Wild Turkey Bourbon: Meet Eddie Russell

Last week, newly appointed Master Distiller for Wild Turkey, Eddie Russell visited Manchester and London for a cocktail competition, and to talk about his first release as Master Distiller.

Eddie has been working at the distillery in Kentucky since the early eighties, following in his father Jimmy’s footsteps. So you can perhaps imagine my disappointment at not being able to meet him in person and talk to him about all things whiskey, let alone sample a little at the cocktail competition. Thankfully Eddie made time for me, by phone to chat. 

Sadly, his lazy drawl and accent like soft treacle don’t translate to text, so you’ll simply have to read the words and imagine…

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How has your trip to the UK been so far?

It’s been good, we’ve been able to get in front of a lot of people and give them a little education about Wild Turkey.

Congratulations on earning the title of Master Distiller, and your first release, Master’s Keep

Thank you. Yeah, it’s a very special whiskey, I’m very proud to have it as my first release. It’s definitely a different whiskey, having been aged in those brick warehouses which is something that I’ve kept track of for about 17 years, it’s really a special whiskey. 

What’s a typical day for you? Do you have one?

Most of the time I get there in the morning, walk through the distillery, check the fermenters, make sure everything’s running good, temperatures on the still, things like that. And then it’s usually into the office to do the dreaded computer work, answer emails and things like that, then it’s always out to – right now I do a lot of single barrels, we have a private barrel programme, where they can actually pick a whole barrel, so I’m doing a lot of those nowadays, in the lab to do tastings, picking out whiskies for different products and things like that. 

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Sometimes I get down to the visitors centre, and get to talk to a few visitors, but not as much as I used to, Jimmy gets to do that a whole lot. It’s nice, because there’s no other distillery where you get to meet the master distiller, so it’s real nice for our visitors who come through. My true love is making the whiskey, so I could spend all day in the distillery and the warehouse, doing the things that I normally do. It is nice to get down there, and it’s very special for our visitors, but preference is to be in the distillery, checking on everything, making sure the mashes are working good and things like that. 

Did you ever see anything different in your future?

Not any more I don’t.  When I was younger I definitely did, I didn’t think I wanted to hang around there in little Lawrenceburg, Kentucky and do that, but once I got there, within a few weeks I realised it was home, so, no there’s nothing else I’d really rather do, for sure.

How does it feel taking over from Jimmy? 

It hasn’t changed a whole lot for me, I mean I’ve probably been doing the work for about ten years now. Jimmy still comes to work every day, and he should be the Master, so it wasn’t really a big deal for me, whether I was called Associate Distiller, or Master, but it’s great to be put in that category because of Jimmy, Elmer T Lee and those guys, but as far as the work goes, not a real lot has changed for me. 

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Was he a hard taskmaster? 

Yes he was. He started me out as the bottom person there, rolling barrels and dumping bottles, mowing grass and painting buildings. You know, he brought me up from the very bottom, all the way through the process, which is the way most master distillers learned it in his time. So yeah, he was very hard on me – I was telling a story last night, as I came through the distillery learning how to make the whiskey, he really just said you have to get in there, learn it on your own, see what happens, learn from your mistakes, do this and that. When my son started working for us in January and the first day he was there, my father gave him handwritten chemistry notes from 1959, when my father had been taking notes. I said ‘I never got to see those notes!’ and he just sort of giggled. So yeah, he was a pretty hard on me, but it taught me a lot of things about why he does things and getting in learning with your hands on means a whole lot more.

Have the processes changed much with technology?

The technology is way beyond anything we ever thought about. Our distillery used to be very old distillery, everything was done by hand, every valve was opened and closed by hand, now we have a very computerised modern distillery, so the technology is way beyond anything I would have ever thought of. You know my father looks at it and sort of shakes his head, but it’s good for me, because it lets me be very consistent in making my whiskey, and all we’ve ever wanted is consistency in our product.

Have you ever argued over a barrel?

We’ve definitely had arguments over different things, of course you’re young and you think you know more than you do sometimes and sometimes, I’ll still think I was right, even though he won out. So yeah, we have disagreements, but it was alright though, because once we left the place, you know we were father and son, so it didn’t matter that much. But while we were there, we butted heads quite a bit about different things. His tastebuds are a little bit different from mine – we love Wild Turkey, but we sorta have a little different taste profiles, so the sort of things that I might consider the very best, he might consider something else the very best, but  I think that’s what makes it good, that we have those differences. 

Non-Distiller Product, what’s your stance?

For me, my father doesn’t like it at all, but for me you know, if people would just tell the truth, that would be fine for me. I love that our industry is growing the way it is, so it’s out there and people are paying it more attention, but if they’re not telling the truth about what they’re doing, it’s just going to hurt them in the long run.

I just look at our industry as it was just after Prohibition, there were hundreds of distilleries, and there wound up just being ten or twelve, and these people that are not doing the right things and not telling the truth about where their whiskey originates, they’re eventually just going to go away.

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What is next for Wild Turkey?

Well, right now, the hottest thing out there is good rye whiskey, I do a lot with the bartender guilds. When my father was coming through it was mainly a retail business for him, what’s really growing my industry is younger bartender crowd, a younger consumer, and what they’re really looking for now is rye whiskey. I’m getting ready to release a single barrel rye in the United States, that’s going to be 6-8 years old and 52% abv, so something very important to that group.

The things that I’m looking to do are maybe more traditional things, you know some things that maybe Jimmy was doing back in the old days, so 8 years old, 12 years old, non-chill filtered, things like that. 

A lot of people are trying to ride the wave of what’s trendy right now, and I don’t think that’s what Wild Turkey stands for. Whether it be apple flavour, or maple flavour, I just don’t see that as the future for Wild Turkey, because that’s not what we’ve been about, we’re a genuine premium product. So for me, it’s more about barrel proof, or non chill filtered, more traditionally done, the way Jimmy was doing it when he started.

Everything I’ve been releasing, even the Master’s Keep, I’m doing non chill filtered, I’m really pushing to get back to that, we didn’t used to filter anything, but our 80 proof, so I’m really pushing to get back to that. I think it’s so much more robust and more flavourful when you do it that way. 

And what’s next for you?

I’m getting ready to start opening up the distillery at home in Kentucky in about four weeks, so I need to get everything going. And then we have a couple of big whiskey festivals in New York and San Francisco, and I’ll be in Portland at the Cocktail Classic this fall too. So still a few more places to go before the end of the year, but right now, my main concern is getting home and getting the distillery opened up as we shut down in the summer time. 

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As for the cocktail competition? Well Dan Bovey from Be At One Cocktail Bar in Bristol took first place with his ‘Russell’s Preserve’ and he will be joined by Robin Honhold of White Lyan and Manchester’s own Adam Binnersley of Mojo Manchester for a trip to the distillery in Kentucky, and a visit Manhattan later this year. 

Well done to all, and I’m sorry I missed it.

With very grateful thanks to Eddie for taking the time to speak to me, it was an absolute pleasure. 

Images reproduced with permission from Wild Turkey and of the cocktail competition from Curtis Gibson

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