Distilling is in Jimmy Russell’s blood. His father worked at the Old Joe distillery so long ago that there were only four distilleries in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. The area is now the epicenter of Bourbon country. “I grew up just five miles from Wild Turkey, so it was like my backyard,” says Russell, Wild Turkey’s Master Distiller who is currently celebrating his 60th year with the company.
The “Buddha of Bourbon”, as he is affectionately called, started working at Wild Turkey on September 10th, 1954. He is the longest tenured, active master distiller in North America. In January, Wild Turkey promoted his son Eddie to co-Master Distiller. It’s the only father and son Master Distiller duo in the bourbon industry.
In his 60 years with Wild Turkey, he’s held just about every job, including manager of the plant. He worked as bottling House Manager, in Quality Control and finally, Master Distiller in the mid 1960’s. “I still remember that first day like it was yesterday,” Russell says.
Believe it or not, Russell had aspirations to be a professional baseball player before accepting a job at Wild Turkey. “The lure of bourbon and distilling was very strong,” Russell says, adding that even though he loved the work right from the start, it was his coworkers that kept him coming back every day. “I’ve been lucky to travel the world and meet folks who are really passionate about Bourbon.” Some of his happiest moments are when he gets to sit in the visitor’s center and sign bottles of Wild Turkey for guests.
A lot has changed in the bourbon world since he began his tenure. Throughout the industry’s highs and lows, Russell has been right there. “You look at the late ‘50s, ‘60s and even the early ‘70s, and bourbon was the drink of choice,” Russell recalls, but in the late ‘70s, clear spirits like vodka, gin and white rum started to gain in popularity.
“Bourbon makers started lightening up their product trying to compete with the lighter spirits.”
Fortunately for Russell, Wild Turkey refused to join the trend. “We stuck to our ways, and in fact, we still make Wild Turkey today the same way I made it almost 60 years ago with the same yeast, the same bushels per mash, the same everything,” he says.
In the last few decades, bourbon has returned to the prominence that it once held when it was referred to as a “southern gentleman’s drink.” As much as things have changed over the years, much in the bourbon industry has remained the same. “As I mentioned, Wild Turkey has had the same formula since I’ve been here,” Russell says, guarantying that he is using the same yeast that he started with in 1954. “I can honestly say it’s at least 60 years old.”
He hasn’t strayed from the formula in six decades.
Making bourbon isn’t easy and there has been a lot to master in his 60 years at Wild Turkey, but Russell still loves coming to work every day. “I’ve always said, ‘as soon as it feels like work, I’ll retire.,’” Russell says. “As for Wild Turkey, we’ll just keep doing it the same way we always have. I always tell Eddie to just make sure we’re putting out a consistent product – every day. Use good grains, good barrels and make it the same way every time.”