Jimmy Russell is one of the great legends of bourbon. Under his care, Wild Turkey has become of the world’s major bourbon brands and a leader in the rye whiskey boom. Russell is part of a generation of distillers who include such legends as Booker Noe from Jim Beam, Parker Beam at Heaven Hill, and Bill Samuels at Maker’s Mark. Jimmy Russell wasn’t born into the business (he joined Wild Turkey at the encouragement of his wife who worked there), and he didn’t start as the distiller – he worked his way up through the company, learning all the aspects of bourbon production. While Jimmy Russell is a legend, he’s probably the last person to ever acknowledge it. Russell is charming and understated. He has a way of slyly telling you something, and always seems to be enjoying whatever he’s talking about.
But don’t let Jimmy Russell’s charming demeanor fool you: when it comes to bourbon, he’s one of the toughest men behind the still. Russell is famous for being uncompromising. As Wild Turkey has changed corporate ownership over the years, Russell has managed to keep his clear vision and maintain the core of what Wild Turkey is. In the early 1980s many of the bourbon companies produced products to appeal to the increasing vodka market. Most notably, Four Roses put out a light blended whiskey in hopes to attract the vodka drinker. While other bourbons were trying to crack the soft and easy code, Jimmy Russell stuck to his guns and kept Wild Turkey at its high 101 proof strength. It helped establish the spirit as “the kickin’ chicken,” a tougher and spicier whiskey. Although that reputation persists, Wild Turkey is actually much richer and more balanced than many other bourbons on the market, and one of the most underrated bourbons on the market.
In addition to fostering Wild Turkey’s success, Jimmy Russell is also a pioneer in the rye whiskey category. Before the current rye whiskey boom, rye whiskey wasn’t considered a hot commodity. As such, many of the bourbon distillers didn’t do much with rye. Jimmy Russell recognized the great flavors and aromas that rye brings to the equation and used it generously in his Wild Turkey mashbill. Wild Turkey also famously released a 101 proof Rye which is often credited as being a key rye used by craft bartenders that helped kick off the rye whiskey boom. For Jimmy Russell, the real landmark accomplishment with rye is his Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Rye, arguably the definitive rye whiskey release.
Drink Spirits had the great opportunity to sit down and interview Jimmy Russell. Russell spoke about the rye whiskey boom, what age he feels whiskey is best consumed at, and how Wild Turkey has blossomed and grown over the years. We hope you enjoy watching one of the great men in bourbon.Interview with Jimmy Russell - Master Distiller Wild Turkey by Geoff Kleinman