Master bourbon distiller JIMMY RUSSELL has devoted 59 years to the Wild Turkey brand and the all-American craft of making bourbon — and he’s loved every minute of it.
You may think of little more than the taste when you sit down to enjoy a glass of bourbon, but bourbon’s place in our nation is as complex as the drink itself. The only liquor to originate in the United States, bourbon brings in more than $2.1 billion in revenue each year to Kentucky, and the famous Kentucky Bourbon Trail contributes considerably to the state’s annual $11 billion tourism industry. In 2014, Wild Turkey will do its part to propel that figure even higher when it unveils its new $4 million visitor center on the top of the famed Wild Turkey Hill in Lawrenceburg, Ky. The brand also recently released two new products — a flavored bourbon and a limited-edition bourbon-rye hybrid. The man behind much of the company’s success? Master distiller Jimmy Russell, who is known as the “Buddha of Bourbon.” We caught up with the industry legend (he’s the longest-tenured master distiller in the industry) to get his take on all things bourbon.
AMERICAN WAY: You’ve worked at Wild Turkey for 59 years. That’s quite a tenure! Do you ever consider retiring?
JIMMY RUSSELL: I don’t consider this a job. It’s one of the things I’ve been blessed with in my life. I enjoy coming to work: I get to taste bourbon all day. I only live six miles away, and a lot of the time, I come out on Saturdays and Sundays just to say hello to the people working.
AW: What does an average day look like for you?
JR: I oversee the entire process and make sure we’re putting out a quality product. I also try to say hello to all the visitors. I have a job to do, but I know the tour routes and I enjoy showing the aging process to people who haven’t been around bourbon before.
LIKE FINE WINE
Just as with wine, drinking bourbon is an experience to be savored. It should be sipped slowly, so the drinker can appreciate the varying layers of flavors — the caramel, the vanilla, the nuttiness. According to Russell, though, the finish is the most important flavor of all: “What kind of taste does it leave in your mouth? If it’s a good taste, you know it’s something you’ll have again and again.”
AW: You clearly take a lot of pride in your work.
JR: Bourbon is the only true American spirit. Everything else was brought here from overseas, but this is where bourbon originated, and I’m proud to be a part of that.
AW: How does tourism affect your company?
JR: We opened our first visitor center in 1988 and figured maybe it would stay open from March through November because no one would come when it was cold. We never did get to close! We have people from all over the world come every day, with as many as 1,000 people coming through on weekends.
AW: What kind of change will people see with the new visitor center?
JR: Right now, our visitor center is an old, four-room home from the 1800s. The new building will be [8,500 square feet] and offer beautiful views of the Kentucky River as well as space for tastings, an extensive look at our history and a gift shop.
AW: What is your Wild Turkey drink of choice?
JR: Rare Breed or Russell’s Reserve, neat or on the rocks.
AW: What would you suggest for someone who isn’t a bourbon drinker?
JR: I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like the taste of bourbon! Our American Honey is ideal for people who are just starting to drink bourbon. It’s very sweet and smooth. And if I were a mixer, I think ginger ale is one of the best things to mix with bourbon. The flavors marry well together.
AW: Wild Turkey typically only releases new products every few years, yet you have two new products coming out this fall — a spiced bourbon and your limited-edition Forgiven. How did that come to be?
JR: The spiced bourbon is something we’ve been working on for years. We typically stick to old-fashioned bourbon flavors, but this has more of a vanilla flavor and mixes really well with Coke and other mixers.
AW: And the Forgiven?
JR: It was a mistake. We were dumping bourbon for bottling in the tank room, and someone forgot to switch the valves and started pouring rye whiskey on top of the bourbon. Turns out, it tastes really good! The person who made the mistake got a little talking to, but since we forgave them, we decided Forgiven would be the perfect name.
For more information on Wild Turkey, visit www.wildturkeybourbon.com