Bourbon has come a long way in the public consciousness in the six decades since Jimmy Russell’s first day on the job at the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. And Jimmy and son Eddie Russell, both now Master Distillers at the venerable bourbon institution, have a come a long way, too.
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When Jimmy started in the Quality Control department, on Sept. 10, 1954, Wild Turkey was a much smaller company. “We were making about 70 barrels a day. In the bourbon industry in Kentucky, it was mostly all little family-owned distilleries,” Jimmy says.
At first he did odd jobs. “Quality control didn’t mean what it means today. You’d maybe take samples, run analysis, shovel grain out of the truck — and before the day was over with, you’d done just a little bit of everything.”
At the time, Lawrenceburg was home to about 50 small bourbon distilleries, and it was natural for a young man to go to work in one. It was Jimmy’s first real job. (Years later, Eddie followed suit, after working on farms and graduating from college.) “It was a cool job to have,” Jimmy says. “It was one of the best jobs you could have in towns that had distilleries.”
And for Jimmy, at least, that has remained the case. “I’ve never thought about leaving. I’ve always enjoyed it, ever since I’ve been here,” he says. “I was very happy from the beginning.”
Over the years, though, things have changed. “The big thing is, you’re not doing all different jobs now,” Jimmy says. “You’re making sure that the product meets your standards, tasting all the products and making sure everything meets the standards of Wild Turkey.” Equipment has also been updated: Tasks that used to be done by hand, like opening and closing certain valves, are now performed by computers.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the essential flavor profile of Wild Turkey — which wasn’t always easy to hold the line on back in the 1960s and ‘70s. As lighter spirits became more popular, darker spirits began to fall out of favor. As such, there was a great deal of pressure on bourbon distillers to change their formulas to match trending tastes.
Wild Turkey, motivated by both Jimmy and later Eddie (when he joined the company in 1981), refused to bend to those pressures. For a while things looked dire, which is not uncommon for anyone who stands firm on principles.
But when the winds changed direction again in the 2000s, with the renewed cultural interest in mixology, craft cocktails, and authentic, full-flavored spirits, Wild Turkey was perfectly positioned to reap the benefits.
“When I started, everybody thought Wild Turkey was too big and bold,” Eddie says. “But as Jimmy and I have come through the business, there’s been a change in the younger generation’s palate. America’s always had a sweet tooth. Now we want a little more flavor.”
Wild Turkey’s resurgence hasn’t just been a result of changing tastes. As Eddie tells it, his generation was the one that was “anti-government, anti-history, anti-everything that your parents did.”
Eddie continues: “But what this new generation is looking at is, ‘What did my great-grandfather do? What was going on back in the old days?’” Of course, it helps that the man ultimately responsible for Wild Turkey — Jimmy — is old enough to be your grandfather, and to have experienced those days first-hand.
“Jimmy’s never been one to do whatever’s cool, or the fad-y thing,” Eddie says, admiringly, of his dad. “It’s just doing things the right way, not going along with the trends of the world. That’s what separated us from the very beginning, and staying that way has really helped us as times have grown. All the bartenders now are people that did things the right way, with the history and the heritage of how you did things, and that you didn’t change.”
This new generation of passionate, history-conscious bartenders has championed Wild Turkey, too. “Used to be, a bartender was just some guy who poured Coke in your drink,” Eddie quips. “But now, people are looking at bartending as a career.”
When Jimmy started traveling around the world, promoting bourbon and Wild Turkey to audiences that may not have been familiar with the spirit, those same new-style bartenders confided to Jimmy that they drank Wild Turkey together after closing time.
Soon, of course, people became interested in drinking what those selfsame bartenders were drinking, on or off the clock, and classic cocktails like the Old-Fashioned and the Manhattan — perfect vehicles for Wild Turkey’s big and bold flavor profile — came back into vogue. “People want a bourbon that stands up in a drink,” Eddie says.
And that’s what Wild Turkey, as shepherded over the years by Jimmy, Eddie, and countless other proud Kentuckians, undeniably is. “It’s an old-fashioned, true bourbon the way bourbon was originally made,” Jimmy says, with a force of feeling that hasn’t diminished in his 61 years of work. “It’s full-bodied, full-flavored, full-taste.”
It’s going to stay that way, too, if Eddie has anything to say about it — and he will. “We won’t change anything because we don’t want Jimmy to haunt us for the rest of our life,” Eddie jokes. “We’ll keep doing things the right way. And I only see growth for us.”
Hunter Slaton is the content director for Studio@Gawker.