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By Carla Carlton

As you drive the sinuous bridge across the Kentucky River from Woodford County into Anderson County, the first thing you see is a billboard advertising the Wild Turkey distillery, which rises above it. The billboard has been there for years, welcoming Bourbon lovers to “heaven,” but earlier this year the message changed: “See the House That Jimmy Built.”

That would be Jimmy Russell, the legendary master distiller who in September will mark a jaw-dropping 60 years at Wild Turkey and the longest tenure of any master distiller in the industry. (For context, his career is 10 years older than the Congressional resolution that declared Bourbon a “distinctive product of the United States.”)

Since his first day on the job – Sept. 10, 1954 – Wild Turkey has increased production from 80 barrels a day to more than 550 and expanded from one product, Wild Turkey 101, to more than a dozen domestically and internationally – including the industry’s first honey Bourbon liqueur. He’s outlasted several employers; current Wild Turkey owner Gruppo Campari has invested more than $100 million over the past three years to modernize and expand the distillery, including a $4 million visitor center that opened in April.

Wild Turkey, which has declared 2014 “The Year of Jimmy Russell,” released a special Diamond Anniversary Bourbon this year to commemorate his milestone, and events are being held in cities across the map in his honor. But before you assume that the attention must have gone to his head, ask him what he thinks about that new billboard.

“I didn’t know anything about it! Our San Francisco office done that,” he said. “They put up the new sign late on a Friday afternoon. I was at the Huddle House on Saturday, and two or three people come in and said, ‘I like your sign.’ And I didn’t even know it! So after breakfast we drove out there and saw it.”

He may be treated like Bourbon royalty around the globe, but here, as everywhere, he’s just Jimmy. “I hope I haven’t changed,” he said. “What you see is what you get with me. I’m still same old fella from Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.”

‘YOU’RE REAL!’

In fact, Jimmy still lives within a mile of where he was born in Anderson County, and just six miles from Wild Turkey. He was about to turn 20 – he’ll be 80 in November – when he started working at the distillery.

He surely never envisioned that one day, Bourbon would take him all over the world. But even then, his own world revolved around Bourbon. His wife, Joretta, to whom he’d been married for a year, already worked at what was then called the JTS Brown Distillery, and distillery work ran in his family.

“Back in that day and time there were four distilleries in Lawrenceburg,” he said. “We had Old Joe, and what is Four Roses now was called Old Prentice then, and Hoffman Distillery, and this one here. My dad was working at the Old Joe Distillery; I had uncles working at Hoffman; I had family working at all the distilleries. So it was just natural, when I was looking for a job. I was fortunate enough to get on here, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Over the next few years, he worked under Bill Hughes, the distillery’s second master distiller, and Ernest W. Ripy Jr., the great-nephew of distillery founder James Ripy and Wild Turkey’s third master distiller, learning every part of the Bourbon-making process. “I thought they was trying to get rid of me,” he jokes, “but they was teaching me the whole thing.”

In the late 1960s, Jimmy became master distiller. The Bourbon industry was about to undergo some major changes. “In the ’50s and ’60s and early ’70s, Bourbon was doing all right,” he said. “And then the white goods came out, the vodkas and gins. We didn’t change. We stayed true to the old-fashioned formula.” But as consumer tastes changed, “old-fashioned” started to mean something your grandfather drank, and Bourbon sales as a whole began to decline.

Industry executives took several steps to try to reverse the slide. They introduced premium brands like Blanton’s and Booker’s, and for the first time, they decided to send actual distillers out on the road to educate the public about Bourbon and Bourbon making. Jimmy Russell was one of the first.

“There was always marketing and sales people out in the field,” he said, “but I believe it’s been close to 30 years now the company decided that I should go out. The first one I ever done, we did a whirlwind tour. We started in New York, went down the coast to Florida, over to Louisiana, Texas and out to California. In California, there was a mom and pop liquor store. And there was an old gentleman sitting back in a rocking chair. We kept talking and going on, and he looked at me and said, “You’re real.” I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Momma, come back here: This fella’s real! He makes it!’ And I never will forget that.”

In the years since, Jimmy has flown farther than any wild turkey in history, making countless appearances across the United States and beyond to ever-growing audiences and keeping a punishing schedule that would drop a man 30 years his junior. “He is the only human who doesn’t get jet lag,” said Eric Ariyoshi, Gruppo Campari brand manager for Wild Turkey in San Francisco.

Joretta, who is sometimes introduced as the First Lady of Bourbon, occasionally accompanies Jimmy if he’s going to stay in one place for two or three days, but he’s often in a different city every night, starting out at 8 or 9 in the morning and returning to the hotel at midnight or after. “He just loves it so much that it doesn’t bother him at all,” she says.

“The thing I like so well is, you know, for many, many years, we sat here and we made it, we aged it, we bottled it and we shipped it, and that was it,” Jimmy says. “To get to meet the people who drink it, see how they enjoy it, see what they say about it, is something I really enjoy.”

He’s hard-pressed to name a favorite city he’s visited. “But outside the country, I love Japan and Australia, and they’re just opposites. Japan is very formal and everything until about 10 o’clock at night when you get a few drinks in ’em, and you know what happens, don’t you? They sing karaoke. And Australians just love to have a good time.

