love. So avoid a turkey over 20 pounds.
  2. BRINE: This is a salt and water mixture used to add moisture and flavor to meat. We highly recommending buying a turkey that is not already brined, and brining it yourself the day before you smoke your turkey. 
  3. TURKEY SEASONING:  When smoking it’s nice to have both sugar, salt, and savory flavors. The sugar helps with some caramelization, the salt and savory herbs add flavor. We use our Ultimate Dry Rub for smoked turkey. It’s very versatile with sugar and spices. You can also use our Turkey Seasoning, developed just for turkey. It has less sugar, and more herbs, and is equally good on turkey. 
  4. HERBED BUTTER: This is a mix of room temperature butter and fresh herbs that we place under the skin for great moisture and flavor into the breast meat. 
  5. CAVITY STUFFING: We use a mix of citrus, onions, and garlic to stuff the cavity for maximum moisture and flavor. 

How Much Turkey Per Person

When catering the general rule of thumb we use is to plan on 1.25 pounds of turkey per person. When planning on portions, it’s important to consider the bones adding weight to the turkey as well as leftovers (because, let’s be honest, we all love the leftovers).

This is the estimate we use and trust.

  • A 10 pound turkey will serve 8 hungry people on average.
  • A 12 pound turkey will serve 10 people
  • A 14 pound turkey will serve 12 people

Holiday season means a bountiful table of other foods too, and there is always planning for leftovers. As you approach needing more than 14 pounds of turkey, consider two birds as mentioned.

Thawing Turkey

For frozen turkey, remove from freezer 3 days prior to brining the turkey in order to let it defrost safely and with enough time to brine. The general rule is that it takes 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey to thaw in a refrigerator. We have an entire article on safe ways to thaw turkey.

Rapid thawing is possible using water and ice. The important safety measures are to keep the turkey and water cold to prevent bacterial growth. Plan 30 minutes per pound to thaw using the water and ice technique. Thermoworks, one of our favorite brands for instant read thermometers, has a great step by step guide on using water to rapidly thaw a turkey. We’ve used this method in a pinch.

Fresh turkey can last up to 3 days in the fridge prior to cooking.

Smoked Turkey Brine

What is a brine? Simply put a turkey brine is a salt and water mixture used to add moisture and flavor to meat. Smoking slowly take a toll on moisture and this offsets that.

How? The salt follows its way into the meat through the process of osmosis, which is why adding more flavor in addition to your salt mixture allows for the flavor to get into the meat.

You can go with a dry brine (salt based rub) or wet brine. We prefer the wet brine with bourbon for that added flavor. You can check out our article for more information on a basic turkey brine recipe.

Ingredients for Bourbon Brine for a holiday turkey
Salt, Savory, Sweet all add to the flavor of the brine.
  1. In a large stockpot add cold water and your brine ingredients (see recipe card). Place the turkey into the brine and cover. (If you have more than one turkey, consider food-safe brining bags or a cooler that will hold the liquid and the turkey.)
  2. Place the turkey in the refrigerator for 24 hours. If using brine bags carefully seal them and store in a cooler with ice (this saves room in the fridge with all the other food you will likely be preparing for the holiday meal).
  3. If your turkey tends to float to the top then flip the turkey over half way through the brine.

Important: Avoid brining more than 24 hours as the texture of the turkey may start to get gummy as it cures versus brines.

Preparation For Smoked Turkey

Once you’ve thawed and brined the turkey you need to prepare for smoking.

  1. RINSE TURKEY: Rinse off the brine and pat the exterior of the turkey dry with paper towels. Both the turkey cavity and exterior need to be DRY.
  2. SEASON TURKEY AND DEHYDRATE: Season the turkey using our turkey seasoning liberally, including the cavity of the turkey. Leave the dried and salted/seasoned bird uncovered in the refrigerator for four hours. This will flavor the turkey and help minimize rubbery skin when smoking.
  3. STUFF CAVITY: Remove from the fridge and stuff the cavity with some fresh citrus (a combination of lemons and oranges), onions, garlic, and fresh herbs. This is going to help the cavity of the bird stay juicy and tender. As the stuffing heats up, the aromatics and liquid are forced out and into the bird from the inside out.
  4. ADD COMPOUND BUTTER: Slightly lift the skin and add an herbed compound butter. See recipe card for the butter ingredients.
  5. TIE WINGS AND LEGS: Tie the legs and wings close to the body of the turkey with kitchen twine so it cooks evenly. If they are flapping around, they will overcook. You can also tuck the wings under the breast

If some of the seasoning has come off you can dust a little more to the top before placing the turkey inside the smoker. 

