Our interview with Jimmy Russell and his son Eddie, both Master Distillers at Wild Turkey, who combined have more than a century of bourbon-making experience.
What was the industry like before the bourbon boom really hit?
Eddie: When I was growing up, it was Elmer T. Lee, Jimmy, and Booker Noe. Nobody knew who any of them were. But when they got into the market it changed into a different world. Booker Noe was such a character, and Elmer T. Lee was a really reserved gentlemen. They were so fun to be around. I remember Booker talking about past generations of bourbon makers driving through the fields on their way home from work so they didn't have to get on the roads because they'd tasted whiskey all day long.
When did you decide you wanted to be part of the family business?
Eddie: Well, Jimmy works 7 days a week, and I didn't leave the state of Kentucky till I was 18. When I was younger I didn't want to work 7 days a week like Jimmy did. I remember growing up and I looked at Jimmy like he was crazy. But I came here for a summer job while I was in college, and I had a taste right out of the barrel and it was so good. I said I'm never leaving this place.
Jimmy: He started out as low as you can get. If he would have started up high, they wouldn't have had any respect for him at all. You know, if you start up high, you don't get much respect.
Eddie: Jimmy told me to work twice as hard as anybody. But for me it was no big deal, I had the work ethic that Jimmy had.
Do you feel like you're working in Jimmy's shadow?
Eddie: I'll never be out of his shadow because I'll probably retire before he does.
It seems like today, Master Distillers are like bourbon rockstars. Has it been strange to observe that transition?
Eddie: He's Mick Jagger, I'm just playing the bass. He's the longest tenured master distiller in the world. My friends would fall on the floor laughing if they saw how people act around us. They'd laugh if they even saw me doing an interview like this. Jimmy used to run the clock at high school basketball games. Here, we're just normal people.
Jimmy: It started to change 25 years ago when our company had me go out into the field for conventions and events. And nowadays, people are so well educated. So when you say something, you better be right. But, there are so very few of us who are out in the field that have been on the production side of the business their whole lives. Most of them are just ambassadors now.
Can you provide some insight on the current state of the industry and how it has affected Wild Turkey?
Eddie: There has been over 100 million dollars spent here in the past 5-6 years, including our new visitors center. And, there's more bourbon being made now, then has ever been made in Kentucky. There is going to be about a 1.5 million barrels filled this year. There has been a gigantic increase in rye whiskey production too. In 2009 there were 70,000 cases of rye made. Last year there was 561,000 cases made.
How did the Russell's Reserve line come about?
Eddie: Well, until 1976, all we had at Wild Turkey was Wild Turkey 101. Then, Jimmy came out with Wild Turkey Honey Liqueur, and while flavored bourbon is a big thing now, they couldn't give it away back then. Then about 15 years ago, the Russell's line came out for Jimmy's 45th Anniversary. Our company thought Jimmy was gonna retire. He was turning 65 years old. They had a huge party for him in Lexington, and they said to me, "we wanna do a whiskey for Jimmy."
So I had him taste it and he just didn't know what it was for. And he liked it and everyone liked it so we decided to keep it as part of the line. The thing I like about it is the price. The Russell's Reserve Single Barrel is 10 years old, and I see these 2 year olds from these craft distilleries and it's three times the price.
It's just a great sipping whiskey. I think it speaks what Wild Turkey is about, that nice viscosity, that nice mouthfeel, that sweetness up front but that spice that WT is know for using that high rye mashbill.
Then we had excess rye, and we decided to expand on the Russell's line with a 6 1/2 year old 90 proof rye. But we didn't have much of it. At that time, the only people we thought were drinking rye were older gentleman. But we found out that bartenders loved our 101 rye and there was a real demand for it. You can go to any bartender, and if they have their choice, the Wild Turkey 101 Rye is the one they would choose.
And now, we have a brand new Russell's Reserve Rye. It's a 104 proof, non-chill filtered rye. It tastes like old fashioned rye, and that is exactly what I wanted it to be. To me, that's what rye tasted like when I started.
Jimmy: This is a new label too, and it's the first one to not have my name on it, but instead it says Russell's Family Reserve. I didn't want my name on any of them anyway.
Jimmy, can you talk a little about the age range you prefer for whiskey?
Jimmy: I think whiskey is best between 5-12 years old. And we've always done a lot of our products in that range. When it gets older you lose some of that caramel, vanilla, and sweetness. The white oak wood becomes the dominant taste, and I don't usually like that taste. So our older stuff is always much smaller batches, I can manipulate a small amount of barrels, but not thousands for a large scale release. I also prefer warehouses like our metal ones, during the summer it gets hot on top, the middle is ideal and the bottom is always cooler. Our warehouses are climate controlled. We open the windows in the summer and close em' in the winter.
Tell us about Master's Keep.
Eddie: This is the oldest one we've ever put out. We have a warehouse that was built in 1993. By 95 it was full. So, I wanted to build another one. But instead they asked that I find one to store the barrels in that was already built. And I found a brick one where Old Taylor used to be made. Jimmy doesn't like brick warehouses, he likes the metal where you have the temperature changes. You don't get the airflow or changes with brick.
But I put 80,000 barrels in those warehouses as a test. To show our company we didn't wanna use brick warehouses. 7 years into it, there was rust on the rings of the barrels, so I had to move them. After about 11 or 12 years we brought it back here and finished it off. So, Master's Keep has been on a 200 mile journey.
It's more like a 13 or 14 year old taste wise. But with aging bourbon correctly you need a dry place. This was put in the barrel at 107 proof and dumped at 89. I bottled this basically at barrel proof of 86.8. It's very easy but has a lot of different layers to it.
Any advice for new distillers or for those who are interested in jumping into the business?
Eddie: It's more of a life than a job. Master Distiller when I was growing up was a very prestigious title. Nowadays people can start a distillery and be a Master Distiller on Day 1. But I think it's something that takes decades to really achieve.```
Jimmy: Find someone with tons of money. And it takes a lot of patience too.
Photos: Jay Gullion / Uncrate