For over 60 years, master distiller Jimmy Russell has been making Wild Turkey bourbon. Every day, he goes to the same distillery and uses the same recipe he always has to produce the brown spirit, keeping the Kentucky tradition alive. He’s seen it all — changing trends in distilling, changing markets, changing tastes.
In fact, he’s such an expert at making bourbon that he has earned the title of Master Distiller, a distinction that’s passed on from distiller to distiller across generations. I caught up with Russell over email to talk about the specifics of the Wild Turkey distilling process, what it means to be from Kentucky, and, of course, how he drinks his bourbon.
Q: To start at the VERY beginning: please explain to those who might not know what makes Kentucky straight bourbon so special anyway?
Jimmy Russell: Bourbon is a true American spirit. It was invented in Bourbon County, Kentucky, and is the only true American spirit in the United States. To produce bourbon, you have to have good water, good grains and the change of seasons to age it. That’s one of the things is really important to me, personally, and that’s also really why most of the bourbon companies are in Kentucky.
Q: While we’re at it, what’s so special about Kentucky? What’s your favorite thing about the state?
J.R.: Kentucky is famous for its bourbon, its horses, and its fried chicken. We also have the Mammoth Cave, one of the biggest underground caves in the world, which is about two hours away from the Wild Turkey distillery. Kentucky is really a beautiful state to be in, but I was born and raised here, so it’s always going to be a special place for me. Kentucky is actually three different areas. One third of the state is flat land, while the Mississippi River Valley has gentle rolling hills, bourbon distilleries, and the thoroughbred race horse farms. If you go 60 miles east of the distillery, you’re in the Appalachian mountains. Kentucky is very diverse.
Q: What does it take to earn the title of “master” distiller?
J.R.: You learn all the trades when the other master distiller who you’ve been working under retires or leaves they promote you up to master distiller. It’s a lot of hands-on training, on the job training. There are many things that I can’t prove chemistry or scientific-wise — you have to be here to see what happens.
Q: As a master distiller, you’ve had the opportunity to travel the world — is there anywhere else that captures the spirit of Kentucky?
J.R.: Well…not really. I’ve been lucky to have traveled to a lot of countries, beautiful countries. But it’s completely different from Kentucky as far as I’m concerned. You go all different places in the world, they’re all special in their own ways. But I was born and raised here. Kentucky is home to me.
Q: What do you look for in a bourbon?
J.R.: I’m lookin’ for a good color. It has to be natural color in bourbon — you can’t add color or anything to it. One thing about bourbon is that it’s a natural product, so you can’t use anything but water to reduce the percent of alcohol. I’m looking for the good color, the caramel, the vanilla, the sweetness and the finish. What kind of taste it leaves in your mouth — that’s what I’m looking for. A lot of people tell you it should be nutty, fruity, some different things, like tobacco. You’ll hear a lot of descriptions about what bourbon tastes like. But I’ll give the basics of what I’m looking for: full bodied, great flavor.
Q: How did you get started as a distiller? Can you take us through how you got to where you are today?
J.R.: I needed a job, my family worked in the bourbon business, and I grew up around Lawrenceburg here. There were four distilleries here at that time — I had family working in all four. Nowadays young people want to get as far away as possible, but I was fortunate enough to get on here and I’ve been here ever since.
Q: Your son, Eddie Russell, is also a distiller. Can you tell us about passing on your knowledge to him?
J.R.: Oh, it’s great to see your son following in your foot-steps. Now, I have another
son and a daughter, they were just never in the business. You don’t push your
children into anything. If you push them into something, they don’t like it — it’s hard on the whole family. Eddie decided to come work here one summer and he’s been here ever since. He’s enjoyed it, and he enjoys what he does. I was fortunate to get to work with my dad here for a few years. Family — you’re with them all the time and its something you enjoy. We disagree at times but when we leave here it’s over with. What better life could you have than being with your son everyday and your family everyday at work?
Q: Over the 60 years you’ve worked at the Wild Turkey distillery, what has changed about the way the company makes their bourbon?
J.R.: Well actually we have not changed a thing as far as making the bourbon, it’s been made the same way since day one. Everything — the formula, the percentage of corn rye, the barley malt, the yeast — everything is the same. The only thing that’s changed is that [our production has] gotten larger. We’ve grown and grown and grown from 70 barrels a day to 560 barrels a day. Four storage buildings used to store 60,000 barrels, and now we’re at about 27 storage buildings with over 500,000 barrels. And now it’s great to see how people enjoy it worldwide: anywhere you go in the world, people know bourbon.
Q: In the ‘80s, some distillers were diluting their bourbons, while Wild Turkey decided to keep their classic 101 proof formula. Can you explain this trend and why you decided to stick with the higher proof?
J.R.: This was [a trend amongst] the younger people in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. People were going more for the vodkas, gins, and things like that. Some of the bourbon companies tried change their products to compete, but [Wild Turkey] didn’t. We kept it to the true old fashioned bourbon way and it’s paid off for us. It’s continued to grow and grow and grow. There was an old saying in my day that was, “everythin’ goes around comes around.” Everybody’s back to bourbon now and these past couple years, have been the biggest for the bourbon industry. Now we’re in 2014 and I haven’t seen the figures yet but in 2012 there were more bourbon barrels filled in Kentucky than have ever been filled.
Q: How do you prefer your bourbon? Drink it neat or in a cocktail?
J.R.: I drink mine either neat or on the rocks. At home, I keep it in the freezer but you drink it any way you like it!
Maud Deitch is a Senior Content Producer at Studio@Gawker. She has written in SPIN, The FADER, MTV.com and other publications.