Uncapping Wild Turkey With the Legendary Eddie Russell

Uncapping Wild Turkey With the Legendary Eddie Russell

Bourbon-distilling has been a family business for decades and it remains so to this day. Generations of fathers, sons, uncles, and nephews (and more recently daughters and nieces) have grown up working at a distillery, going from cleaning, dumping bottles, and stacking cases, to taking care of the barrel-aging process and ultimately distilling their own signature Bourbon.

Like other famous names of the industry, Eddie Russell, Master Distiller at Wild Turkey, one of the most well-known Bourbon Brands in the world, had some extremely big shoes to fill when he started to work alongside his father Jimmy Russell—a Master Distiller at Wild Turkey himself, a Whiskey veteran, the longest-tenured active Master Distiller in the global Spirits industry, a Whiskey Hall of Fame member, and “the Buddha of Bourbon” among many, many roles and titles. But Eddie soon paved his own path and has proven himself as much of a Bourbon legend as his dad.

Flaviar uncapped a bottle of Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon with this Southern gentleman to talk history, family stories, celebrity fans, Bourbon aging and blending, and Thanksgiving pairings.

Eddie Russel, Master Distiller at Wild Turkey

Please introduce yourself. What is your name and what do you do?

Eddie: I'm Eddie Russell, the Master Distiller at Wild Turkey. I just finished up my 40th year working, so there’s still a long way to go to catch up to my father at 67 years.

Tell us more about Wild Turkey as a brand and as a product: the history, the origin of the name, milestones in the brand development...

Eddie: Wild Turkey was started right after Prohibition. Our Distillery was actually started by a family called the Ripys in 1869. They moved to the location we're at today in 1891. Then everything went wrong, of course... Prohibition came along, shut everybody down, our Distillery was shut completely down. And it came back up.

A young distiller, Mr. Bill Hughes, who was just starting before Prohibition, came back and got the Distillery back on track but like most distilleries at that time, they were still family-owned, they still needed some investment. Austin Nichols company was one of those companies that invested in some Whiskey for them.

Bill used to come down to North and South Carolina for wild turkey hunting with the Distillery owners. Bill brought with him a very different Bourbon: it was bigger, bolder, and with a higher rye content. So, he gave them samples and they took them on the wild turkey hunt. All day they kept asking for that “turkey Whiskey”!

So you know, it's not about changing but it's about helping everybody find their flavor.

Hughes then went back and actually looked at the sample paperwork: it was an 8-year-old barrel, 101 proof. They decided to go with it because most people were doing “bottled-in-bond” at that time. This way, they set it apart from the rest. Also, back in those days, Bourbons were still released in the 6-, 7-year-old range. They went with an 8-year-old 101 and that was their product for a long time. The distillery basically produced it up until 1971.

Smartass Corner note: bottled-in-bond Bourbon is 100 proof.

In 1954, my father started there. Back then, Bill was still around, a very old man. He took my father under his wing and taught him how to make Wild Turkey. Of course, you know the story from there, Jimmy never changed anything—that same recipe, that same proprietary yeast. Wild Turkey’s a big bold Whiskey, but that's what all people wanted back when Jimmy was coming along.

My goal has been to bring out different products. I think that's what's so neat about our Distillery, these two different perspectives. My father thinks 101 is the best Whiskey in the world, and I don't disagree, but I want to develop different flavors to cater to new drinkers, especially the cocktail scene. So you know, it's not about changing but it's about helping everybody find their flavor.

How did you end up in the Spirits industry and work your way up to becoming a Master Distiller?

Eddie: When I was young, Jimmy [Russell], Booker Noe, Elmer T. Lee, and Parker Beam were best friends. There were only 8 distilleries left when I started. So I grew up around that, never thinking I was going to work at Wild Turkey. I lived in a very small town.

Smartass Corner note: Booker Noe was the 6th generation Distiller at Jim Beam, Elmer T. Lee was the Master Distiller at Buffalo Trace Distillery, and Parker Beam was the Master Distiller at Heaven Hill.

