21 Questions with the First Family of Wild Turkey BourbonBy TNB A&C
April 22, 2012
TNB’s resident food writer Alan Brouilette sat down with Wild Turkey’s Master Distiller Jimmy Russell and his son, Eddie, at Whisky Advocate‘s Whiskyfest Chicago.
You’ve been in the bourbon business a long, long time. What’s your earliest memory?
Eddie Russell : Goin’ out there as a little kid. Jimmy worked seven days a week, and I’d go out there with him during the summer, on the weekends. The buildings were so big, and fun to play in, and I knew everybody out there…it was just a fun thing for a young kid to do. Then as a teenager I moved on to other things, but I actually went there for a summer job, and that was thirty-one years ago.
Jimmy Russell: I started there in 1954. Mostly it was quality control, but back in ’54, “quality control” meant something a lot different than it does now. You’d check for the rains coming in, be up there with a scoop shovel unloading grains, mowin’ the grass. Eddie didn’t complain to me when he started in the business, and he started mowin’ grass.
Eddie: As a twenty-one year old you don’t think that’s such a good idea, but I worked in the union doing that for four years and then he brought me in to the distillery to teach me how to make it. Ever since that time it’s been so important because the employees that work for us, y’know, they think more of me ‘cause I started out working side-to-side with ’em.
Was that the idea?
Jimmy: Yeah. When you live in a small community like we live in, everybody knows everybody, and most of the people he’s overseeing now he went to school with.
Eddie: Jimmy’s advice to me was “You need to work twice as hard as anybody else, because they’ll think that I’m playing favorites.”
Jimmy: Figured if I started him where he did he’d know how easy it wasn’t. I don’t think he liked it at first, but he realizes now it was right.
What’d you want to be, growing up? Did you ever entertain thoughts of doing anything else?
Eddie: I never really thought I would work there. I was getting my education in business, and I just thought I’d be in some type of business, but going there for that summer job, being there for two or three weeks, I knew it was home. I knew. And, like I said, that was thirty-one years ago.
Jimmy: More or less…my age group, when we got out of school, we wanted to stay at home. Young people nowadays, when they get out of school, they wanna get away from home!
Eddie: I thought that too, ‘cause our town is such a small town. I thought, growin’ up, I wanted to get a college education and move to a bigger city. I love the big cities, but Lawrenceburg is probably the best place in the world to raise a family. Don’t lock my doors til I go to bed at night, leave my keys in my vehicle…just a nice atmosphere to raise a family.
I gotta call you out on something. I read in an article that you’d never been drunk or hung over. Jimmy. Not sure I buy that.
Eddie: <laughing> Go out with him some night. I can’t stay with him.
Jimmy: <grinning> I just have one drink a night.
Eddie: I’ve never seen him looking like he had a hangover before. Every city I go into, it’s like, “Your dad was here, and he kept us out til 5 a.m., and he was at breakfast today, wantin’ to know why we wasn’t at breakfast.”
<to Eddie> You’re on thirty-one years at Wild Turkey. <to Jimmy> You’re on…fifty-eight?
Jimmy: In September it’ll be fifty-eight.
You don’t last like that in one business without some inspiration. What drives you?
Jimmy: I tell people when it becomes a job I’ll retire. And I work seven days a week.
Eddie: Me and my brother, when we were growin’ up, used to talk about going to college so we wouldn’t have to work seven days a week. Five years in, I was stopping by the distillery on Sundays.
Eddie: I don’t think I really missed out on anything. We’ve been lucky enough to go all over the states, and to some parts of the world, and do what we love to do. We preach about bourbon, we drink bourbon, we eat good food…it’s a pretty good life. And Jimmy doesn’t change. I learned that real quick. There’s nothing he ever wants to change about anything.
You’ve been around the world with Wild Turkey. Japan, Australia…anywhere you haven’t been that you want to take a bottle?
Jimmy: <instantly> Cuba. But you can’t go there.
Has Wild Turkey changed during your run?
