The man, the myth, the legend: Jimmy Russell
Wild Turkey master distiller has 63 years in the biz, pours at SoWal Wine Fest
By Michelle Farnham
Bourbon is a drink developed over time and aged to perfection, much like the career of Jimmy Russell. The 83-year-old master distiller for Wild Turkey has more than a career’s worth of tales to tell, cultivated over 63 years in the rickhouse.
Russell was on hand for the 2017 Craft Beer & Spirits Jam April 28 to pour samples from the bottles that bear his name: the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel 10-Year and the 6-Year-Old Rye. Although this was his second year in a row at the event, Russell is no stranger to the Emerald Coast. When the work is done, Jimmy heads for the beach.
“I’ve been coming to Destin for the last 30 years,” Russell admitted. “The week of July the Fourth, that’s the slack time in making bourbon in Kentucky, and everything else bottled there. Ever since my children married, we come down here and spend about 10 days.”
Clearly a man of good taste, how does the master distiller’s master distiller take his bourbon?
“I have one cocktail: I favor a cube of ice with my bourbon,” he said with a hearty laugh.
When asked which of Wild Turkey’s products he enjoys most, Russell didn’t miss a beat. “One of each.”
“I’ve probably drank more of the Russell’s Reserve Small Batch 10-Year 90-Proof or the Rare Breed Barrel Proof Bourbon,” he said.
As an octogenarian, you might expect Russell to sit back and enjoy his legacy, one sip at a time, but he’s too busy. He still works in the Lawrenceburg, Ky., distillery six or seven days a week, starting his day in a most enviable way.
“First thing, I go in early in the morning and we taste the new product we made the day before. We want to make sure it’s good. We can only use that barrel the one time and we don’t want to put a bad batch in a $150 barrel,” he explained. “With all of our quality control, we check the grains, the grinding, cooking, fermentation, distillation – we’re checking it all the way through.”
Part of that “we” team he mentioned is his son and fellow master distiller, Eddie. A relative industry newcomer compared to his father, Eddie is celebrating his 36th year with the company.
“It’s been a blessing,” the elder Russell said of the partnership. “His son Bruce is working for us now, too. He’s in Austin, Texas, working as a brand ambassador for us. He’s spent some time in the distillery; now he’s out running the marketing and sales end of it. If we ever get him back, he’ll know the process from the time it’s made, aged, bottled, and how it’s marketed and sold.”
A granddaughter also works as a tour guide at the visitor center while attending the University of Kentucky, keeping the multi-generation tradition of Kentucky bourbon-making alive and well.
The world’s longest-tenured active master distiller has been making bourbon longer than most in attendance that night have been alive. Nonetheless, he was eager to share his love of bourbon with the South Walton crowd. Whispers of “Oh my gosh, that’s Jimmy Russell!” could be heard outside tent No. 32, and Jimmy had a smile, a handshake and a sample to pour for everyone.