“I never will forget one time in Australia they had this big closing event and they’d decorated this big hall, must have been 200 people there. They had banners, signs… They said, ‘We decorated for two days, and we don’t know how long it’s going to take to get all this down.’ I don’t think they had to take a piece of it down. All those people was gathering it up, and I sat there and I signed it for over four hours. They were taking it back and putting it in their bars. It’s marketing and advertising for us.”

‘THE ELDER STATESMEN’

“I look at Jimmy and my father and Elmer T. Lee as the elder statesmen of the whole industry,” says Fred Noe, son of Booker Noe and current master distiller at Jim Beam. “They started the travel and the public tastings and introducing people to Bourbon, especially the premium and super-premium brands when that was getting started.

“They started the fire that has grown into the popularity of Bourbon today – by being accessible, shaking hands, telling the stories of the Bourbon industry through their eyes. Now, all of us next generations are feeding off the groundwork they laid. They might have done a tasting for half a dozen people; now when we do a tasting, 200 or 300 people might show up.”

Jimmy and Booker in particular were close friends; Fred jokes that if you had put both of them in a bag and pulled one out, you wouldn’t know which one you had ahold of. “When I started traveling when Dad was still alive, Jimmy acted like he was taking notes, like, ‘I can tell Booker what you’re up to,’” Fred said. “I said, ‘I don’t need a dad on the road and a dad at home too.’ We laughed about that. He’s always been very close to me. I do see him as another father.”

Jimmy’s actual son, Eddie Russell, is the associate master distiller at Wild Turkey, where he has worked for “only” 33 years. “I’m the new guy – I started yesterday,” he joked as he introduced his father at a Diamond Dinner at Louisville’s 21C hotel in May, part of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association’s inaugural Bourbon Affair. Eddie recalled that when Wild Turkey rolled out Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old to mark Jimmy’s 45th anniversary with the company, executives considered the gesture a grand send-off. “What they didn’t know is that master distillers never retire.”

Russell’s Reserve, Rare Breed and Kentucky Spirit are among the small-batch and single-barrel Bourbons that Wild Turkey has introduced during Jimmy’s tenure. Last year, the distillery unveiled Wild Turkey Spiced, only the second flavored Bourbon since Wild Turkey introduced Wild Turkey Honey Liqueur (now American Honey) in the 1970s. Eddie says that for a long time, he thought his name was “No,” because that’s what Jimmy would say whenever he proposed something new.

Acknowledging that he’s hard-headed and old-fashioned, Jimmy says he’s hesitant to stray too far from the original Wild Turkey profile – particularly with more flavored Bourbons.

“What I’m leery about is, How far can you go and still keep the Bourbon taste? We’re always experimenting with something, but you never know what the public will like. As long as you stay true to old-fashioned Bourbon – it’s been around what, for 200 years, and it’s still going, so… I don’t see it. We are all human; we always want to try something new, but we usually go back to our old standards.”

‘A KENTUCKY TRADITION’

 

For him, those standards are simple. “My personal taste is, I think Bourbon does not start maturing until about six, seven, eight years. It gets much over 12 years old, I don’t care much for it. You lose a lot of the caramel, the vanilla, the sweetness. And the white oak wood becomes the dominant flavor. And I just don’t like a lot of woody taste.”

One notable exception is the Diamond Anniversary Bourbon, a blend of 13- and 16-year-old Wild Turkey hand-selected by Eddie that will hit the market in September.

Right now, you can buy it only at the beautiful new Wild Turkey Visitor Center, which overlooks the Kentucky River. The 9,000-square-foot center capped off $100 million in infrastructure improvements since 2011, including a new packaging facility and an entirely new distillery building – the first such expansion in Kentucky in decades – that doubled production capacity.

While the Visitor Center does have interactive displays, “I didn’t want Disney World,” Jimmy says. “I wanted it to look traditional. Bourbon’s tradition. A Kentucky tradition. That’s what I wanted the center to look like. Some says it looks like a cathedral. But you know what it’s supposed to look like? A tobacco barn. We wanted it to look like typical Kentucky.”

More than 80,000 people are expected to visit Wild Turkey this year. And more people are drinking Bourbon than at any time since before Prohibition.

“It’s in great demand right now – there’s a shortage of Bourbon, to be honest with you,” Jimmy says. “You know here we plan six to 12 years in advance.  You try to make enough, and if you make too much it costs you a lot of money, so…. One of the things right now is rye whiskeys. Rye is really short. You know seven or eight years ago, us and Jim Beam was about the only rye whiskeys on the market. And then the young mixologists came in and started using rye in mixed drinks. We’ve been on allocations for two to three years, we’re still on allocations, because we didn’t know six or seven years ago that rye was going to do this. We can’t turn the faucet on overnight.”

More younger people and more women are drinking Bourbon than when he started in the industry, Jimmy says. People are better educated about whiskey nowadays, and increasingly they want higher-proof Bourbon. Foreign markets are expanding. The equipment has gotten better, but the Wild Turkey formula, right down to the yeast, is the same as it was 60 years ago.

As for the future of Bourbon, “I still see it growing,” he says. “Now, nobody can expect it to grow like it’s been growing the last few years, but it’s the true American spirit, and it’s going to be around a lot longer than I am.”

And just how long will that be, Jimmy Russell?

“The first day it becomes a job, it’s time to retire,” he says. “When you enjoy something, you never work a day in your life, and I’ve really enjoyed it. But you never know when you get (to be) my age. I tease the young people: You know what I’m hoping now? What we’re making, putting in the barrel now – I hope I’m around when it’s put in the bottle.”

60 Years of Jimmy Russell

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