A Chat with Jimmy and Eddie Russell, Wild Turkey’s father/son distilling team

Do you like bourbon? Sure, we all do!

Okay, maybe we don’t all like it. But if you are a bourbon aficionado, then you’re no doubt familiar with the work of the father and son team of Jimmy and Eddie Russell, even if you may not know it. Jimmy’s a master distiller at the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, and Eddie’s an associate distiller; together, the two of them created a tasty treat known as Russell’s Reserve, which was awarded a Gold Medal at the 2007 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Russell’s Reserve is described on the Wild Turkey website as having “a nose that is rich in vanilla, oak, toffee, and a touch of old leather,” a huge body, and a palate that is “very spicy, with notes of chili peppers, tamarind, almonds, and cumin.” How would I describe it? Hey, I’m no connoisseur, but I can at least confirm that it goes down smoooooooth.

With Father’s Day on the horizon, I decided it would be the perfect time to take the Russells up on their kind offer to chat about their work with Wild Turkey, the wonder that is Russell’s Reserve, and – to be holiday-specific – what it’s like for a dad to work with his kid every single day.

Jimmy Russell: Hello, Will! How are you?

Bullz-Eye: I’m good! How are you?

JR: Doin’ fine, thanks!

BE: Is Eddie there as well?

Eddie Russell: Yeah, Eddie’s here, too! (Laughs) How are you doing?

BE: Pretty good. Good to talk to you both…and I’ll tell you up front that I’m very much enjoying the bottle that was sent my way. (Laughs)

JR: Thank you! That’s what it for: to enjoy! (Laughs)

BE: Well, I know this is a multi-generational affair, but how did the Russell family first find its way into the bourbon business?

JR: I was born and raised in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, which was a small community when I was growing up, but there were four bourbon distilleries here, and you had families working all the distilleries. You wanted to get in the business. My grandfather and my father, me, and now my son, we’ve all been in the business.

ER: For me, it was a summer job 29 years ago, out of college. So it’s been a long summer for me. (Laughs)

BE: Growing up, did you both immediately have a taste for bourbon, or was it something you had to acquire?

ER: Well, for me, it was something that I basically always drank. I never was much of a beer drinker or anything like that. It was mostly bourbon.

JR: I’ve always been a bourbon drinker. I don’t care for beer or wine. It’s always been bourbon.

BE: I guess what I’m asking, really, if it was love at first sip or if you had any hesitancy.

JR: We can’t tell that! (Laughs)

ER: I don’t know if it was love at first taste, but it was definitely something I preferred over other alcoholic beverages.

BE: So what goes into the process of making Russell’s Reserve? Clearly, it’s a long one.

JR: Well, it’s one of those where, you know, we have to comply with federal government regulations about bourbon, which you probably already know: it has to be distilled, it has to be made with 51% corn, it has to be distilled under 160 proof, and it must be put in a new charred oak barrel at 125 proof or less. Here at the Wild Turkey distillery, we distill at low proofs and put it in the barrel and low proofs, because the higher you distill anything, the less flavor you have in it. With the Russell’s Reserve, it’s something that’s 10 years old, and…I’ll Eddie continue this. (Laughs)

ER: Russell’s is…we only have one recipe for our bourbon, so when it comes off the still, it could be the 101, Kentucky Spirit, Rare Breed. The difference between the Rare Breed and the Russell’s is that they’re hand-selected barrels, small batch. Where I’m normally dumping 50,000 gallons into a tank for the 101, we’re taking out 100 to 150 hand-selected barrels for the Russell’s Reserve. The 10 Year is just, for me, the top of the line as far as the number of years for it to age. You get all the good flavors, all the good taste, but it’s just such a mellow finish.

BE: Jimmy, I saw on the Wild Turkey website that they describe you as a goodwill ambassador for Kentucky’s most famous export.

JR: Yes, Eddie and I both do…well, we don’t do a whole lot of traveling, because we’ve got a job here at the plant every day, too, but we do travel all over the United States and all over the world promoting bourbon, but especially Wild Turkey Bourbon. You know, we’re known as the premium bourbon of the world. We’re huge in Australia and Japan.

BE: I take it that you’ve been able to travel to both of those countries, then?

JR: Yes, I have.

BE: What’s it like taking an American product over there? I have to figure that there’s a certain amount of national pride for their own beverages. Are they open to other countries’ wares?

JR: Well, in Japan, Wild Turkey is considered a prestige bourbon. It’s a bourbon that everybody wants, and a lot of the top executives own their own bottles in bars, with their name on a nametag hanging on the bottle. When you’re over visiting Japan, come and go have a drink out of my bottle! (Laughs) They consider it their own personal bottle, whether it’s 101 or Rare Breed or Russell’s Reserve. In Australia…well, they just love their bourbon, so they drink a lot of Wild Turkey! (Laughs)

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