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An Interview With Jimmy Russell - A humbling experience

Author: Matt Wooler - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Friday 24th July 2015 delivered an opportunity for myself, Matt Wooler founder of Dramnation, to sit down for a one on one interview with the living legend of Wild Turkey Bourbon, Jimmy Russell. It is not often we get these rock stars of whisk(e)y on our door step so when the opportunity knocked to have a chat we were all over it.

For such a man of legend Jimmy is a quiet gentle individual from my first encounter. My first meeting with Jimmy was at the Campari Head Quarters in North Sydney. Raising from his chair Jimmy offered a firm handshake and a soft spoken “Hello I’m Jimmy. It’s a pleasure to meet you”. With some good old southern hospitality from the onset Jimmy held my gaze from the moment we met and it was clear he was ready to field any question I had to offer.

We spent about 1hr in isolation just discussing his tour into Australia to promote the Russel's Reserve, the Russell family, Wild Turkey the whisky vs Wild Turkey the company, and with some divergent discussions here and there. It is without question we also sampled the new Wild Turkey Russell's Reserve Single Barrel throughout the interview.

Following is a series of specific questions I wanted to ask. I have transcribed our discussion in full where possible.

Matt - You have been now working for Wild Turkey for 60 years? Can you tell us what your first job was?

Jimmy - I started at the distillery September 10th 1954. I started out in quality control in the distillery. It is a completely different story now than what is was in 1954. You would go get samples of grain and run analysis on it. Next thing you know you might have a scoop shovel up the back of a truck unloading it too. Everything was hands on.

Matt - Family is clearly important to you. Your son is now Master Distiller for Wild Turkey, you have worked for Wild Turkey for over 60years, your father worked for Wild Turkey, and your grandfather worked with whisky also.

Jimmy - Yes my son is now Master Distiller as well. My grandfather worked for another distillery on my mothers side and once Prohibition came in they never went back into business again. Many companies went out of business with Prohibition. My father worked at another distillery called Old Joe distillery and finished up at Wild Turkey. So right now there is now 3 generations of Russell’s working at Wild Turkey. I’m there, my son’s (Eddie) there and his son (Bruce) just went to work for us.

Matt - Was your grandfather making Rye?

Jimmy - No they were making a Kentucky Bourbon. All Rye whiskey when I started was made in Pennsylvania or Maryland. Rye was the dominant grain on the East coast. That was the first whiskey made in America.

Matt - A question about yeast and distillation. How old is the yeast used by Wild Turkey? I hear Wild Turkey uses its own strain?

Jimmy - We make our own yeast. All I can tell you tell is it’s at least 60 years old. It was there when I got there and we’re still using the same yeast. We clean the yeast up every 6 months. We only have 2 formulas. We make a bourbon formula and a rye formula. We don’t use and GMO (genetically modified) grains. We distill at low proof and put it in the barrel at low proof. And we use the number 4 heavy char on the barrels. So everything we do at Wild Turkey is premium. If my son was here (Eddie Russell) he would say my dad is hard headed and old fashioned and wouldn’t change a thing.

Matt - You have spoken before about the troubles the bourbon industry saw. can you tell us a little more about that?

Jimmy - The 50’s, 60’s and 70’s Bourbon was strong. Then around the 70’s the young people came along drinking gin’s and vodka’s and a lot of the bourbon companies tried to lighten their products to compete. I didn’t change and I am glad it didn’t hold out. If it had changed and people went to lighter products I wouldn’t have had a job today. I stayed true to the formula and now everybody’s back to that again.

Matt - Where are your barrels coming from?

Jimmy - All our barrels come from Independent Staves Company. Our timber has to sit out in the woods for a minimum of 6 to 9 months after it is cut to naturally dry. There is a lot of kiln drying now and I can tell if a barrel has been kiln dried or not and they (Independent Staves Company) know I am going to test it. When it sits out in the woods you get the heat, the sun light, get the rain, and it leeches some things out of the wood kiln drying can’t do. We are always 6 to 9 months ahead in our orders (for barrels and grain) and we contract at least a year in advance.

