One of the best things about America’s legendary “whiskey men” of the 20th century was that they were walking and talking historical artifacts. Men like Booker Noe, Parker Beam, and Elmer T. Lee had not just seen it all, but in many cases they’d even been friends and drinking buddies with many of those (even older) men whose names had long graced their industry’s most iconic bottles: guys like Jim Beam and, of course, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle.
Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey is the last of that generation who is not only still standing, but also still working. “When I started in the business, it was very brand loyal,” Jimmy remembers. “If you wanted Wild Turkey, you drank Wild Turkey. If you wanted Jim Beam, you drank Jim Beam.”
Russell is almost as old as the Wild Turkey brand itself, having been hired by the company in 1954. Entering the industry at age 18 after passing on a promising basketball career, he learned his whiskey-making skills from two pre-Prohibition distillers, Bill Hughes and Ernest W. Ripy, Jr. He was starting his career in an era when straight bourbon was simply what an American man drank—though times were starting to change.
He and his distillery struggled through the 1970s and ’80s, a period when dark liquors were pushed aside for “light” whiskeys, alco-pops, and cupcake-flavored vodkas. (To keep up with demand, Wild Turkey even released a honey liqueur in 1976.) Luckily, the ’90s saw a slight revival in his beloved spirit, which was further buoyed by the last decade’s craft-cocktail revolution. Suddenly, bourbon and rye whiskey were sexy again, just like Jimmy always knew they were.
Still listed as the co-master distiller at the Lawrenceburg distillery, the affable octogenarian drives himself to the “office” nearly every single day. Those days that he’s not in Kentucky, he’s usually acting as an ambassador in places like New York, San Francisco, and Hong Kong, preaching the gospel of American whiskey to audiences a quarter his age—even if he doesn’t quite understand why those whippersnappers would want to muddle up good whiskey by stirring and shaking it up with a bunch of other junk. As his son Eddie always tells these adoring crowds, “Jimmy only drinks three things: water, sweet tea, and whiskey.”
Luckily, Eddie Russell understands the importance of mixology in driving sales of his product in the current market. Eddie is the other co-master distiller at Wild Turkey, a job he obtained just last year. Despite being Jimmy’s son, and a fourth-generation whiskey man himself, Eddie started at Wild Turkey in 1981 as the lowest man on the totem poll, a relief operator in the sauna-hot column still room. It took him nearly three decades to catch up in title to his old man.
If Jimmy remains a somewhat stubborn traditionalist, Eddie has truly helped Wild Turkey evolve. He’s certainly not afraid to experiment with new products, nor is he opposed to mixing his life’s work into a fancy cocktail or two. In that sense, he’s truly changed the public perception of Wild Turkey. For so long it was seen as a bottom-shelf bourbon you drank in high school or college due to its affordable price point. Eddie’s work of late has given us products like 2014’s Diamond Anniversary, a mingling of 12- and 16-year-old bourbon meant to honor his father’s 60 years with the company. Last year saw Master’s Keep—the brand’s oldest release ever (17 years)—and Russell’s Reserve 1998, a $250 bottle offering meant to show that Wild Turkey is ready to play ball with the Pappys, Staggs, and the other limited-edition “big boys.”
With a combined century in the business, the Russells looks back on the ten whiskeys that made their careers.
Old Joe Whiskey
Jimmy says: “My father used to work in the whiskey business back at the Old Joe Distillery—which is now Four Roses—up in Lawrenceburg, KY. It’s one of the industry’s oldest brands. I used to always follow what my father drank—and back then, it was Old Joe.” (Photo: peytonbook.blogspot.com)
Buffalo Trace Bourbon
Jimmy says: “Elmer T. Lee is one of the best that’s ever done it and makes an excellent product. He’s always been someone you can count on and delivers quality each time. I really like the Buffalo Trace bourbons.” (Photo: vintageliquor.com)
Knob Creek Small Batch
Jimmy says: “I really enjoy the small batches, and Knob Creek makes some good ones. I’ve known Parker Beam for many, many years, and he puts out an exceptional product.”
Eddie says: “The small batch whiskeys really appeal to me, whether it’s the Knob Creek from Jim Beam, or special label expressions that others are doing.” (Photo: knobcreek.com)
Booker’s Barrel Proof Bourbon
Jimmy says: “I really appreciated what Booker Noe taught the industry with their barrel-proof whiskey. It sure was a nice one.”
Eddie says: “Booker Noe taught you that the best whiskey comes straight out of the barrel before anything is done to it. It’s an extreme and bold taste that really stands out.” (Photo: bevmo.com)
Jimmy says: “Honey bourbon is coming strong on the market now, and Wild Turkey came out with our version, Wild Turkey Honey Liqueur, back in 1976. It’s something we developed for the ladies who thought straight bourbon was a little strong. It was really just our Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon with real honey added to it. Now we call it American Honey, but it’s the same recipe we’ve always used.” (Photo courtesy Wild Turkey)
Wild Turkey Rare Breed
Jimmy says: “We started with small-batch bourbons back in the late ’80s, early ’90s and decided to start sampling these whiskies straight out the barrel. People saw us do this and wondered why we blended them, so we decided to bottle it straight so they could taste what they were missing.” (Photo courtesy Wild Turkey)
Old Overholt Rye Whiskey
Eddie says: “Old Overholt was a general-type whiskey and considered a classic growing up. For years and years, it was one of the only ryes you could find consistently along with Wild Turkey 101.” (Photo: drinkupny.com)
Wild Turkey 101 Rye
Eddie says: “The first rye I ever tasted was Wild Turkey 101 Rye, and the big boldness of the rye flavors changed my mind on everything. I really like the drier, spicier, and sharper taste that rye gives out.” (Photo courtesy Wild Turkey)
Eddie says: “Maker’s is a great whiskey to start on. It appeals to you because it’s sweeter, lighter, and easier to drink than small batches and barrel-proof whiskeys. It helps you realize what you like about bourbon before venturing out.” (Photo: thewhiskeyexchange.com)
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon
Eddie says: “This was made as a tribute to my father, Booker Noe, and Elmer T. Lee, in regards to what all those guys did back in ’50s and ’60s by bottling whiskey straight out of the barrel. Non-chill filtered, plenty of flavor—that’s what I was really going for, and I think we hit the mark on this one.” (Photo courtesy Wild Turkey)
Yamazaki Bourbon Barrel Single Malt Whisky
Eddie says: “I appreciate folks that make their own whiskies and do their own thing, and I draw inspiration from that. The Japanese are doing some very unusual things right now with whiskey, and it’s interesting to see that coming from people who haven’t historically produced it. They do a great job with their single malts, especially Yamasaki. When you taste this single malt—aged in a bourbon barrel, I can’t help noting—you can’t help but think to yourself, ‘Man, these distillers have done a really great job.’” (Photo: caskstrength.blogspot.com)
Aaron Goldfarb (@aarongoldfarb) is the author of How to Fail: The Self-Hurt Guide, The Guide for a Single Man, and The Guide for a Single Woman.