Jimmy: The thing we’ve done with Wild Turkey is, we never change. Still doin’ it the same it was as the day I first went there.
So if I open a bottle from 1953 and a bottle from today…
Jimmy: We hope it’d taste the same.
Eddie: When we came out with American Honey, we were the first one out, of the honey flavors and the cherry flavors they’re doing now. So we’re doing the right things. We wanna honor our past, doing the same things over and over, but still doing new things, like when we came out with the 81*. My generation didn’t want to do anything their parents did. So if they was drinkin’ bourbon, you was drinkin’ tequila or vodka or anything. Nowadays the young guys are looking at the vintage drink list, lot of bourbons and ryes, and that’s what’s bringing brown spirits back.
Jimmy: The 101 (proof) is all we had on the market until the mid-1980s.
Eddie: We used to have an 80-proof, but it was too young, or what we call “green”. So when I started I was looking for something lighter and easier for the younger generation. Decided to do away with the 80 and come out with something that was good.
* Wild Turkey introduced an 81-proof bourbon in 2011.
Do you guys have a favorite that isn’t bourbon? Ever allow yourselves a beer or a tequila or something?
Jimmy: He does.
Eddie: I do. He does not. <laughter> It’s tea or bourbon for him. Me, I like to try everything, just to see what it’s about. White spirits are hard, ‘cause they don’t have any flavor. Normally I drink it on the rocks. There’s good tequilas, there’s good rums. I like Shiraz, or a Cabernet wine. I like some other things, but 99% of the time I drink bourbon. But there’s other things out there, and there’s somebody making it right somewhere, no matter what category. Especially rums. I was shocked to learn there were some rums out there that were pretty good. So I’m different than him.
When you do drink bourbon, is it ever not Wild Turkey? Anybody else make a product you think is worthwhile?
Jimmy: <grinning> We all make good bourbon in Kentucky. Some’re just better’n others. <laughter>
But do you look at anybody and think, “Man, that guy’s really got it together. If I wasn’t me, I wouldn’t mind being him.”
Jimmy: We’re all close friends…we all know each other. That fella who just came up and shook hands with us, he’s Four Roses.
Eddie: Some of ‘em don’t make a good general product, but all of ‘em make a high end product that is their best. Personally I don’t think it’s as good as ours, but they all do have a good one. The top shelf, the small batches, are really big, so they’re holding it back like we always have, aging it longer, to make a better bourbon.
Jimmy: We’ve always been seven-eight-ten-twelve year old bourbons. My personal taste buds, bourbon at four years old is just not okay for us. Our 81 is about seven years old.
Eddie: We’ve always been older whiskey. Most bourbons are four or five years old, except the top shelf. It’s the cheapest and the quickest you can get it out there.
Jimmy: My age, what we’re making and putting in the barrel now, I’m hoping I’m around when it’s sold.
Eddie: He’s been saying that for twenty years. <laughter>
What’re your thoughts on the super-premium bourbons, the barrel proofs like Booker’s and the single-barrels like Blanton’s?
Jimmy: Booker* and I were real close friends. Booker’s is a barrel proof bourbon, and our Rare Breed is a barrel proof bourbon. They were the first two barrel proofs on the market. Now everybody has ‘em on the market. The first two single barrel bourbons were Blanton’s (from Buffalo Trace) and Kentucky Spirit from Wild Turkey. Now everybody has all that.
Eddie: It used to be you didn’t see the Master Distillers out in public, they were just home making the bourbon. Now the Bourbon Trail has grown so big…I think we had 450-some thousand come through Kentucky just for the Bourbon Trail last year. We educated ‘em so much, their first question is always “How do you like it?” Well, it never tastes better than when me and Jimmy walk into the warehouse and pull a sample right out of the barrel to check the color and taste. That’s what Rare Breed is.
Jimmy: I said we don’t think bourbon’s mature until it’s seven or eight. But we don’t care for it after about 13-14 years old, either. Lot of people think, the older it is, the better it is. What happens with that new charred white oak wood, the longer you leave it in there, the more the white oak wood becomes the dominant flavor. My personal taste buds, I just don’t like it.
