Two Hours With One of America's Last Great Distillers
By Bobby Fitzgerald Published Aug 14th, 2012
"You're late." Jimmy Russell calls to his twenty-something grandson across the gravel parking lot outside the Visitors Center at Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg, KY. The fourth generation Russell to work at Wild Turkey pretends not to hear his Grandfather and walks a little faster.
"You're laaate." Jimmy calls again his voice rising. The young man throws a half hearted smile and wave our way, still pretending not to get the message. Maybe it would help if he took his iPhone connected earphones out and I see a look on Jimmy's face I know well, as a father and a son.
We've been at Wild Turkey about 30 minutes having watched the six minute intro video and introductions we are getting in Jimmy's car, I didn't ask where we are going. It's a damp Thursday morning and four of us are in town to buy another barrel from Four Roses. Bryan, the backbone of our whiskey effort, and I have done this tour-thing a few times and are grateful the video was so short. Some are over 30 minutes and having spent the last year learning about whiskey plus the clock ticking for a 6pm flight home we want to get right to it. But I see how interesting it is to Kellen and Aaron who have come to Bourbon Country for the first time to catch the bug, I hope. These guys run our White Chocolate Grill’s and I am determined to teach our customers about the greatness of America's whiskey.
When we were introduced I called him Mr. Russell but he insisted I call him Jimmy. I chose sir for the rest of the morning. Jimmy has been at Wild Turkey since 1954. He came straight from college and his father was a handyman at the distillery. Jimmy went straight into quality control which I can imagine was much different then it is today with a bank of computers monitoring every step of the process. Temperature, weight of the grains, timers, alarms. In 1954 it was a select group of men whose palates said when things were ready to go to the next step. He was born and still lives "a mile down the road" although he has travelled the world as if he was a explorer for National Geographic as the face of Wild Turkey.
His son Eddie is the heir apparent and I met this fine gentleman at Whisky Fest in Chicago. Jimmy has three children, six grandchildren and one great grand daughter. One night at dinner the family was discussing if any of Eddie's boys would go into the business so the Russell family could keep the crown. Jimmy tells me with pride how his granddaughter cut in saying she would do it, and become the first female master distiller. I hope Campari fosters that. Campari who owns Wild Turkey was the first to put the artisan out front as the brand's ambassador and only a handful of ambassadors in the whiskey business came from production.
I've been drinking Wild Turkey since 1986, two and a half decades before I really new what bourbon was. Something attracted me to it and I learned what it was that Thursday. Wild Turkey truly is a premium product contrary to their current "give them the bird" marketing. Wild Turkey only uses number one grade corn to make their mash bill. This means they buy the same quality of corn we buy and eat fresh from the grocery store. Many fine bourbons use a commodity product you would find for feed, but not Wild Turkey. 101 proof is their core product. For most of their life they have competed against an 80 proof field of bourbons. The 101 was never intended to make it a hard drinking product. Rather they add less water to the product to deliver a more pure bourbon. Bourbon can be bottled at up to 160 proof and rather than distill to a high proof and thin out, Wild Turkey is distilled to a lower proof and left closer to its barrel state. Also, Wild Turkey has always aged longer than its peers with 101 being a 6-8 year product verses the more common four-year aging. A single brand facility, Wild Turkey competes in a land of multi-brand distillers keeping 100% focus. The bottling variations come from the same recipe. (Except the Rye of course.) Rare Breed is their fine small batch offering. I was given a bottle on my 21st Birthday in 1991 by my closest friend. "A bourbon needs at least six to eight years to mature and once you get beyond 12 years you need to be careful." Jimmy says. Careful he was as I have enjoyed the "American Tradition 14 Year" on a few occasions recently. It is a special release in honor of Jimmy's 55th year at the distillery.
We drive up to the distillery where Jimmy shows us around answering the same questions he has answered for 50 odd years. The night before he was in St Louis hosting a Bourbon dinner and still travels nearly fulltime. It was interesting to learn about the Japanese market and how respected the brand is there. We taste a 12 year only available in Japan that was incredible. All the mouth of the 101 with a silk almost Blanton's like finish.
Jimmy drives us to a 130 year old Rick House that stands five stories. Standing among half a million gallons of aging whiskey Jimmy and I are alone as the guys have scurried up to the top floor. I ask him about the fire in 2000 that burned down a storage facility like this, and the whiskey inside. He was in Spain when it happened and had a message at the hotel from Eddie to call him right away no matter the time. His heart sunk, he thought something had happened to one of the children. He goes on to tell me the detail of the fire, cost, etc. and you can feel the pain in his voice over the impact but I am thinking about the man who was actually relieved to know his loved ones are well.
Back at the Visitor’s Center Jimmy kindly signs some bottles for us. His writing is deliberate and legible. "Jimmy Russell Master Distiller 2012." I get a bottle of 14 year signed because Jimmy tells me there are few left as well as a bottle of Rare Breed. I will drink the Rare Breed in the right company but think the American Tradition might see a social security check or two before it is cracked. This man is a piece of American history.