That’s all I get when I ask Jimmy Russell if there’s a timeline for his retirement as master distiller at Wild Turkey Distillery. The 82-year-old just grins so broadly that I wonder if he’s holding back the truth.
Or perhaps his grin implies, “Fool, why’d you ask that? Don’t you know me? Sixty-two years here isn’t that long.”
Either way, the answer’s the same, and he waits patiently for the next question: “How many hours do you work each week?”
With a shrug, he looks at son, Eddie Russell, Wild Turkey’s master distiller, and says, “I don’t know. Do you, Eddie?”
As goes the father, so goes the son: an equally big grin and minimal comment.
“I always say I’ll retire before he does, and I’m 55,” Eddie adds. “Then my son can come take over one day.”
Jimmy Russell: the Master of Wild Turkey
Despite his age, Jimmy Russell’s mind is as sharp as someone one-third his years, although his body is less agile. A star athlete in high school, Russell remains a minor mountain of a man, but he steps gingerly, stiffly.
Yet those tight joints won’t keep him off the road. He still travels regularly, sometimes as far away as Australia and Japan, to greet Wild Turkey fans, groupies who seem as fond of Russell as the Kickin’ Chicken itself. He feeds off the energy of admirers who flock to meet him, but his ego never takes a bite of the attention.
“The master distiller never went out and talked to customers until about the 1980s,” Jimmy says. “It was always just sales and marketing people who did that. But when they started sending me out, I liked it. I liked talking to the people who were drinking our product.”
That first glad-handing trip was a big one that started in New York City, continued through major metros down the East Coast, took a hard right through the South and Southwest, and ended in California where he found fans in the humblest spots. Wild Turkey drinkers connected their favorite bourbon with the man who crafted it and a legend was born.
His good friend, Jim Beam master distiller Booker Noe, was also crisscrossing the country on publicity tours. And as bourbon began regaining its once-immense popularity, fans’ admiration for distillers shifted to adoration and they were being invited to tour the world.
“Once we were in Japan, and a magazine wanted an interview,” Eddie begins, “and so we met them at a bar. We get there and people are standing out in the street, holding up signs, hollering and clapping when we came up. … If my friends back here would have seen that, they’d have been on the floor laughing their butts off.”
Such is the life of two self-deprecating men who neither seek the spotlight nor shy away from it when it’s focused on them. Despite the huge staff required to make Wild Turkey for the masses, their titles grant them the near-mythological status of having made every drop. The attention given a career laborer like Jimmy still amazes him, but he’s worn the crown of an industry ambassador with flawless aplomb nearly four decades.
“I’m still just plain old Jimmy,” he says, this time without grinning, as if not smiling for a moment will prove his mortality. “It’s not just me doing this. It’s a lot of people. But if getting out there and talking to people about the bourbon is what it takes, I’ll do it. As long as I make consumers happy, then I’m happy.”
Eddie says he’s more than fine letting his father soak up the lion’s share of attention. Soft-spoken and laid back, he says he’s most at home in the quiet of a rickhouse thieving barrels for tasting panels and private selections. But he knows the day will come when the mantle will shift to his shoulders and he’ll become the face of Wild Turkey.
“Right now it’s all about Jimmy and I’m following along,” he says.
His father acknowledges the remark with a faint snort.
“He’s not in the background, he’s in the Bourbon Hall of Fame,” he says, the smile returning. “Seeing him elected to that was one of the proudest moments in my life.”
Few industries witness such father-to-son leadership baton exchanges, but for some peculiar reason, it’s not uncommon at the top tiers of Kentucky bourbon making: Jimmy to Eddie; Parker Beam to Craig Beam; and Booker Noe to Fred Noe, III and to Fred Noe, IV.
Eddie Russell: Wild Turkey’s future
Like his pal Fred Noe, III, Eddie Russell grew up viewing the whiskey business with a gimlet eye. He’d watched his father work long days in a business requiring perfection, patience and discipline. Worse, that business was located in a very small town.
“I really wanted to move away from here when I got the chance,” Eddie says. And he did, moving to Bowling Green, Ky., where he played football on scholarship at Western Kentucky University. But when he came home for his first summer break, his job options were the distillery or the distillery. The mandate wasn’t Jimmy’s, rather Eddie’s mother, Joretta Russell. A Wild Turkey veteran herself, she insisted upon it.
“So I went to work here one summer, and I realized it was the place where I wanted to work,” he says. “And the more I worked here, the more I realized it was destined to be. I loved the atmosphere here: very family like, plus all the good whiskey you could taste most days.”
And that’s exactly what they do nearly every day: taste whiskey. New make, old maturate, young maturate, pre-blend, post-blend, rye, bourbon, whiskey, lots of it. According to Jimmy, “It never gets old, not to me. But you have to put a lot of thought into what you’re tasting if you think you might let that barrel go to 14 years.”
Depends on where you’re doing the tasting, Eddie adds.
“If you’re tasting in the lab, it’s more of a job; you’re spitting it out a lot and looking for things that aren’t right,” he says, adding that lab samples are watered down to 50 proof. “But when you’re tasting from a barrel, looking for that great single barrel, that’s a part of the job I really like.”