For all the talk about micro-distillers, new breeds of whiskey and the moonshine boom, the real story of bourbon and American whiskey is that the people who didn’t give up during the dark days of the 1970s and 80s are around to experience the vindication of their belief that good whiskey will eventually win out.
That’s true for many folks in Kentucky and Tennessee, but no more so than for master distiller Jimmy Russell, who this September marks his 60th anniversary of working at Wild Turkey. For decades, he’s been one of the best known guardians and ambassadors for America’s native spirit, even during the days when the companies that owned distilleries were asking for such things as “light” whiskey, and putting their energy into coming up with new commemorative ceramic bottles that depicted Elvis, stock cars, buildings - anything to move the juice.
Men like Russell and Parker Beam at Heaven Hill hung in there, insisting on traditional whiskey-making methods. At Turkey, that meant until recently very few whiskies other than the tried and true. Until the early 1980s, Wild Turkey 101 bottling was the only bourbon they made, with a rye and a honey liqueur the only other spirits produced.
Now that small distillery has grown dramatically, and at the opening of the new visitor’s center in April, the result of persistence and some good fortune in new owners (Campari) ready to lay out plenty of cash and some new business ideas, Jimmy Russell’s fingerprints were all over the place. He and his son, current master distiller Eddie Russell, are as busy as they’ve ever been: when he started in the 1950s, Wild Turkey might have produced 70 barrels of whiskey a day, with a handful of storage buildings holding about 70,000 barrels. Now production is about 550 barrels a day, and the 27 warehouses house more than half a million barrels.
Quite a change, as are the variety of whiskies they produce: around nine labels for the U.S. including the Russell’s Reserve line, as well as a few exclusively for Japan and Australia. And then, there’s Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary, a 91 proof bourbon made from 13 to 16 year old whiskeys. It’s rare and not cheap, but as yet one more landmark on the road that Jimmy Russell has paved and walked, it’s definitely worth whatever you’d need to pay, if for no other reason than to show Russell and the other men of his generation that they were right: good whiskey is worth making right and waiting for.