If you have a gas grill you can follow our guide on how to smoke on a gas grill using wood chips and a smoker box.

a raw turkey coated with the best turkey seasoning for poultry
Seasoned and tied turkey ready for the smoker.

How to Smoke a Turkey

A whole turkey cooking on a smoker
  1. PREHEAT SMOKER: Prepare smoker to 275 degrees. After experimenting with different cooking temps we’ve landed at 275 as our sweet spot for a whole turkey to minimize rubbery skin. We like fruit wood for poultry, cherry or apple wood is our choice when smoking turkey.
  2. SMOKE TURKEY: Place the turkey directly on the smoker (you do not need a roasting pan or aluminum pan). We recommend to insert a digital blue tooth probe thermometer, like the Thermoworks Signals. Signals, like the Smoke unit, will monitor the ambient cooking chamber temperature, as well as up to three zones. So in this case, we put one probe in the breast meat, and one into the dark meat. The blue tooth capabilities makes it easy to monitor temperatures on your phone, so you don’t have to keep lifting the lid on your smoker letting any heat out.
  3. MONITOR TEMPERATURE: Remove the turkey when the internal temperature of the breast is 165 degrees (F). The thigh and legs may be higher, that is fine as they can take a higher heat and still stay tender.
  4. REST: Remove from heat and tent in foil, and then let it rest 20 minutes. If you are done early, wrap it and leave in a cooler (with no ice) to keep warm for up to four hours. Resting allows the cells to cool down and retain that moisture. 
  5. SLICE AND SERVE: Carve with a sharp high quality carving knife and enjoy.
How to use the Signals Thermometer by Thermoworks
The Signals and Smoke unit have great Bluetooth options for monitoring temperature.

If you have a gas grill you can follow our guide on how to smoke on a gas grill using wood chips and a smoker box.

Common Smoked Turkey Q&A

How long to smoke a turkey?

Plan on 15 minutes per pound when cooking at 275 degrees F. Our 12 pound turkeys tend to be done in 3 hours.

Should I stuff a smoked turkey?

We do not recommend stuffing your turkey with a traditional stuffing. Instead we recommend you add citrus, onions and garlic, for aromatics, then discard them after cooking. For a stuffing recipe, we highly recommend our Smoked Sausage and Caramelized Onion Cornbread Stuffing. It’s a winner every year. 

What temperature do I cook turkey to?

165 degrees F is the safest temperature for smoked turkey. We pull ours when it reads 160 degrees Fahrenheit (F) when measured at the breast. THEN carry over cooking will continue to take the internal temperature of the turkey to 165 degrees F (USDA minimum temperature recommendation). So target 160 degrees F in the thickest part of the breast. By that time the legs and thighs should have an internal temp of 175 to 180 degrees at the same time, which is perfect for the darker meat.

How to get crispy skin on smoked turkey?

When smoking, even at 275, the challenge for any turkey will be crispy skin. If you want a crispy skin, a modification to the recipe is to wait until the bird gets to 145 degrees and then crank up the heat to 375 to finish cooking. You run the risk of still drying out the bird, so we don’t push for a crispy skin when smoking. With our technique the skin should still be moderately crispy from drying in the fridge.

Should I use a water pan?

This will depend on your grill. On a Big Green Egg or Kamado style smoker, we do not as it is very efficient and well sealed. On offsets or our pellet grills we do use a water pan to help add moisture to the chamber.

Do I need to catch turkey drippings for a gravy?

No, you don’t. If you want a great smoked turkey gravy recipe, see our hack for incredible flavor without stressing about catching drippings. 

A Smoked Turkey on a table with other Thanksgiving side dishes in a lovely holiday tablescape

Best Wines for Thanksgiving Dinner

We’ve got you covered in our Thanksgiving Wine Guide. We discuss everything you need for selecting the best wines in all budgets for your holiday dinner.

More Grilled and Smoked Turkey Recipes

Thanksgiving Side Dish Ideas on a Smoker

You can explore our Thanksgiving Recipes for the Grill and Smoker or some of our favorites below.


*This recipe was originally published in November of 2018 and updated in September 2022 with more recipe details.

*This post contains affiliate links. We only recommend and promote products we use and love and contribute to great barbecued and grilled foods, like a good digital thermometer! 

If you like these recipes we’d truly appreciate it if you would give this recipe a star review! And if you share any of your pics on Instagram use the hashtag #vindulge. We LOVE to see it when you cook our recipes. 