Eddie: It’s something the consumer’s learning. Scotch is aged a long time, but they don’t have the seasonal changes we do. The hot and cold makes a difference, as it expands that barrel. So bourbon’s…the old over-aged bourbon’s don’t have a good bourbon flavor. They’re oaky, chewy.
* Booker Noe was Jimmy Russell’s counterpart at the Jim Beam distillery from the early sixties until his death in 2004. He was also Jim Beam’s grandson.
How far out do you need to plan changes? The 81 isn’t just the 80 with another year in the barrel.
Eddie: It takes a couple years to do anything new. First is, you’ve got the idea. And then we’ve gotta taste a lot of whiskey to get the right combination. So that’s what it’s about. Once you get that taste right, then you can work on the bottle and the marketing. We were changing our label, and I had this idea ready (the 81) and so it was just a perfect time to change it.
Jimmy: The only thing we can’t change in a hurry is age. If they decide to make a fourteen-year-old bourbon next year…no.
Eddie: It’s like the rye. Used to see three ryes on the shelf in a liquor store: Jim Beam, Old Overholt, and Wild Turkey Rye. Now look at the rye categories. Now we have to reallocate big time because nobody told us 5-6 years ago rye was gonna take off! It’s a couple years away, before I’ll be able to meet demand.
So all the distilleries making rye realized ten years ago rye was the next big thing?
Eddie: Nah, there’s just a lot of people who were makin’ rye and suddenly rye got hot.
If you have to plan 5-6 years ahead in advance for what the next thing is…what’re you planning for? What’s the next thing?
Jimmy: I can tell you this, we just spent $70 million expanding. More space for more barrels. We’re expecting to make a lot more, especially for export. The export market’s been the big jump for the last several years.
Eddie: That’s the thing, that export market. Right now the flavored bourbons are doing good, but we’re not gonna be like vodka, where you’re putting out thirty different flavors a year. There’s a few that’ll be out there. Our American Honey’s a wonderful product, and honey’s great with bourbon, but beyond that, y’know, You’ve basically got bourbon. You can do barrel proofs, you can do single barrels, things like that.
What’s next for you?
Eddie: The 81 is the big thing now. We may hit a flavor, or do something like that. For us, it’s really about doing a specialty bottling, where every two or three years we’ll do a 30,000 bottles total of maybe a fourteen or fifteen year old that I’ve sort of taken care of to keep it from aging too much. But besides that, really, you’ve got bourbon, and that’s what you’re selling.
Last one: Booker’s Bourbon is Booker Noe’s ideal bourbon, what he would have wanted. Is that what Russell’s Reserve is for you?
<Eddie starts laughing>
Jimmy: No! Really was a big battle for many many years. With me. Wild Turkey is a family. I’m working with fourth-generation people. And they wanted to put my name on the label! I wouldn’t do it. We’re all a family.
Eddie: I did it for him. His 45th anniversary – which was now thirteen years ago – they came to me and said they wanted to do something. And really, it was just gonna be one of those one-time deals. They said to me, “Either you can pick it out, or we’re gonna pick it out.” So I picked it. (Jimmy) was actually tasting it with me, and he didn’t know what it was for! So on his 45th, we asked him to come out, and it was just in a bottle with a silk-screen. Ten years old and 101-proof. And of course, as soon as everybody tasted it they realized it was a great product. So we did a nicer bottle, and I talked him into it.
Master Distiller Jimmy Russell has been making bourbon in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky for 58 years. Jimmy trained under Bill Hughes, Wild Turkey’s second master distiller, and Ernest W. Ripy, Jr., the son of the original owners. He has been called “the master distillers’ master distiller.”
Eddie Russell is the son of renowned master distiller Jimmy Russell and the fourth generation Russell to work at the distillery. Russell collaborated with his father to create “Russell’s Reserve,” and was a 2010 inductee into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.
Photos © Sarah Alban 2012
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