Wild Turkey's winning relationship with the Russell family continues with the recent promotion of Eddie Russell, the director of barrel maturation and warehousing, to the post of associate distiller. Russell, who represents the fourth generation of his family employed at the storied distillery, is now in his 27th year there.
Russell's father, the illustrious Jimmy Russell is the master distiller and has been working there since 1954 and has created some of the company's landmark Bourbon, including Rare Breed and the single-barrel Kentucky Spirit. The younger Russell learned his trade under his father's tutelage and Eddie and Jimmy teamed up for the creation of Russell's Reserve, the 10-year-old ultrapremium first released in 2000.
"Bourbon embodies a proud history as the all-American spirit, and none more so than Wild Turkey," said Gregg Snyder, Manager of the Austin Nichols Distillery, which makes the whiskey. "Eddie has learned the brand's uncompromising traditions on-the-job, and will safeguard them into the future."
"It was a natural transition for me to move into this role," said Eddie about his promotion. It's been a family tradition for as long as I can remember and I've always been very proud of that. I've learned everything I know about Bourbon from my father."
Such family continuity is not unusual in the Bourbon industry. Master Distiller Parker Beam of Heaven Hill works with his son Craig. Fred Noe who works at Jim Beam is the son of the former master distiller Booker Noe, who in turn was the grandson of Jim Beam.
Russell's new position will put him in even closer conjunction with his father in the effort to ensure the continuation of the quality and taste of Wild Turkey.
It is not unusual for a whiskey brand to be made by a distiller that doesn't own it. That was the case with Wild Turkey when it was first created more than 60 years ago. Its production was contracted by Austin Nichols, a wholesale grocer that also packaged coffees and teas. The Bourbon was such a hit that Austin Nichols eventually bought the distillery -- and dropped the groceries. Today, that is where all Wild Turkey, and only Wild Turkey, is distilled.
Originally the Ripy Brothers and then Boulevard Distillery, it is today called by the name on the bottle. Austin Nichols is now part of the French company Pernod Ricard. The key to Turkey's greatness, however, is its master distiller, the renowned Jimmy Russell, who started there in 1954, years before either company owned it.
Despite the distillery's location atop a gorge overlooking the Kentucky River and a name that conjures images of tromps through the woods, the place looks the most like a Bourbon factory of any of the distilleries that can be visited. But anyone who is lucky enough to walk through with Russell as tour director -- and he occasionally wears that hat -- will get an immediate impression of the tradition, artisanship and lore that goes into the making of Wild Turkey.
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.
Russell explains that only with a handful of barrels is it possible to create a Bourbon both that old and exquisite. Hence the supply of Tribute, which sells for about $90, is limited to 5,500 bottles in the United States. Happily for us, Russell creates Wild Turkey in many other less exclusive versions for daily consumption.