I was a young person, most people thought I was going to go to college and move to a big city. I was in college and came home for the Summer and actually went to work at Wild Turkey as a general employee, dumping bottles, stacking cases, more or less what was needed to be done for the first few months.

I mean, just think about being Michael Jordan’s son, and trying to play basketball. That was the sort of scenario I was in.

About 5 years in, my dad brought me into the Distillery, taught me about the yeast, taught me how to make Whiskey, and at about 8 or 9 years I took over the maturation. To me, that's my favorite part—it’s where all the magic happens. Blending, however, that's a skill you don't really think about, but for a consistent product, you have to be able to judge in advance; to know what barrels need to be pulled to make that same type of taste. That's something you don't learn overnight. I'm 40 years in and I still think I'm learning every day.

Jimmy actually did the induction and it's probably the only time you’ve ever seen him cry.

So, for me, I wasn't growing up thinking I was going to work there. But once I went there, I realized that's where I belonged.

Is being the son of “the Buddha of Bourbon” a curse or a blessing?

Eddie: It's probably more of a curse than a blessing. I mean, just think about being Michael Jordan’s son, and trying to play basketball. That was the sort of scenario I was in.

Eddie and Jimmy Russel

But I realized right at the beginning, I could never be Jimmy Russell. He was the guy that stood his ground and stayed true to his product, which I want to do also. Plus I need to make my mark and that sorted out a bit with the products that have come out.

What achievements are you most proud of?

Eddie: Well, probably the biggest achievement was being inducted into the Hall of Fame. Jimmy actually did the induction and it's probably the only time you’ve ever seen him cry. It was very special to him. He was one of the first inductees, I was inducted in 2019.

Otherwise, every day is wonderful. Because when you're out and people are about your product and loving your product, that’s all that really matters. So, when I'm out in public talking to somebody, at a Whiskey fest, and people are coming, all excited about the product, just like you were at the beginning... That's probably the biggest thing for us.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Mind-reading would be wonderful.

How would you describe Wild Turkey in three words?
Well, for me, it was always one word. And that was genuine. There's nothing artificial about Wild Turkey, nothing fake about us. “Done the right way” would be the three-word answer—that's Jimmy's mantra. If you're gonna do it, do it right or don't do it at all.

What is your favorite music and what drink goes with it?
Bourbon goes with mine, which is classic Rock’n’roll, but more tended towards the Blues end of it. I’m a huge fan of ZZ Top, I enjoy BB King and people like that. And I think it just speaks right to what Bourbon is: authentic and to-the-roots American.

What would you eat and drink for your last supper?
Being a good Kentucky boy, it would have to be a good steak. If I could have a wish of anything I've ever had in my life, it would be my mother's homemade chicken noodle soup.

Assuming Wild Turkey is your favorite Bourbon, what's your second favorite Spirit type or brand?
I’ve tried them all. They're different tastes than what I like. You know, I’ve been friends with Fred Noe my whole life, and his product that I’d drink would be Knob Creek. From Craig Beam, I’d drink Elijah Craig Bourbon. So there's one in each one of them that I probably like, but I am not really sitting around drinking too much.
Smartass corner note: Fred Noe is the 7th generation Distiller at Jim Beam and Craig Beam is the Master Distiller at Heaven Hill.

What does your typical day at the Distillery look like?

Eddie: Well, you know, for the last 8 or 9 years I've done a lot of traveling, but when I'm in the Distillery, it's the usual routine I’ve been doing since day one: the first thing every morning is walking through the fermentation room making sure all the fermenters were working right, then go to the lab to take a taste of the “white dog”, then there are a lot of emails, a lot of questions to be answered—it's something that Jimmy never had to worry about. Also, lots of fires to put out.

Smartass Corner note: White Dog is the name for unaged American Whiskey.

Are there any Whiskeys that you guys make that you only source from certain areas of the rickhouse? For example, if it's in this one corner, it's only going to be a “Russell's Reserve”?

