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I love smoking turkey on a charcoal grill, because it gives it such great flavor. For the best results, I cook it hot and fast on a drum smoker, because that reduces the cooking time and creates awesome color and skin.
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What Is a Drum Smoker
A drum smoker is a type of grill made out of a metal barrel. Most often, the barrels hold about 55 gallons, so they’re called 55-gallon drums. However, you can also find 30-gallon barrels.
Drum smokers have become extremely popular on the competition circuit. Personally, I use three orange Hunsaker Drum Smokers. I also have a black Hunsaker and mini orange 30-gallon in my backyard. The blue one pictured below belongs to my pops.
Gateway Drum Smokers are another popular brand you’ll see on the circuit.
If you can find yourself a barrel, you can even buy a kit to build your own smoker out of it. These are often called UDS, or Ugly Drum Smokers, because the barrels are usually pretty beat up.
Other companies, like Oklahoma Joes, have drum smokers that aren’t quite barrels, but they work the same way.
Basically, you add your charcoal to a basket in the bottom of the barrel. The rack or racks rest on bolts above the coals at varying levels. Oxygen is fed into the drum either through a pipe on the side or a whole in the bottom.
Heat and smoke exit the smoker through an exhaust on the top. You adjust the opening in that exhaust vent to control the temperature of the smoker.
Drum smokers usually purr at higher temps between 275-300F degrees, which is the temperature I use to cook this smoked turkey. Bonus is that means the turkey will take less time to cook.
This smoked turkey recipe is brined, seasoned and then finished with a whiskey bacon glaze.
- Turkey: I like cooking 12-15-pound birds. I find them to be the juiciest.
- Butter: You’ll need one large 8-ounce package of Kerrygold salted butter.
- Aromatics: For that quintessential Thanksgiving flavor, fill the cavity with aromatics like celery, carrots, lemons, onions, thyme and sage.
- Turkey Rub: Try my Smoked Turkey Rub recipe or a combination of my Spiceology Chicken Rub and Girl Carnivore’s Chick Fest.
- Water: You’ll need both hot water and cold water.
- Salt: When making brines, always use kosher salt.
- Sugar: White granulated sugar.
- The Grill Dads Lemon Thyme Brine: Technically this is a seasoning meant to be used as a dry brine (just sprinkled on the bird), but it works great for wet brining, too.
- Big Poppa Smokers Chicken Prod: This is a great product that’s used on the competition circuit as a brine or injection for chicken.
- Bacon Drippings: Next time you cook a slab of bacon, save the drippings for this recipe. You can also buy bacon grease on Amazon.
- Whiskey: It’s always Jack Daniels black label in our house.
- Soy Sauce: Regular or low sodium.
Substitutions: Instead of creating a brine with the ingredients listed above, you can also use my Smoked Turkey Brine recipe, which has more basic ingredients.
How to brine the turkey
The first step for this recipe is brining the whole bird. This is a process that will help breakdown the meat, making it juicier.
- STEP ONE: Start by placing 2 cups water, salt, sugar, Lemon Thyme Brine and the Chicken Prod into a pot over medium heat. Once the seasonings dissolve, remove it from the heat and pour in two cups of cold water. Let the wet brine cool to at least room temperature.
- STEP TWO: Line a food-safe bucket with two disposable turkey size oven bags. Remove the turkey from its packaging and remove the bag of organs, neck and pop-up thermometer, if it had one. Place the turkey in the bag in the bucket – breast side facing down.
Pour the cooled brine on top. Add more cold water to cover, and tie the inner bag in a knot, forcing out as much air as possible. Place the bucket in the refrigerator for 8-12 hours.
- STEP THREE: After 8-12 hours, remove the turkey from the brine and place it on a rack over a rimmed sheet pan. Pat it dry with paper towels and refrigerate uncovered for 2-3 hours.
PRO TIP: Allowing the turkey to air chill in the refrigerator uncovered will help remove excess moisture from the skin, so it will be crispier.
- STEP FOUR: After the turkey has chilled in the fridge, place the pan on the counter. Cut the Kerrygold butter into five pieces. Place one piece under the skin of each breast.
Place 2 pieces in the cavity along with some celery, carrots, lemons, onions, thyme and sage. Break the last piece in half and place half in each thigh socket.
- STEP FIVE: Season the bird all over with turkey rub, focusing on the breasts, legs and wings. The underside isn’t as important.
- STEP SIX: While the bird rests, heat your drum smoker to 275-300F degrees using lump charcoal, 2 pecan wood chunks and 2 hickory wood chunks. It’s also great with mild fruitwood, like apple.
- STEP SEVEN: Place the turkey on the heated smoker breast side up. Make sure that the rack is low enough that the lid will close all the way.
PRO TIP: Tie the turkey drumsticks together and tuck the wings under for a prettier presentation.
- STEP EIGHT: After about 2 1/2 hours, the skin will start to be golden, which means it’s time to baste the bird. Combine the bacon grease, whiskey and soy sauce and brush it all over the bird. You can do this a couple of times during the final stage of cooking.
- STEP NINE: Continue smoking the turkey until the internal temperature in the thickest part of the thigh reaches about 180F degrees. Shut down all the vents on the smoker to extinguish the heat and let the turkey rest on the smoker until it’s time to carve.
