Talking with Two Generations of Wild Turkey Master Distillers
Wild Turkey's master distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell talk bourbon.
“I like bourbon because it makes my ice taste better.”
That’s Jimmy Russell, one of Wild Turkey‘s master distillers at the bourbon’s Lawrenceburg, Kentucky facility. He’s been made a Kentucky Colonel three times and with 60 years of distilling practice, is the longest-tenured active master distiller in the world.
Jimmy’s son Eddie stepped into the same world his father did, thirty years later, and together, the pair have overseen Wild Turkey through thick and thin. PEOPLE Food sat down with them for a tasting and a chance to learn something about the spirits industry from a family that knows it better than most.
Jimmy and Eddie have watched the various trends of the liquor industry — obviously with special attention paid to the bourbon field — come and go. These days, they say, their fastest-growing category and highest-selling whiskey is rye, a trend Eddie attributes “mainly to bartenders.”
“Over the past 10 or 12 years, they went back and started making the classic drinks again,” he explains. “Manhattans and Old Fashioneds … They started using bourbon at the beginning, but then when they looked back, rye was the predominant whiskey used back in the old, old days, so they started using it in their recipes.”
Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell
Wild Turkey Master Distiller Eddie Russell
But rye’s growing popularity hasn’t touched at least one member of the Wild Turkey family: “Jimmy, how much rye you ever drink?” Eddie asks, pulling a laugh from his dad. “Hardly any,” he responds (Jimmy will later recount an evening he spent drinking with some visiting distillers in Lawrenceburg: After he bought the visitors a round of Wild Turkey, they thought they’d repay the favor by buying him some of their bourbon. He demurred, preferring to stick with his own stuff.)
“Kids today are drinking their rye on the rocks, but in my time you’d never heard of anybody doing that, and rye was the first whiskey made in America,” Jimmy says. “[The] East coast was predominantly rye grain, and then when you get up into the Appalachian mountains, corn was the primary grain. That’s where bourbon got its name from, Bourbon County, Kentucky.”
When Jimmy started working in 1954, there were four family-run distilleries in Washburn, Kentucky, all making bourbon. “Back in my younger days, bourbon was mostly a Southern gentleman’s drink. Now our biggest customers are ladies! At my age, you went to bar or liquor store, you never saw a lady in there. Now they’re our biggest customer group. One thing is, they make the labels look a lot better.”
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“In the ’50s, ’50s, ’70s, bourbon was growing strong,” Jimmy continues. He gestures at Eddie: “Then you young people come along and started drinking that white stuff, them gins and vodkas.”
“I think everything happens with generations,” Eddie expands. “My generation came along and we were anti-government, anti-war, so we didn’t want to be drinking what our parents were drinking. And it wasn’t just the bourbon industry that had gone down, it was every brown spirit — the Irish whiskeys, Scotch. But then, 10, 12, 15 years ago at the most, that changed. In 2009, there was 87,000 cases of rye sold in the whole world. Last year, there was about 450,000 cases. I used to make rye two days a year, make bourbon 250 days. Now I make rye two days a month.”
“The bartending industry itself has even changed,” Eddie says. “When I was growing up, bartenders were usually people who did it to get through college or as a side job, but these kids come into it now, and they wanna do it for life. And they started doing some creative drinks, some of them were really wild. But then they started looking at the classic drinks — most of which were bourbon-based — and started making them again.”
“I started [at the distillery] in 1981,” Eddie says. “I always drank bourbon, but I didn’t ever think I wanted to work there. I live in a town of 10,000 people, it’s a very rural community, there’s not much going on there. So you grow up there thinking, ‘I’m gonna go to college and get away.’ And that’s what I thought. I actually went to work at the distillery as a summer job, with one year of college left, and within a few weeks, I realized it was home for me. And that was 35 years ago. I started at the bottom — rolling barrels, dumping bottles — and worked my way up. But our industry has always been that way, passed down from generation to generation.”
“There’s so many things that go into distilling,” Jimmy adds. “Chemistry, science, engineering. But so much of it is on-the-job training. Which evaporates faster, alcohol or water? Why does a number four char barrel make bourbon taste better than a two or a three? That’s all things you pick up as you go.”
The Russells have seen Kentucky bourbon go from a Southern experience to a global one: “Australia and Japan are our biggest export markets,” Jimmy says. “It’s become a worldwide drink. And when I first going overseas, Scotch was all on the top shelf. Now, especially in Asia, the bourbon is on the top shelf.” (Among the more interesting things we learned from Russells was how tight-knit the global distilling community actually is — Wild Turkey sent some of their recent creations to a Scottish tasting institute to see how their tasting notes compared.)
One of the topics that comes up is Japanese whiskey company Suntory’s 2014 purchase of Jim Beam and their much-discussed attempt to change the company’s distilling process. Fortunately for the Russells, the international groups that have owned their distillery — Pernod Ricard and now Campari — have had the good sense to leave them, their methods, and their whiskey alone. (They remain the only distillery in the U.S. that has never used GMO grains.)
“[Pernod Ricard and Campari] don’t understand bourbon. The difference with Suntory is they make whiskey, and they thought they might be able to make changes to how we do things here, even though Jim Beam is on their seventh generation of distiller … I think they got it figured out,” Eddie laughs. “With us, it was more hands off — you keep doing what you’re doing.”
“The great thing about our distillery is that you got the hard-headed old man that’s not gonna change anything,” Eddie continues, gesturing at his dad. “You’ve got me, who knows what he built and I’m not gonna change, but I’ve got some different thoughts.” Those different thoughts extend to 600,000 barrels currently aging at Wild Turkey’s Lawrenceburg distillery, some for up to 20 years, and the limited runs Eddie creates with them. “You’re always looking for these barrels that are different or special,” Eddie says, “and when you find them, I try to hide ’em so I can keep ’em. But we’re the only distillery that only has one recipe for our bourbon and one for our rye. So the day it goes in the barrel, we want it all to taste alike. The aging process is what changes all these.”
“And if you don’t like it,” he says, nodding at his dad again and grinning, “he made it.”
All photos by Ben Trivett for PEOPLE