"When you're born and raised in Kentucky what else do you do?" says Jimmy Russell, master distiller of Wild Turkey, remembering the day back in 1954 when he first punched the clock at what was then Anderson County Distilling Co. and became a whiskey man.
But that rhetorical question doesn't go very far to explain the brilliant career in distilling that would follow, the decades to come of whiskey prominence, nor the many exemplary expressions of Wild Turkey he created. Perhaps the company's forthcoming Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary, a very rare blend of 13-to-16-year-old Bourbons, will better underscore his 60th year at the company.
When the whiskey legend started at the Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, distillery, the plant was making a number of different Bourbons on contract, which was a common phenomenon at a time when scores more distilleries dotted the state's map. Among others, it made something called Old Joe and J.T.S. Brown, a Bourbon named for the half-brother of the founder of Brown-Forman and referenced as the preferred brand of "Fast Eddie" Felson in the film The Hustler. But the premier marque was Wild Turkey, a brand made since the 1940s for the grocer Austin Nichols. In 1971, the 101-proof whiskey, which had been bottled in New York, was completely moved to the Lawrenceburg plant, renamed the Wild Turkey Distillery as that is what it had come to exclusively produce. Over the years, the brand has changed hands to Pernod-Ricard and Campari and added a range of expressions in different proofs, ages and styles. The one constant has been the stewardship of Jimmy Russell, who became master distiller in the mid-1960s.
The output of the distillery has ballooned along the way—from 60 barrels a day to 560. While there were 60 to 70 thousands casks aging in warehouse when Russell first arrived, he now manages some half a million. Jimmy came up under the tutelage of distilling legend Bill Hughes and it seemed that he was being groomed for his ultimate position, although it was never explicitly mentioned. He ended up doing most of the jobs at the distillery, starting in quality control and cycling through bottling and plant manager.
In the small town of Lawrenceburg, Hughes was someone that Russell had known all his life. Whiskey-making was also something of a family affair for the young man. His father and his mother's father before him had worked in distilling. He came to Wild Turkey because his wife, Joretta, who was working in the office, alerted him to a job opening.
The Russell legacy in distilling is ongoing as Jimmy's son Eddie is now his heir-apparent, although the elder Russell shows no signs of giving up the reins. "I'll retire when it gets to be a job," is his longtime comment on the matter. Eddie came to work there as a temporary summer employee during college. The younger Russell now says, "It's been a long 33 summers." Those years were not softened by working for his father. "I treated him just like everybody else," says Jimmy. "He rolled barrels, dumped whiskey and cut grass, and people respect him more now for having done that."
More Russell spawn are destined to be associated with Wild Turkey. Grandson Bruce has started at the plant as a tour guide with hopes of making distilling a career. Familial ties and inter-distillery friendships are not unusual in the business, says Jimmy, noting his great friendships with master distillers Booker Noe, of Jim Beam, and Parker Beam, of Heaven Hill, and that his son Eddie is now friends with their sons, Fred and Craig, respectively, who also followed into whiskey-making.
Eddie has been instrumental in creating new line extensions, such as the Wild Turkey 81, a lower proof Wild Turkey, but with the same age as the 101. It was he who blended the Diamond Anniversary bottling, keeping in mind his father's preferences as he worked. Jimmy says that Eddie started out to make the celebration whiskey using only 16-year-old whiskey, but backed off because the results were too woody and had lost the classic caramel and vanilla notes emblematic of Wild Turkey. "He knows I don't like a really old Bourbon."
Ironically, Jimmy Russell himself created the Tribute Bourbon, made 10 years ago to commemorate his 50th anniversary—except he didn't know he was doing it. He had been told to create a special expression, but made to believe it was for an Austin Nichols anniversary. The packaging was hidden from him—a tall order in this man's distillery—until it was ready to be debuted.
The barrels for the current commemoration were hand-selected by Eddie Russell, mainly from the middle floors of the warehouses, which maintain an ideal aging environment. As the oldest barrels reached peak maturity they were transferred to cooler, lower floors. Jimmy Russell says the special treatment contributes to the low volume of the release, which will debut in August. "We can control 150 barrels. We can't control a half a million."
The latter number is likely to grow as Wild Turkey has aggressively added warehouses through the years. It also recently replaced its still with an identical, but brand-new version. The old one is now in the just-opened, state-of-the-art visitor's center. Guests can now look into the column still to see the journey a whiskey makes in distillation.
Jimmy says that he still occasionally strolls over to lead a tour (which is how this writer was first introduced to the distillery), although he tends to be recognized a lot now. Asked what it is like to become famous at this stage in his career, he objects: "I'm not famous. I'm still plain old Jimmy, and that's the way I want people to feel about me."
Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary (91 proof, or 45.5 percent alcohol by volume; 13 to 16 years in age; $124.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Rich, tawny/amber color. Takes forever to give up its legs, which come down in bulbous globules.
NOSE: From about a foot away it announces itself with the sort of perfume that wafts through a Bourbon warehouse, all maple and caramel notes. As it gets closer, vanilla arrives and slowly transforms into honey and graham cracker. Then the nose slides into a spicy place before ultimately offering a floral and fruity bouquet.
PALATE: The first sip is so ridiculously intense with caramel and vanilla that you have to give a moment to sort out before it starts to breakdown and show off its tremendous complexity. Out comes Christmas spices and licorices. Then it mellows for a moment and becomes nutty (walnuts and pistachios), before a fruity glow of cherries and oranges permeates the palate and produces cocoa. All along, it's hard to forget the maple/caramel/vanilla effect of the first blush, even as hearty wood notes are trumpeted. It's a Bourbon that's like a journey, much in the way that top-tier Cognac is.
FINISH: This is not a dram you will soon forget. Nor will you want to. It hangs on and on in the finish and is just transformative. That same parade of sweetness and spice, mellow and tart, inform the ending. The sign that it is just about to close out for good is a hint of tangerine. Even then, you might still dream about it.
CIGAR PAIRING: Edge Habano Toro (6 inches by 52 ring gauge, $6.30, 89 points, April 1, 2014, Cigar Insider) A dark and veiny cigar with a fine draw and even burn. It produces a primarily earthy smoke complemented by some toasty, chocolaty notes and a hint of pencil lead. That cocoa of the cigar explodes on the addition of the whiskey. The earthy notes turn nutty. The Wild Turkey gives up its fruit in abundance, but its spice is now underplayed. The overall effect is one of a cherry-walnut bonbon. The perfect ending to a great meal.
Fuente Fuente OpusX PerfecXion No. 2 (6 3/8 inches by 52 ring gauge, $15.00, 90 points, November 27, 2012 Cigar Insider) Distinct notes of dried fruit and cinnamon complement the sweet and spicy flavors of this long torpedo. The wrapper is dark, attractive and oily. A remarkable smoke made better by a whiskey with the breadth to draw out dormant flavors. The Fuente's dried fruit become explosive and its spice widens to include pepper and aromatics like eucalyptus. This pairing is more of a give and take as the Wild Turkey becomes better informed by spice and gives the cigar a chocolate taste. The two conspire in a nut-and-nutmeg dance that is superlative.
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