How to serve smoked turkey
When it’s time to present your smoked turkey masterpiece, prepare a large platter with an arrangement of fresh herbs, like parsley, sage and rosemary. Place the bird right on the bed of herbs.
To carve the turkey meat, start by removing the legs followed by the wings.
To remove the turkey breast meat, run your knife alongside the backbone and follow that bone down until it curves. Once it’s separated, you can slice the breast into half-inch pieces.
Pull the dark meat from the thighs and place strips of that on the platter with the leg bones.
Smoked turkey can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to five days. It can also be frozen for up to six months.
GCG Pro Pitmaster Tips
- Brine your turkey for 8-12 hours to ensure juiciness
- Allow your turkey to air chill for 2-4 hours for crispy skin
- Don’t skimp on the butter; it adds flavor
- Smoke at 275-300F degrees with pecan and hickory wood
- Baste toward the end with a whiskey bacon glaze
- For a juicy turkey, let it rest before slicing
Frequently Asked Questions
If you’re smoking a turkey on a drum smoker at 275-300F degrees, it will take about 1 hour for every 4 pounds your turkey weighs. So a 12-pound turkey will take about 3 hours and a 16-pound turkey will take about 4 hours.
Plan on 1 pound of uncooked turkey per person. So, if you’re feeding 12, you’ll want at least a 12-pound bird. Once the turkey is cooked, you’ll have about one-third of it’s original weight in cooked meat. That’s about 3.5 pounds for a 12-pound bird, which equals about 5 ounces of meat per person. That’s plenty if you’re serving a lot of Thanksgiving Dinner side dishes. If you want extra turkey for leftovers, make a larger bird – or better yet – two birds.
Set your drum smoker up with two racks. Place a drip pan on the lower rack to collect the drippings. Then, place the turkey on the top rack. Make sure the top rack isn’t too high. The smoker lid needs to close to seal in the heat. Strain the drippings to remove excess fat. In a pot, make a roux with equal parts butter and flour. Add in the pan drippings and whisk, until it thickens. Add more broth, if needed and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Other Ways to Smoke Turkey
- How to Make Smoked Turkey on a Weber Kettle
- Bacon Bourbon Smoked Turkey on Big Green Egg
- Smoked Turkey on a Ninja Grill
- Char-Broil Big Easy Oil-Less Turkey Fryer Review
- Smoked Pulled Turkey
- Grilled Butterflied Turkey Legs
- Smoked Turkey Tails
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Smoked Turkey on a Drum Smoker
- Drum Smoker
- Lump Charcoal
- 2 Pecan Wood Chunks
- 2 Hickory Wood Chunks
- Food-safe Bucket
- 2 Turkey Size Oven Bags
- 14 lb turkey
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup granulated white sugar
- 2 tbsp The Grill Dads Lemon Thyme Brine
- 2 tbsp Big Poppa Smokers Chicken Prod
Seasoning + Aromatics
- 8 ozs Kerrygold salted butter
- 2 stalks celery
- 2 carrots
- 1 lemon, quartered
- 1/2 yellow onion, quartered
- 1 bunch fresh thyme
- 1 bunch fresh sage
- 1/4 cup Turkey Rub
Whiskey Bacon Glaze
- 1/2 cup bacon grease, melted
- 2 tbsp Jack Daniel's Whiskey
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- Make Brine: In a medium pot, combine 2 cups warm water, salt, sugar, lemon thyme brine and the cattle prod. Heat until dissolved. Remove from heat. Stir in 2 cups cold water. Cool to at least room temperature.
- Brine: Remove the turkey from the packaging. Discard the organs, neck and pop-up thermometer, if it has one. Place two brine bags inside of a bucket. Place the turkey in breast side facing down. Pour the cooled brine over the turkey. Add more cool water to fully cover. Tie the inner bag in a knot, pressing out as much air as possible. Place the bucket in the fridge for 8-12 hours.
- Air Chill: Remove the turkey from the brine. Set it on a rack over a rimmed sheet pan. Pat it dry. Place the turkey in the refrigerator uncovered for 2-4 hours. This will remove excess moisture.
- Season: Cut the butter into five pieces. Place 1 piece under the skin of each breast. Place 2 pieces inside the cavity with the vegetables and herbs. Split the last piece in half and tuck one half into each thigh socket. Season all over with turkey rub.
- Heat Grill: Heat the drum smoker to 275-300F degrees with lump charcoal and wood chunks.
- Smoke: Place the turkey on the smoker breast side up. Smoke for 2 1/2 hours.
- Baste: In a bowl, combine the melted bacon grease, whiskey and soy sauce. Once the turkey has started to turn golden brown, brush the glaze all over the bird. Continue smoking until the turkey thigh reaches an internal temperature of about 180F degrees.
- Rest: Once the turkey is ready, close all of the vents on the smoker to extinguish the fire. Allow the turkey to rest, until you're ready to serve it.
- Carve: Serve the whole turkey on a bed of fresh herbs on a platter. When ready to carve it, remove the legs and wings. Carve off the breasts and slice into 1/2-inch thick pieces. Pull the remaining meat and arrange on the platter without the bones.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.