Eddie: It's not a corner really, it's the levels. If I'm doing a batch of 101, I take some off of all the floors, because I want a sort of woody-oakiness, I want a little bit of those earthy and floral notes, but then I want those middle floors which are going to produce vanilla notes, so you get a big range of taste and a little sweetness to that big bold spiciness in the middle, and a long lingering finish.

If I’m doing Russell's Reserve, I’m mainly sampling off of those middle floors, because I'm looking for a bit more of that sweet, smoother taste. If it's one of our big brands like the 101 Bourbon or the 81 Bourbon I take samples from all floors.

Now, for the 81 I take samples mainly from the top floor because as the surrounding air gets hot, the water gets pushed out of the membranes, which results in a higher proof because you're losing water. On the bottom floors, more water remains in the barrels, resulting in a lower proof. With the middle floors, the barrel is getting that perfect in-and-out and it's not pushing the Whiskey or the water out of the barrel as it does on top.

Smartass Corner note: Oakwood membranes are porous and the resulting evaporation is what we call “Angel’s share”.

Other distilleries will bottle their Bourbon after 4 or 5 years, while we will bottle our 101 anywhere from 6 to 10 years old because we're looking for a taste profile. One of the best parts of being a Master Distiller is tasting your Whiskey samples every couple of years - it’s what we call anniversary samples - to know ahead of time which one is ready to be bottled.

But once I went there, I realized that's where I belonged.

For example, this year the 7-year-old is good enough, we don't have to put as much 8-year-old in. But, two years ago I was bottling a 9-and-a-half-year-old to keep the same flavors. The aging part of it is really crucial for us at Wild Turkey.

Let’s talk a bit more about Wild Turkey 101. What’s the flavor profile?

Eddie: Big and bold. And that's what we're all about with our Wild Turkey 101. It's gonna come at you with creamy sweetness at the beginning, but when it hits mid-palate, it has this big bold spiciness to it and a long, lingering finish.

What are some good food and Spirit pairing options for Wild Turkey?

Eddie: Well, I've always thought good Bourbon goes along with something that's grilled or smoked— barbecue or a good steak. I'm one of those guys that like to have any of our products before dinner, but at dinner, I usually prefer water so that after dinner I can have another cocktail.

With Thanksgiving coming up, I just wanted to ask if there are any favorite Wild Turkey expressions and/or pairings specifically related to the holidays.

Eddie: I think for us as a family, 101 is our Thanksgiving drink, even though I'll probably drink more Russell’s all the time. Thanksgiving was always very traditional for us, and the 101 represents the beginning, just like Thanksgiving.

If someone you know were to start exploring Wild Turkey, what would be the next bottle of Wild Turkey you’d recommend they tried?

Eddie: Wild Turkey 101 is their first Bourbon and they really like it, maybe the next expression is definitely The Rare Breed. I don't think there's a better product—the price, its taste and flavor, a barrel-proof Whiskey which has a 12-year-old in it.

You’ve been in the Bourbon business for over 40 years. You're a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame and full of creative energy. What does the future hold for Wild Turkey?

Eddie: Throughout my first 25 years in this business, it was an up-and-down business, but Wild Turkey always stayed pretty steady, with no big growth. The last 15 years it just went crazy.

The future looks bright because we have such a different consumer now. For many years, the consumer was basically an older Southern gentleman. You knew there were the two main markets that we all focused on, but now you have women drinking Bourbon, men drinking Bourbon, you have this younger generation drinking Bourbon, and then there’s us, 50 and older.

So it's always going to be a good market for us. And for me, it's always going to be about how I can come out with a different flavor/taste profile that fits somebody else.

[Wild Turkey] Longbranch was one of the last things I did and it's one of the furthest flavor profiles from 101 that you could probably get. The idea was to give people who wanted good flavors, like all of our products, something a lot easier to drink.

I don't see us making different recipes, though, I don't see us doing a lot of crazy stuff like that. But I do see us continuing to put out a quality product as we always have.

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