4.48 from 118 votes

Smoked Turkey Recipe with Bourbon Brine

Truly the Best Smoked Turkey recipe, packed with flavor, from a bourbon citrus brine, to an herbed butter, to a great turkey seasoning. Rated as the best turkey brines for smoking, this is the juiciest and most flavorful turkey ever.
Prep: 1 day
Cook: 4 hours
Resting Time: 30 minutes
Total: 1 day 4 hours 30 minutes
Servings: 8 people
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Ingredients 

For the Brine

  • 8 quarts water
  • 1 ½ cups kosher salt, (we use Diamond Crystal kosher salt)
  • cup brown sugar, (we use dark brown but light works also)
  • 1 cup bourbon
  • 2 oranges, cut into quarters
  • 1 lemon, cut into quarters
  • cup whole peppercorns
  • 10 whole cloves
  • 2 dried bay leaves

For the Herbed Butter

  • 1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ½ tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
  • ½ tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
  • ½ tablespoon fresh sage, chopped

Turkey Seasoning

Cavity Stuffing

  • 2 oranges, quartered , (we use navel)
  • 1 lemon, quartered
  • 1 red or yellow onion, quartered
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 10 sprigs thyme
  • 2 large sprigs of rosemary

Instructions 

For Brine:

  • Prepare turkey for brine by fully defrosting, removing giblets and neck, and trimming off excess fat.
  • In a large stock pot over medium-high heat, combine water, salt, sugar, and bourbon. Bring heat up and dissolve the salt and sugar into the liquid, then immediately turn off heat.
  • Let cool and then add remaining brine ingredients. Add turkey to brine and cover. Brine for 24 hours in the refrigerator, avoid going beyond 30 hours. At a minimum brine for four hours.

For Herb Butter:

  • Add herbs to room temperature butter and combine.

How to Smoke a Turkey:

  • Prep Turkey: Remove turkey from brine and rinse. Pat dry with a towel, especially the cavity. Season liberally with dry rub and place into the refrigerator for four hours.
  • Preheat Smoker: After four hours, preheat Smoker to 275 degrees using fruit wood.
  • Stuff and Season Turkey: Stuff cavity of the bird with oranges, lemons, onion, garlic, thyme, and rosemary. Then stuff butter between the skin and breasts, spreading it out with your hands all along the breast. Tie up legs and wings with kitchen string, or tuck them to keep tight against the turkey. Add more dry rub if needed (it can rub off while tying up the bird).
  • Smoke Turkey: Place turkey on the smoker, and then insert your digital meat probe into the breast (and thigh or leg if you have more than one probe). Smoke until the internal temperature of both reads 165 degrees (F). Use an instant read to check temp in various part of the turkey, even if the digital probes read 165 to confirm all parts of the turkey are cooked through.
  • Rest and Serve: Remove from smoker (will likely take 3 – 4 hours with a 12 – 14 pound bird) and cover with foil. Let rest for about 20 minutes, then slice and serve.

Video

Notes

Thawing: If the turkey is frozen, remove from freezer 3 days prior to brining the turkey in order to let it defrost safely and with enough time to brine. The general rule is that it takes 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey in a refrigerator to thaw.
Portions: Plan 1.25 pounds of turkey per person.
If Done Early: If the turkey is done cooking early, wrap in foil and place into a clean cooler with no ice. It will stay warm for up to four hours.
Spatchcocking: You can modify the recipe by spatchcocking the turkey. This will speed up the cooking process. Plan 10 – 12 minutes per pound versus 15.

Nutrition

Calories: 316kcal | Carbohydrates: 38g | Protein: 3g | Fat: 12g | Saturated Fat: 8g | Cholesterol: 30mg | Sodium: 21281mg | Potassium: 390mg | Fiber: 6g | Sugar: 24g | Vitamin A: 762IU | Vitamin C: 51mg | Calcium: 196mg | Iron: 3mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Additional Info

Prep Time: 1 day
Cook Time: 4 hours
Resting Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 day 4 hours 30 minutes
Course: Entree
Cuisine: American, BBQ, Barbecue
Servings: 8 people
Calories: 316
Keyword: best smoked turkey recipe, best turkey brine for smoking, bourbon turkey brine, brine and smoke a turkey, how to brine a turkey for smoking, Smoked Thanksgiving Turkey, Smoked Turkey, smoked turkey breast brine, smoked turkey brine, smoked turkey brine recipe, turkey brine for smoked turkey, turkey brine recipe, turkey brine recipe for smoked turkey
Like this recipe? Leave a comment below!


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Vindulge

About Mary


I'm Mary, a wine/food/travel writer, Certified Sommelier, mom of twins, former vegetarian turned BBQ fanatic, runner, founder of Vindulge, and author of Fire + Wine cookbook. Thanks for stopping by!

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100 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    If you were going to smoke it early and then re-heat it on Thanksgiving, would you remove the stuffing from the cavity? Or would you not save it whole and carve it up in advance?

