Last night I had an opportunity to speak with the grandson of Jimmy Russell (and the son of Eddie Russell) from Wild Turkey. Bruce Russell is their brand ambassador at the moment, but looks to someday take the reins with his father.
I was impressed with his interest in rye whiskey and his thoughts on non-chill filtered cask strength product. It seems Bruce Russell has grand ambitions for what is possible for Wild Turkey in the future. Change is good:) He calls his grandfather “Mimmy”. Seems Jimmy Russell didn’t want to be called grandpa, so his grandchildren’s pronunciation of his first name stuck.
Jimmy Russell began working for Wild Turkey in 1954. He learned his craft from Wild Turkey’s second master distiller, Bill Highes, and Ernest W. rip, the son of the original distiller. Eddie Russell joined his father in 1981 as a relief operator and worked his way up the chain. Bruce made it clear that his father was always humble and had to earn his place in the company just like everyone else. Many of the union workers at the plant had many more years of experience than he did. “ I always saw Mimmy as the guy with the desk and my father as the guy that rolled barrels,” Bruce explained. Some of the brand’s most sought after products (Rare Breed introduced in 1991, Kentucky Spirit introduced in 1995) were brought to market as competitive brands for other market releases from other distilleries. Rare Breed was, perhaps, a response to Booker’s and Kentucky Spirit to Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon. Jimmy Russell was way ahead of the game with his Wild Turkey Liqueur in 1976. That was a precursor to The Honey liqueur that was to be released in 2006. Though many bourbon lovers will look down on flavored whiskeys, most will agree that Jimmy Russell did it best. Wild Turkey’s American Honey was an introduction for a lot of people into the world of American whiskey.
Jimmy Russell was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2000, and his son, Eddie, was inducted ten years later. This year, Eddie Russell was named master distiller at Wild Turkey and has become half of the only active father and son master distiller team in the world. Bruce took on the duties of tour guide at the distillery until becoming their brand ambassador about 8 months ago.
One of my favorite stories from the night was when I asked about what Jimmy’s favorite whiskey was. I read that he kept his Rare Breed in the freezer. Turns out that he does, but Bruce was sure that he just preferred his whiskey straight from the barrel. You can always tell which of the barrels in the warehouse are his favorites. Usually, a barrel is tapped a few times a year for quality control and a barrel may have 5 or 6 drill holes with patches, but Jimmy’s favorites would have closer to 90! Bruce’s father, Eddie, is more hands on with production now than his grandfather, but he assured me that Jimmy Russell is busy making sure that their product is always the highest quality. (Jimmy may be less likely to listen to his grandson’s input on where the market is going for the younger generation, but he is always concentrating on putting good product out.) Eddie Russell handles the Russell’s Reserve line extension. “It’s his baby,” said Bruce.
It’s a small world in Kentucky and the distillers all know and respect each other. I asked Bruce what his grandfather thought of all the young guys getting into distilling these days. He said, “Mimmy is not interested in sugar coating anything. He usually tells guys that they should keep their day jobs. He learned from guys that learned before prohibition, and they learned from guys before that, and so on and so on. He’d say, ‘If you could’t make it in the beer world, you certainly won’t make it in mine.’” It’s not going to be easy for any new distillery to make it in distilling when you have to compete with a distiller that celebrated his 60th anniversary last year. I look forward to many more releases from Wild Turkey. The Single Barrel Russell’s Reserve Rye that I tasted last night just goes to show that they aren’t going anywhere.