Sixty years ago today, in 1954…
Jimmy Russell started working at the Wild Turkey distillery, at the age of 18.
We at Whisky Advocate, from founder John Hansell on down, our entire staff, would like to say: Well done, Jimmy!
We’ve talked to Jimmy over the years. Here’s some of his story, as we’ve reported it in previous issues.
“Really, my wife, Joretta, was working here before I was,” Jimmy recalls, “and my dad worked at the Old Joe distillery here in town. There were four distilleries here at that time. It was us, then where Four Roses is now was known as Old Prentice, the Hoffman distilling company, and Old Joe distilling, where my dad was. I was fortunate enough to get on here and haven’t been able to get away yet.
“This is really the only full-time job I’ve ever had,” he says. “It wasn’t hardly the same as it is now. They called it ‘Quality Control.’ Now you do Quality Control and people bring you samples and you sit there and run them. Back then, you went and got your own samples, and then you might be unloading a truck of grain after you run them. Unloading it with a shovel!”
Jimmy learned distilling from Mr. Bill Hughes (that’s how Jimmy always refers to him). “Mister Bill was a seven-day man,” as Jimmy puts it. “He lived up on top of the hill, and he was here seven days a week. He’d worked before Prohibition, here at this distillery.”
“When I started, about all bourbons were bottled at 100 proof, bottled in bond,” Jimmy notes. “But theirs had to be at 101, and it stuck, because that’s what they liked on this turkey hunt.”
The turkey hunt is the origin of the Wild Turkey name, enshrined in the brand’s back-story. The McCarthy family owned the distillery in the first half of the 20th century. Some of the McCarthys would take bourbon from the warehouses along on an annual turkey hunt with friends in the late 1930s. The friends asked for more of “that wild turkey whiskey,” and the McCarthys decided to sell it under that name.
That probably seems too easy, a story created in the marketing department, but Jimmy remembers hearing the story directly from Thomas McCarthy, who’d been on the hunts. Until the late 1970s, that 101 proof bottling of Wild Turkey was the only product the distillery made.
Jimmy is perhaps best know for keeping Wild Turkey made the way he wanted it made, the way he learned to make it from Mister Bill. He has stuck to his guns, and while there have been some changes — additional products, like the rye, the Rare Breed and Kentucky Spirit bottlings, and the whole Russell’s Reserve line — and the entry proof has been nudged up just a little to 57.5%, largely, Wild Turkey is still made the same way it has been for 60 years.
“Any time you have to add [water],” Jimmy says, “you’re going to reduce your lighter flavors. But, you know, all of us have different ideas, and we all make good bourbon.” He pauses. “But that’s how we make ours,” he said.
60 years ago, it was made the Mister Bill way. Now it’s the Russell way.
That was then; this is now. Fred Minnick reports on a ceremony last week that honored Jimmy with a lifetime membership in the Kentucky Distiller Association, just one of the celebrations that have been taking place this year.
Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell thought the Kentucky Distiller Association’s September 2 board meeting was just another meeting. He was wrong.
As Russell walked down the long, sloping Wild Turkey lunchroom entrance, a surprise-party audience stood on its feet, roaring, clapping, and ready to commend a friend, a bourbon legend, an iconic Kentucky figure who could win the state’s governor position if he ran. (At least, that’s what Kentucky governor Steve Beshear said.)
The first to embrace the “Buddha of Bourbon” was his distillery sweetheart and wife, Joretta Russell. “What are you doing here? What’s going on?” Russell asked, embracing his wife to the sound of joyous clapping.
Russell was being honored with the KDA’s Lifetime Honorary Member Award, making him only the sixth person since 1880 to receive the honor. It’s the latest honor bestowed upon Russell. He’s in the Bourbon Hall of Fame, the Kentucky legislature passed a Resolution to honor the distiller, and Wild Turkey’s parent company, Campari, has practically shifted all of its 2014 Wild Turkey marketing dollars to promote Russell’s 60th anniversary. This private event was the industry lobby’s chance to recognize Russell, who joined the KDA board May 16, 1978, and remains Wild Turkey’s alternate director.
“If there was a Mount Rushmore of Bourbon, Jimmy Russell would be one of the first faces on it,” said Eric Gregory, the executive director of the KDA.
After a round of thoughtful remarks from KDA members, a few laughs and a documentary dedicated to Russell (see above), where I learned Russell was thought to be Kentucky’s best athlete during his youth, I caught up with the legend to ask a few questions.
Was this really a surprise?
This is one they put over on me!
What does the Lifetime Honorary Member Award mean to you?
This is unbelievable. Seeing all these distillery people, this is something I’ll always enjoy. Being here in Kentucky and in the bourbon business, we help each other all the time.
This honor is about your KDA role. Give me a KDA story.
There are a lot of them. Over the years, I’ve been a member for, gosh, I don’t know how long. But a lot of things went on. They’d get rowdy at times, but we all ended up agreeing with one another.
Any really intense meetings?
There have been several intense meetings over the years. When they had the sales tax in Kentucky, they first put it on the distributor. And then five or six years ago, they put another sales tax on the consumer. We went to the Capitol steps in Frankfurt, Kentucky, and poured out bourbon all over the steps.
Over the years, the KDA has been involved with lawsuits with Sazerac. What has it been like being a board member during these situations?
It’s one of those things. We all have disagreements we get into, but we’re all still friends in the business. Some people want to do it one way, some want to do it another way. Usually, the KDA resolves their problems and ends up working everything out.
What does the future of bourbon look like?
I hope great. If not, we’re in deep trouble. Our company spent more than $100 million over the last five years, and we’re putting away bourbon we’re not going to sell for another eight years. If it doesn’t keep going, we’re going to have a lot of bourbon seven to eight years from now.
We’re lucky to have him. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Jimmy is the one his son Eddie pays him in the video. Here’s what he said. “The question I got when I first started going out on the road was, ‘How are you going to fill those shoes?’ And my complete and honest answer is, ‘I’ll never fill those shoes.'”
And Jimmy? We’re going to see him for a while, of course. He’ll be at WhiskyFest in San Francisco and New York this fall: he’s the only person in the industry who’s been to every one…and there are only three of us on the staff who can match that record! But when the celebrating and the honors of his anniversary year are over, he’s going to keep on working, making Wild Turkey whiskey the best way he knows how.
“I hope that’s the way it is when I leave here,” he says at the end of the video. “I’ll come to work that morning, and that afternoon, when it’s time to leave, just walk out. That’s the way I’d like it to — it’ll never happen that way, I think, but that’s the way I would like for it to happen.”
We hope you get your wish, Jimmy. You’ve earned it.