Drinkhacker Asks: Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell
Like most discerning drinkers, we here at Drinkhacker have many questions we’d like to ask the people behind our favorite wine, beer, or spirit. Every now and then, we get the opportunity to actually do so. For the first in our series of short interviews, we talked to the “the Buddha of Bourbon” himself and the longest-tenured active Master Distiller in the spirits world, Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell.
We interviewed Jimmy at the Wild Turkey Visitor Center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky where you’ll often find him (when he’s not traveling the world) sitting on his stool, happy to talk to any of the thousands of visitors that come through Wild Turkey’s doors every year.
Drinkhacker: Thanks for taking the time, Jimmy. We know you’re a pretty busy man for 82 years young. Let’s get right to it. Any fun whiskeys you’ve been working on lately?
Jimmy Russell: In October, I went out to Virginia to help make a special rye whiskey for the 10th anniversary of the reconstruction of George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon. A whole bunch of us form Kentucky and other places got together on it.
I know you prefer bourbon over rye. How’s it taste?
JR: It was pretty good. It’s got a good amount of corn in it like our Russell’s Reserve Rye, so I like it.
So you were in Virginia not that long ago, and you leave for WhiskyFest in New York City tomorrow. You travel a lot. I hope you’re flying First Class or at least getting some Wild Turkey on the plane!
JR: You know the only airline that carries Wild Turkey is Southwest, and they don’t fly out of Lexington. I’m good friends with the founder, Herb Kelleher, and I keep trying to get him to come out here. He’s a great guy. You know, for Herb’s 65th birthday we printed his face on 65 bottles of Wild Turkey bourbon. He got a kick out of it.
If he’s a Wild Turkey fan, you must be a great friend to have. I’m surprised he didn’t build you a personal runway next to the Visitor’s Center! With all that travel, what’s the furthest you’ve flown for an event?
JR: We go all the way to Japan. The Japanese love bourbon. And their whiskey festivals last two days and start at 10 AM!
Sounds like we’re doing it all wrong in the states! You used to do a lot of festivals with Heaven Hill’s Master Distiller, Parker Beam, who passed away earlier this year. I know you two were very close. Any stories or memories you’d like to share about Parker?
JR: Yeah. Parker and I were close. You know he didn’t know he had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) until he was about 70. And even when he got diagnosed he didn’t want to slow down. He especially loved driving, and he’d get somebody to ride with him and shift gears for him when he couldn’t do it anymore!
Sounds like he was quite a character. And definitely a legend in the bourbon world.
JR: Yeah. It used to be me, and Parker, and Booker Noe, and Elmer T. Lee, and now I’m the only one left.
And it doesn’t look like you’re slowing down any time soon! But the business has really become a family affair for many distilleries. You’ve got your son Eddie sharing Master Distiller responsibilities with you. How about your grandchildren? Are they planning to get into the business?
JR: Oh yeah. My grandson has been getting experience with all the different parts of the distillery. He’ll be with me and Eddie at WhiskyFest in New York, and my granddaughter who works here in the Visitor’s Center will be with us, too.
Well, it sounds like the future of Wild Turkey is in good hands. Now we just need to get 101 on more airline drink menus!
JR: Ha. Yeah, that’d be nice.