Talking Turkey with Eddie Russell

Wild Turkey Master Distiller Eddie Russell and father Jimmy Russell.

This summer, Eddie and Jimmy Russell celebrated a combined 101 years of distilling. It was 37 years ago (and change, now) that “young” Eddie took his first job at Wild Turkey, inadvertently continuing the family legacy. Like father like son.

But perhaps not that alike.

While Eddie may have the name, and the training from the previous generation, it’s where he and the elder Russell diverge that some of the most innovative and award-winning Wild Turkey and Russell’s Reserve whiskeys have emerged. The Bourbon Review sat down with the younger master distiller to talk about bone luges, the bottles he’s proud of, and the greatness of the Boulevardier.

TBR: Eddie let’s start back at the beginning. How long have you been drinking bourbon?

Russell: [Laughing] I’ve been drinking bourbon way longer than I should have. You know, my dad sort of introduced us to it cause he had a drink in his hand, and we always wanted to taste it. As far as drinking it just on my own, probably since I was 16 or 17 years old. Of course, you know, we always say 21 since that’s the legal age. But for a very long time.

TBR: Well, things were different back then. Tell us a little bit about how Jimmy started to teach you about whiskey. What’s your first memory of him trying to instruct?

Russell: I remember even as a young kid coming out here with my father to the distillery. I liked to follow him around and hear him talking about the stills and the warehouses. I just was fascinated about how big they were and him talking about what the barrels did to the whiskey. I didn’t even understand it at that time, but just his knowledge and his love for what he was doing–talking about how the barrels would let the whiskey move in and out to give it color and flavor. And, after that, once I started working here, he really got more in depth into everything that happened.

TBR: So, when you did start working at the distillery, and tasting in a professional role? When did you start to see that you and your dad maybe had slightly different tastes?

Russell: It didn’t take very long. I mean, I remember growing up around all the master distillers, not only Jimmy–they all like this sort of younger, stronger, bolder taste. Where my taste, I like that sort of creamy sweetness on the front end that turns into the spice in the mid palate. Even the finish, you know, my dad’s always loved that super long finish that just hangs around forever. So, it didn’t take long to figure out that he liked a little different taste profile than I do.

TBR: What would you say is the main difference between the two of you?

Russell: I like non-chill filtered, the barrel stuff, where you’re getting that original taste. A little more mouth feel. More of those fatty acids and proteins, and that’s something that, back in the old days, everything was a little thinner up front. More in the mid palate. Where I like it, what I like to see, is right up with that. Something creamy, something thick and sweet. And then I like that spiciness in mid palate. And then the finish, definitely that’s a difference between me and Jimmy. He likes it super long finish. Where I like a little shorter finish.

“For me, Decades is the taste profile 100 percent for me. So, that has to be probably my number one.” – Eddie Russell.
TBR: Some of the best products that have been released recently under the Russell’s and Wild Turkey names have been your creations. You’ve really been focused on the limited releases.

Russell: Well, what it all started with, you know, Jimmy used to do some of the LTOs back in the day: Tradition, American Spirit, and we’d even done a few in Japan. And he sort of dropped that, and then when he turned sixty, I did the Diamond for his sixtieth anniversary and just got to thinking about bringing those LTOs back. And it was around that time they made me master distiller.

To bring out the first one I had some most unique whiskey we ever could have, the Wild Turkey 17. It was aged in brick warehouses down at Old Crow distillery. And it was just so unique. It was the oldest whiskey we’ve ever put out. The proof was way low on it. So, it was something that it was, you know, really thought to be the only one at the beginning of that Master’s Keep really. And it was just so unique. That’s the reason I came out with that.

And then the second one, Decades, really was a little more about what I like taste profile wise. You know, if I could have all of my whiskey taste like Decades, that’s really what I’ve thought about. Everything I liked about it… the mouth feel, the mid-palate, the finish, and everything. So, that’s what that was more about. And then, you know, the new one coming out, Revival… as much as Jimmy never really thinks that I think about it, most of the things I do are to pay tribute to what he’s done over the years. Cause he’s the one that built this business.

I remember doing Sherry Signature back in the day. Nobody had a clue how to do it. We actually sort of ruined some whiskey at the beginning, cause we didn’t know what we were doing. But just being involved in that, and you know, I looked back at that and thought that’d be great to come out for the next one. And pay just a little bit of tribute to Jimmy but doing it in my own way cause he did enhance the barrel with some Oloroso sherry. All I did was do a finish. So, you know, things like that. It’s about you know what I want to keep alive from the past. Because Jimmy and Booker and Elmer and Parker, those guys made this industry when it was not doing very good. So, anything that I can do and talk about you know those guys and especially Jimmy in the past is something I’ll always think about.

“1998 was just such a special batch with only barrels that you know I couldn’t pick and choose. It was just those barrels. So, that would be right there [on the list]. I love this new Revival. I fooled around a little bit with different finishes and barrels and never really been impressed with too much. But when I got these Olorso sherry casks, it was just amazing to see the journey from you know first week to third week to fifth week to about the ninth week when I thought it was perfect.” – Russell rounds out his top three limited releases.
TBR: What part did you have in the release of Forgiven a few years back? I remember there was an accident in the barrel dumping. But there was a process after that to determine what to do with all the whiskey.

