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Wild Turkey Promotes Eddie Russell

Wild Turkey's winning relationship with the Russell family continues
Jack Bettridge
Posted: August 2, 2007

(continued from page 1)

Grain flavor comes through in Bourbon because the law restricts distillation to 80 percent (160 proof) alcohol -- though in practice, it's much lower. A column still used in Bourbon distillation essentially steams alcohol off the fermented beer. The higher the steam is captured from the column before condensing, the greater the alcohol content and the purer the spirit. Vodka's characteristic flavorlessness comes through high-proof distillation. Russell distills at particularly low levels (around 120 proof, or 60 percent alcohol) because "the higher you distill, you're cooking the flavor out."

While Russell makes low-proof distillate, his signature proof of 101 (he also makes weaker and stronger versions of Wild Turkey) is quite a bit higher than the 80-proof legal minimum. This is achieved by diluting the spirit with less water before bottling. The result is more flavor, which is why most premium Bourbons are bottled at higher than minimum proof, many around 90. Wild Turkey's Rare Breed comes in at 108.2 proof. Beam's Booker's Bourbon (121 to 127 proof) is bottled at the proof that it had in the barrel.

On this day, the stills have been dismantled and are in the process of being replaced. Russell says that copper stills typically last 15 years and then need to be replaced. "We're building it back exactly the way it was."

Summer visitors can expect to find distillation discontinued at many distilleries for anywhere from two to six weeks, as heat and shortage of water combine to make it the perfect season for maintenance. Stills are also occasionally diverted throughout the year for rye whiskey production at Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam and Wild Turkey. Those intent on seeing their favorite Bourbon distilled should call ahead before visiting.

Aging, however, never stops at any distillery, and the experience of walking into a rick house and smelling the sweet nectar is always worth the trip. Like at Maker's Mark, the barrels in these tin-clad aging facilities at Wild Turkey are moved periodically. The casks are also toasted on the inside with the thickest char available. Russell stops and points out where a window is slightly closed while one is left open, and then indicates where a row of barrels hasn't been stacked as high as another. It is all about air circulation. "We've figured out over the years that that's the way the whiskey ages best."

Russell's experiential explanation betrays his on-the-job-training. His father worked in distilling and the Ripys groomed Jimmy to be the third master distiller of Wild Turkey, and the importance of knowledge gained through experience is not lost on him. He allows that he uses all the latest scientific techniques at Wild Turkey, but hastens to add that instruments only show peaks and valleys. For final decisions, it comes down to tasting.

That's especially true when Bourbon is extra-aged as in the 10-year-old Russell's Reserve, a whiskey that honors both Russell and his son Eddie, who's worked alongside him for 20 years. Only certain barrels are worthy of such longevity. Despite the popular conception that the more age the better, in charred barrels in blistering rick houses there are limits, and its Russell's job to know and respect them.

The irony of this whiskey is that it tastes so good even though the master distiller didn't know exactly what he was making when he set out to concoct it and was working within an age range that he would normally deem inappropriate for Bourbon.

When Wild Turkey asked the venerable Jimmy Russell to create a limited-edition, 15-year-old Bourbon, he thought the intention was to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the parent company Austin, Nichols, an event that comes in 2005. Actually, the management was surreptitiously asking Russell to create a "Tribute" to his own 50th anniversary at the distillery this year. This meant keeping the commemorative bottling a secret from a man who misses very little that goes on in his plant. Somehow the sleight of hand occurred and the result is a handsome bottle in a sort of scroll-case wooden package that extols the virtues of the modest Russell.

Better than the package, however, is the whiskey inside, which leads us to the other paradox: Russell's philosophy of Bourbon holds that eight to 10 years is the optimal age. Resting inside new charred-oak barrels during sweltering Kentucky summers, Bourbon matures much faster than it would in Scotland's chillier climes and the used barrels employed there. Fifteen years in Kentucky can have the maturation effect of 45 somewhere else. In the wrong hands, it might produce a taste that Russell likens to "taking a stick of white oak and chewing on it." But the distiller started with barrels already deemed worthy of extra age for the 10-year-old Russell's Reserve and coaxed an extra five years out of them through careful wood management that included moving the casks to cooler parts of the warehouse in their dotage. The result is a dark whiskey that hits the nose with elegant maple sugar, licorice and leather charms on a florid base. Then it opens up on the palette with a bold sweetness that bespeaks hard candy and Christmas pudding accompanied by vanilla, caramel and nuts. The finish holds the sweetness for minutes on the tip of the tongue and then slowly transforms, melting to the back of the mouth with the spice and leather from its bouquet resurging. In short, it's another complex Bourbon experience from Wild Turkey.

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