Matt - Are you producing new make spirit every day or is it seasonal?

Jimmy - No it is seasonal. Most bourbon distilleries you will find from the end of June to middle September shutting down. It is too hot with the humidity. When we are running we are making spirit 6 or 7 days a week and when we are down this is when we do all the major repair work on the boilers. In the state of Kentucky you have to have the boilers inspected by the state once a least one year. During this period (June to September) is when we get all this done.

Matt - What do you look for in corn to deliver the Wild Turkey characteristics?

Jimmy - We are looking for size of kernels, moister content, no damage or cracked kernels, and no chemical treatment.

Matt - Russell’s Reserve tends to be seen as “Jimmy’s Bourbon” but it is more a collaboration between yourself and your son correct? When did you decide to do your own whiskey?

Jimmy - Yes we collaborated together. For many years they (Wild Turkey) wanted me to do a Jimmy Russell special release. With me I hope what you see is I am just plain old Jimmy and we are family at the distillery. I am not anymore important than anybody else and I wouldn’t let them (Wild Turkey) do it (a special release). On my 45th anniversary though the company decided to do a Jimmy Russell special and I had no say so in it (laughing). So I had my son work on it and I tasted it and all. Up the top (pointing to the bottle neck of the Russell’s Reserve) it says Jimmy Russell but I told them no and it says Russell’s Reserve. And now our new package is coming out and, where it says “Jimmy Russell” it is going to say “The Russell Family”. Somewhere between 8 and 12 is my favourite bourbons so we split it in the middle at 10 years old (laughing).

Matt - Are you modifying the formula from the Wild Turkey for the Russell’s Reserve and Single Barrel?

Jimmy - No it is all the same. It just different selecting the barrels and the ages. For the Russell’s and the Rare Breed are small batches. For our 86 and 101 there is 1200 to 1400 barrels mixed together, For the Russell’s and Rare Breed it is only about 150 barrels each a year. And the Russell’s Single Barrel is non-chill filtered. All our other whiskies are chill filtered.

Matt - Being single barrel can we expect a wide variation in profiles like some other distilleries do with their single barrel releases?

Jimmy - Not a whole lot in ours. We look for consistency through a blind tasting panel. It may vary just a little but it would be hard to pick it out.

Matt - Are there favoured warehouses and ricks for storing barrels of Russell’s Reserve and Single Barrel?

Jimmy - No but my son will say Yes (he laughs). Our warehouses hold 20,000 barrels and we just built one to store 50,000 barrels and they are 7 stories. The 3rd, 4th, and 5th floors are ideal for ageing. We do some rotation for consistency.

Matt - How often do you encounter genuine rouge barrels?

Jimmy - Once in a  while but not often. If we had gotten that far down the track then there would have been something serious gone wrong. We are filling 560 barrels a day and sometimes we might get a green sappy stave but hardly ever and we find it quickly. We will then check the other barrels filled on that day to make sure it is only one. We aim for consistency.

Matt - You must be proud of Eddies contribution to Wild Turkey. When did your son show signs he wanted to get into making whiskey?

Jimmy - Yes I am very proud to be seeing him doing so well. He didn’t (show signs). You never push your family. He was playing football for a major college and he tells the story momma told me to put him to work one summer. Well he got there and he liked it. He says it has been a long 34 summers (big laugh). And now he is in The Bourbon Hall Of Fame and that was one of the proudest moments for me.

It was an absolute pleasure to be meeting Jimmy and having the time sit down and chat. We will be seeing Jimmy a few more times over the coming week as well as meeting Eddie so we will be sure to ask some more questions as they come up.

Thanks to Briana Nowland of Trish Nicol Agency and Campari Australia for organising the interview as well as Jimmy Russell for his time. We will be sure to be featuring the Russell's Reserve in one of our up coming tastings.

It was truly a humbling experience shaking the hand of the Master Distiller. Jimmy has taught me more than he will ever know and most of it in that one moment he introduced himself.

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