The Buddha of Bourbon: An Interview with Jimmy Russell

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Eddie and Jimmy Russell

“I’ll retire the first day it’s a job,” Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey’s master distiller told us in 2015. One year earlier, in 2014, Jimmy celebrated 60 years with the company, making him the longest-tenured, active master distiller in the world. “It’s something I enjoy. I come to work 6-7 days a week. I only live six miles away,” he explained. His honeyed drawl sounds like it’s made from the bourbon he creates, thick and deeply rooted in Kentucky.

From a family of distillery workers, Jimmy was destined for the bourbon business. “Well it’s been my life; my grandfather was in the business, my wife was in the business at one time, my dad was in the business, I’m in the business, my son’s in the business, now his son’s in the business,” he said. “Here in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, there were four bourbon distilleries when I was growing up and I had family working in all the bourbon distilleries. It’s just natural that’s what you wanted to get into.”

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Wild Turkey distillery, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky

Following in his family’s footsteps, Jimmy started at Wild Turkey with a broom in hand, sweeping the floors. The master distiller before him “more or less took me under his wing and started training me in everything about the distillery business from the making of it to the aging of it to the bottling of it and everything,” Jimmy explained.

Since his rise to master distiller, Jimmy–nicknamed the Master Distillers’ Master Distiller and the Buddha of Bourbon–launched several Wild Turkey products, including Rare Breed and the first ever honeyed bourbon, known today as Wild Turkey American Honey.

His bourbons are the top of the line, winning awards that range from gold and medals in multiple spirits competitions to 90+ ratings by the Beverage Testing Institute, Wine Enthusiast and critics worldwide. Not only are Jimmy’s bourbons a tribute to the already accomplished legacy he has created, but he has the rare opportunity to pass everything he knows down to his son and co-master distiller, Eddie Russell.

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Barrel production

“That’s the thing I enjoy the most. I got to work a little while with my dad here, now I get to work with Eddie here,” Jimmy said. Eddie started at Wild Turkey in 1981. In 2010, he was inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame. “That’s a thing I’m proud of. We’re a father and son in the Bourbon Hall of Fame,” Jimmy said, beaming.

With over 90 years of combined whiskey experience, the father-son master distiller duo launched Russell’s Reserve, a line of four small batch bourbons that proudly hold the family’s name. Each bottle is a stunning example of the exceptional whiskey the pair can craft. Matured in Alligator char barrels and aged in center-cut barrels from the center of the rick house, these bourbons are not to be missed. Celebrate the final days of Bourbon Heritage Month with Russell’s Reserve 10 Year, a full-bodied bourbon with notes of butterscotch, maple, honey and marzipan.

Get more on the Wild Turkey bourbon family tree at abcfws.com/bourbonmonth.

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