(Note: The following post was originally published in Sept. 2016 and updated in Oct. 2017)
On a recent sunny afternoon at the Wild Turkey Visitor’s center, a guest and bourbon enthusiast was idly browsing the gift shop when he suddenly spotted Jimmy Russell. One of bourbon’s most recognizable faces was quietly perched in his usual spot – a tall stool right next to the far window. The excited guest dashed as fast as he could over to the stool in hopes of getting a photo, signature on a bottle or maybe an opportunity to chat with what passes as the equivalent of Kentucky bourbon royalty. As he approached Jimmy with an outstretched hand he said, “Mr. Russell, I don’t know whether to congratulate you on your recent milestone at Wild Turkey or your induction into the Hall of Fame!”
Jimmy flashed his wide signature grin and warmly replied “Thanks” with the slight southern drawl that comes from spending a lifetime in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. In that moment, Jimmy looked slightly bemused at the attention and, frankly, a little humbled. After all, in the remarkable 62 years since he first walked through the door at Ripy Brothers distillery (the Wild Turkey name would come later), he has likely seen it all, done most of it and won nearly every accolade that the industry has to offer. In fact, when he was honored with the Parker Beam Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame on September 14th, it was actually his second time as an inductee. The first came as a charter member of the Hall of Fame fifteen years ago. After all, there are Master Distillers, then there are Bourbon Legends, and then there is Jimmy Russell.
Celebrating Jimmy Russell
As guests approach the Wild Turkey Distillery, they are treated to an amazing view of the Kentucky River, the distillery and warehouses atop a nearby hill, and a giant billboard installed in 2014 that invites you to “See the House that Jimmy Built.” The bourbon community is notorious for embellishing already tall tales and manufacturing over-the-top lore around historical figures such as Elijah Craig, George Remus and Cassius Clay (not that Cassius Clay). But all would agree that, in this case, it’s not overstating things to say that Jimmy Russell is largely responsible for the success of the Wild Turkey brand today.
On September 9th, 1954, Jimmy walked in the front door of the Ripy Brothers distillery and started as a quality control employee. Jimmy was looking to join the family trade by signing on to one of the four area bourbon distilleries in Lawrenceburg – Ripy Brothers, Old Joe, Old Prentice (today known as Four Roses), and Hoffman Distillery. Under Jimmy’s watchful eye as Master Distiller, a title he’s carried since the late 1960’s, Wild Turkey has grown from filling less than 80 bourbon barrels a day to nearly 600. Today there are over 600,000 barrels aging in over two dozen warehouses across the distillery grounds on the eastern edge of Anderson County. The brand’s line up has expanded from the ever faithful Wild Turkey 101, the only product offered up until the mid-1980’s, to nearly a dozen brands today.
A Wild Turkey by any other name…
Jimmy has seen four different ownership groups come and go. In this latest era of Wild Turkey, much of the growth has been facilitated by Campari Groups who purchased the distillery from Pernod Riccard in 2009. From the distillery building to the bottling room, staff is working overtime to keep pace with international demand for Wild Turkey in places like Japan and Australia. But Jimmy will be the first one to tell you that as much as things have changed at Wild Turkey, a great deal has stayed the exact same. For example, the staff beams with pride when talking about how the exact same yeast strain has been used for their bourbons for over 60 years. Wild Turkey also shuns GMO grains for traditionally grown corn and rye. There is no more precious word to the seasoned Master Distiller than “consistency”.
These days, Jimmy Russell has a little family help in distilling. His son Eddie Russell works closely with his father as Co-Master Distiller, a role to which he was promoted in 2015. As a boy who once grew up using the giant warehouses as his own personal playground, Eddie started at the distillery in 1981 by mowing lawns. The younger Russell, who likes to joke that he started practically yesterday, has been working at the distillery a mere 35 years. Eddie was honored in June for his service with a tool any distillery worker would drool over – a brand new copper whiskey thief from Vendome Copper and Brass Works. While the duo may not be the only active father/son combo in the bourbon industry, their nearly 100 years of combined experience under their collective belts makes them the most tenured.
Aging to perfection
Two years ago, the marketing folks at Wild Turkey decided to declare 2014 “The Year of Jimmy Russell.” A special Diamond Anniversary Bourbon with a high price tag was issued to commemorate this special milestone. But don’t mistake the celebration for a public ease into retirement. At nearly 82 years old, Jimmy still prefers to work six to seven days a week. As he’s fond of saying when asked, “I tell people when it becomes a job, I’ll retire.” It’s hard to miss Jimmy’s image today; his face is plastered on just about everything related to Wild Turkey except the label on the bottle. And, even then, the Russell name adorns their small batch collection “Russell’s Reserve.”
Back at the Wild Turkey visitor’s center, Jimmy was still in the chair hours later signing bottles with his silver Sharpie and answering questions from every angle of the Bourbon spectrum. Each question earned a thoughtful response, with Jimmy speaking slowly and deliberately. As the crowd around him grew, he poses for photo after photos. Three guests huddle in close and one ordered the group to, “Say Whiskey!” Jimmy Russell, flashing his big grin, says, “No, that’s Tennessee! We do bourbon around here. Say Bourbon!”
Mint Julep Tours offers an exclusive experience at the Wild Turkey Distillery as part of a Custom Tour. Guests visit a barrel warehouse where they receive a brief history and are shown the aging process, then travel to the Station Master’s House for a private tasting. Call 502-583-1433 or visit us online today to get more information on this custom tour experience.
Written by Phil Kollin – Mint Julep Tours Driver & Guide