Russell: Yeah, so there was a lady that worked for me. I ran the warehousing end of it, and she worked for me. And she dumped rye on top of bourbon. What saved her job was she called me right up, cause a lot of people would have just moved a little out of that thing to another one.

But I went over, and the first thing I did was taste it. I was trying to see, you know, what the outcome was. And I loved it. I thought it was fantastic because it started with that sort of bourbon spark and finished with that big huge rye taste. But I couldn’t convince anybody to put it in a bottle for about three years. We talked about maybe sending it overseas for RTDs in Australia, doing different things like that. And I finally found the guy that ran the Asian market, and he loved it also. And he wanted it. So, then it became a battle between the American and the Asian market to see who got how much. But yeah, it took me three years basically to convince them to put it in a bottle and get it out to the market.

TBR: And it just sat in tanks for three years?

Russell: Yeah, it sure did. The poor girl that actually had done it… you have to take inventory every month, and proof it. And a lot of her good friends at Wild Turkey would say, “How’s your whiskey doing?” And it basically just sat in the tank.

TBR: So, the newest release on the market, of course, is the newest Russell’s. And to my understanding, that’s the first uncut, unfiltered bourbon, that you’ve put out under that name.

Russell: It is. So, you know, we did 1998 was a time we were looking at Jimmy’s 45th anniversary. We held a few barrels back. We only had about 23 barrels of that deal. So, it was just those barrels together. And really, you know, with the Master’s Keep I’m thinking 3 or 4 years down the road because I want to keep that up. But with the Russell’s, I was really thinking just a one time deal. And then they come back and ask if we could do another one. I came in and said well, you know, 1998 was so greatly accepted by everybody, I’m gonna have to really search to find something to compete with that.

When I found the 2002 barrels, and I tasted them, my first comment was we can’t touch this. Which means no chill filter. No cutting of the proof and stuff like that. I had about 60 something barrels and wound up using about 32. It was just sitting in the lab just taking different samples from each barrel and blending them together to get the taste that I was looking for.

But if I had my way, everything would be non-chill filtered barrel proof. So, that’s something a little bit different than what a lot of people thought in the past about this. So, those type things I really love to do. So, I thought it’d be really great. You know, for me, I’m not gonna change anything with Wild Turkey or Rare Breed or Kentucky Spirit because Jimmy built those. But the Russell brand’s the one that I brought out for his 45th. So, I feel like I can do things you with it. And try things that are a little bit different.

Eddie Russell tasting from a barrel in the Wild Turkey warehouses.
TBR: Your drinking style is definitely more adventurous. We’ve seen you take a least one bone luge. Have you had another bone luge since that time at the 21C Louisville?

Russell: [Laughing] Yeah, I’ve had a few. That’s something that’s sort of pretty neat. I think my son thinks that may be the best picture he ever took, when Jimmy gave me a bone luge of 101 rye down in Louisville at the Butchertown Grocery. So, yeah, we’ve definitely had a few.

TBR: Now one of things, of course, that distinguishes you from your dad is that we’ve never seen your dad with a cocktail in hand. And we’ve shared quite a few together. Is that something that ever created friction between the two of you?

Russell: There’s always a little friction between father and son, you know, because my father was the guy that, he thought everything should be very traditional. But for me it… the bartending community changed out industry so much. When I first went out with Jimmy and went to dinners with some of our corporate people, you know, he didn’t drink wine. So, I thought I shouldn’t drink wine and only bourbon. But I just sort of learned over the years you try different things and see what you like.

Some of the bartenders are making drinks that are just amazing. And I mean my favorite is the Boulevardier, and you know Manhattans, but the only difference is there’s so much variation depending on who’s making those. The Boulevardier is pretty similar everywhere you go. So, I definitely have a few cocktails.

Jimmy always laughed, because we would go out in a city and if a bartender knew he was coming, they made two special drinks for Jimmy and would set one down in front of him. Jimmy would poke me and say, “tell them to get me some whiskey in a glass.” And I’d be like, “Just take a drink,” you know, “just take a drink. These people are important to us.” But for him it was no. It either was it neat or with an ice cube. But you know for me, it’s not only the taste but just showing respect to that community that’s really grown our industry.

TBR: There’s another generation coming up slowly but surely. Do you guys have a more similar outlook on what the perfect bottle is? Or, you know, are you guys starting to see some differences, as well?

Russell: Well, I think the new generation that’s coming along is completely different from what we had from my first 25 (almost 30) years where our consumer was an oldergentleman… he just wanted his whiskey in a glass and maybe some ice or water. What you’re seeing today… it’s like rye whiskey. Rye just basically fell off the face of the earth. And now my son thinks that’s the best thing we make here, where Jimmy doesn’t drink any rye. So, you have to make sure that you don’t change what Jimmy built this brand with. But you gotta be able to adjust. I’m making 60 percent more rye this year than I did last year. And I’ve been doing that every year for the last 6 or 7. So, you have to keep up with what this new generation is liking and drinking. Because they’re the ones that’s gonna keep us growing the way we’re growing.

G. Clay Whittaker
Clay is Editor at Large of The Bourbon Review. He has written about whiskey, food, drink, and culture for Esquire, Playboy, Men's Journal, Popular Science, Southern Living, Maxim, among others.