    1. If making this a day or two before, it’s best to slice it up ready to go. To reheat, if you have a sheet tray and a cookie rack, place the cookie rack in the sheet tray. Pour a bunch of chicken stock in the tray and then put the turkey on the cookie rack. Cover with foil and reheat at 375 so it steams. You lose the skin texture but keep it juicy. I also would not pre-make the stuffing in the bird, I’d just go dressing and make it the day you cook it. It will be very soggy if making in advance and then reheating.

      1. thanks for the answer…. follow up. to help me get everything ready sooner, is it okay to brine 24 hours starting tuesday night to Wednesday night, rinse, dry, and put rub on it over night in the fridge? Then by thursday morning, i’ve hit my 4 hours of having rub/drying. But is that okay to go over the 4 hours aka… overnight ?

        1. It’s absolutely ok to go over the time. You may see the skin shrink up from the salt which is totally normal but that’s totally ok.

  2. Question – when prepping the turkey once removed from the brine and dried, can you leave it in the fridge for longer than 4 hours with the dry rub on? Ideally I would like to do this step the night before so it’s ready for the smoker at 10am.

  3. 5 stars
    I used this recipe last year, and will definitely be using again this year. I smoked the turkey over apple, cherry, and pecan wood. The turkey was so unbelievably juicy and I received many compliments on it.

  4. 5 stars
    I use this recipe every Thanksgiving and I never go wrong. It’s now insisted upon by my children. So even if I don’t host, I always smoke a bourbon brined turkey using this recipe. Thanks for sharing!

  5. This is the recipe Im looking for! My smoker is bust but what do you think of adding liquid smoke to the brine and putting bird in oven? That’s the only modification imI’d make. I wish I could make as written!

    1. Ana, I think liquid smoke will get lost in the brine and you’ll not get any flavor from it. I might consider doing the recipe in the oven, cooking the turkey at 375, and consider a BBQ sauce glaze at the end. You can add more bourbon to the sauce and then simmer it slightly for a nice glaze.

  6. 5 stars
    This recipe caught my eye as the dramatic ingredients.. things came together except for the cooking process.. a malfunction with the smoker after it had been on for less than two hours. We transferred it to the oven.. so it didn’t have the strong flavors of the smoke.. but that didn’t rob it of flavor.. OMG!!! My wife said her taste buds were having a party in her mouth..!!
    Such a wonderful and different flavor for the feast at our table..
    Thank you.
    I’m looking forward to trying other recipes we looked at as thumbing through your site.

    (trying to edit)
    We had a crazy schedule that messed up the time required as y’all specified for the process.
    We started with a 14 lbs bird.
    Brined for about 9 hours… I worried it wasn’t long enough but I want it to set with the rub for at least two to three hours before introducing the heat.. as I told everyone things would be ready about 2/3.
    It hit the table about 4:30.
    I’ve been smoking off and on for the last 15 years and consider myself to be a step above novice.

    Thank you.

    Paul Raby
    Denver, Co.

  7. 5 stars
    Hi Sean and Mary. I purchased a 14 lb. turkey from a local farmer and smoked it on my Weber. The “bird” turned out to be a savory, succulent, hit for the family. The instructions and detail outlined in this recipe were very straightforward and easy to follow. Thank you for helping make our Thanksgiving special! 🙂

    1. Kyle!!!! Hope you and the family are doing awesome! Thanks so much for dropping a note and glad you enjoyed the recipe.

  8. What’s the difference between spatchcocking the turkey and keeping it whole and using the aromatics in the cavity in terms of the taste? Obviously the spatchcocking will cook faster, but wondering if the aromatics in the cavity will add another dimension. I’ve got a 17lb bird that I’m trying this recipe out on – looking forward to trying it!

    1. We love spatchcocking for speed. But we have found, like any roasted poultry that adding the citrus aromatics that steam while it cooks adds just that little extra element at the expense of speed of cooking. So it’s subtle but we love it.

      1. Thanks so much!! Another quick question: does the 4 hours in the fridge make a difference if it’s longer? I’m going to pull the bird from the brine tonight, and timing-wise would love to leave the bird in the fridge overnight, but curious if that’s going to ruin it if I leave it for longer than 4 hours.

        1. No it won’t ruin it at all, you can totally leave in seasoned over night. It then becomes an additional dry brine step that will help dehydrate the skin of the turkey. So you are good to go!

      2. 5 stars
        This will be my third time with your awesome recipe!

        Does the spatchcocking pick up more smoke flavor? I know I sacrifice the aromatics, but I am wondering if there is a noticeable gain from smoke exposure.

        1. Brycen we do find that spatchcocking does allow more of the turkey get directly get that smoke flavor (at a slight expense of the aromatics). It also speeds up the cooking process. And thanks for making this recipe a part of your holiday!