Happy anniversary, Jimmy RussellApril 18th, 2014
I was in Kentucky on Tuesday for the grand opening of the new Wild Turkey visitor center. At least, that was the big billing for the day to the press, and Kentucky Governor Beshear was there for the event, as was the head of Campari North America, Jean Jacques Dubau. It was cocktails and toasts all around as we stood in the glass-wrapped structure, high on the bluff over the Kentucky River; the view was tremendous, the whiskey exceptional, and the engagingly open rickhouse-like interior of the center, all raw, unpainted wood and steel supports, was a reflection of the honesty of the product being celebrated. It’s the crowning touch of $100 million worth of expansion and improvements that Campari has made at Wild Turkey, and that kind of investment is noteworthy.
But the real reason I was there, and the real reason people like Fred Noe (Beam), Al Young (Four Roses), Mark Coffman (Alltech’s distiller), Greg Davis (Maker’s Mark), Craig Beam and yes, even Parker Beam (Heaven Hill) were there, was something more momentous. We were celebrating Jimmy Russell’s 60 years with Wild Turkey; a little early, maybe, since he started at Wild Turkey on September 10, 1954…but that just means we’ll get to do it again in five months.
If there was any doubt about how important Jimmy has been to the long-term success of Wild Turkey, the billboard over the river at the west end of the Rt. 62 bridge should dismiss it. “Welcome to the house that Jimmy built.” We toured the new distillery, and Jimmy pointed out the reassuring sameness. The still is built just the same — five feet wide, 52 feet high — as the old one (which is on display in the visitor center with the hatches open so visitors can get a rare look inside a column still), the fermenters are bigger and more numerous (there are twenty 30,000 gallon wells) but still open, the barrels are still air-dried white oak burnt to a #4 ”alligator” char, and the yeast is still grown up fresh from the same strain that was being used in 1954.
So what exactly was it that Jimmy did, if everything is the same? That’s the point: he kept it that way. It wasn’t always easy, and it certainly wasn’t always popular when bourbon sales were sinking badly through the 1980s. But Pernod Ricard went with his solidly stated advice, and it has turned out to be right, much like the oft-quoted advice of Dickel’s first distiller, Ralph Dupps: “Don’t change a damn thing.”
Now, there have been some changes at Wild Turkey, and not just building a big new visitor’s center to replace the old 2-bedroom house that used to serve that function! The entry proof is a little bit higher than it used to be; some are going in as high as 57.5%, though most are going in at 55%, where they used to be down around 52.5%. Eddie Russell (he’s been there for 33 years himself, of course) said he had to get the proof up a bit; he wasn’t getting a high enough proof out of the barrel often enough to make the higher proof Rare Breed and Single Barrel bottlings.
That’s another change: up through the early 1980s, the flagship 101 bottling was the only bourbon they made, along with the rye and the liqueur (which is now bottled as American Honey). More bottlings were added, including the 80 proof bourbon…which is now gone. “Jimmy and I didn’t even drink the 80,” Eddie said. It was 4 ½ years old, the new 81 is about 6 ½ years old (Jimmy likes to add a half year, “an extra season,” to every barrel). The 101 is 7 ½ years old, and the Rare Breed is a mingling of whiskeys between 6 and 10 years old.
Which brings us to the new whiskey we got to taste: the Diamond Anniversary, a 91 proof bourbon that’s a mingling of 13 to 16 year old whiskeys. That’s pretty well-aged for Wild Turkey! It was definitely Wild Turkey — hot honey sweetness, a bit smoky, and strongly smooth — but with much more wood character — drying spiciness — than I’ve ever encountered in a Wild Turkey bottling. There’s not a lot of it, and at $125, I believe it’s the most expensive bottling they’ve ever done, but it’s like nothing else you’ve ever had from this distillery.
Did I like it? We tried it at a tasting in the distillery (there’s a small gallery right by the yeast room) along with five other whiskeys, and I not only finished the Diamond, I figured there was nothing to be lost by asking for more. Ask and ye shall receive, it turned out, and I finished that one, too!
It was a pleasure to be there to wish Jimmy the full congratulations he deserves for his long, illustrious run at Wild Turkey. He’s not slowing down, either; Eddie’s feeling the pressure to not retire before Jimmy, and he admits that may be quite a while yet. After all, it’s getting busy. That was one of the biggest changes Jimmy noted from when he started. “We were making around 60 to 70 barrels a day when I came,” he said. “We had four storage buildings, we had about 70,000 barrels in storage. Now we’re making 560 barrels a day, we have 27 warehouses, and we have over half a million barrels in storage right now.” He seems to figure, why stop now?
As Jimmy said, several times during the day, and again during his acceptance of the key to the town of Lawrenceburg and an honorary plaque from the Governor, “It’s been a blessing for me.” He honestly seems to be the luckiest kind of person, someone’s who’s enjoyed their job so much that he’s never worked a day in his life. Happy anniversary, Jimmy.