Wild Turkey’s Eddie and Bruce Russell talk Master’s Keep, bourbon and the legend of Jimmy

November 20, 2023
By Melissa Parker

Every year, Wild Turkey releases the annual Master’s Keep. This year, the limited edition Voyage is crafted by Russell in partnership with Dr Joy Spence, the Master Blender at Appleton Estate Rum.

The 106-proof expression of 10-year-old bourbon is finished with a secondary maturation in Jamaican rum casks, marking Wild Turkey’s first rum cask finish.

The Master’s Keep series launched in 2015 from Eddie’s desire to push the boundaries of traditional Bourbon-making by experimenting with ageing techniques and finishes. It is an eagerly awaited release by Wild Turkey adorers in Australia with a run of just 100 gift sets.

Voyage aims to create a unique spirit that captures all the hallmarks of rum and bourbon-making. Dr Spence hand-selected some of the finest casks from the Jamaican rum house, which held 14-year-old pot still rum and would best complement the strong top notes and rich caramel undertones of Wild Turkey’s extra-aged bourbons.

The casks were then brought to Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, where they were filled with Eddie Russell’s hand-selected batch of 10-year-old bourbon, which had been aged in Wild Turkey’s classic No 4 char barrels. The result is a bourbon with a palate of tropical fruits, caramel and a finish of chocolate and spice.

Drinks Trade spoke with second and third-generation Wild Turkey distillers Eddie and Bruce Russell on their visit to Australia to promote Master’s Keep, Voyage. The father and son team spoke about what makes Wild Turkey unique and the inspiration they have gained from learning the ropes from legendary Bourbon distiller, father and grandfather Jimmy Russell.

Tell us about the inspiration behind Voyage.

Eddie: Miss Joy Spence is the first female master taster in the world for Ableton Run, and Joy does such a fantastic job with Appleton Rum. They do a column still and a pot still. A pot still brings out some more of what we call funky notes, tropical notes like banana. I reached out to her and said I’d like to finish some of my whiskey in one of her empty casks.

I sent her samples of some of my 10-year-old bourbon. I love the 10-year age. And she picked out some that she thought would go well with her pot still casks. She sent us some 14-year-old pot still casks, and I finished the whiskey in that. It turned out even better than I thought. She gave us a few hints, like putting the barrels on the top floors to try to replicate the Jamaican heat; the top floors are the hottest part of our warehouses.

It matured in the barrel for about six weeks, and when it came out, it just seemed mellow. The whiskey’s nice and easy, but it’s got the notes I was looking for. It lays on your tongue a bit like the molasses with the rum, bringing some beautiful fruity-type notes with it. It turned out amazing.

Joy was the perfect choice. She’s been in the business as long as I have, over 40 years. I tried rum casks before, but it just brought sweetness, and that’s not really what I was looking for. I was looking for more defined notes, and they came through with Appleton casks.

Is this the start of collaborations with other distillers?

Eddie: Well, there’s always a possibility. I mean, even within our industry, we have some great friends. It’s just the part of whether the companies would let you do it or not. Joy and Appleton are part of the Campari Group, so it’s a bit easier. I would love to do something with Dennis (Malcolm from Glen Grant) because he’s just my father with a Scottish accent. They’re two peas in a pod. It’s crazy how they respond to things and how they work.

The Master’s Keep series has been amazing for me. I think this is number nine or 10. And now, as Bruce has become our blender, I would like to do two or three more and hand over to him and let him use his ideas.

What makes Wild Turkey unique?

Bruce: To me, it’s the processes; don’t get away from doing traditional whiskey making. But I want to stretch that, and I’m going to take whiskeys from different floors and blend whiskeys with different flavour profiles. I want to stretch these processes as far as I can, but what makes Wild Turkey Wild Turkey is doing it the old-fashioned way.

We’re using non-GMO grains. We’re putting into the barrel at low proofs were ageing longer than everybody else as long as I don’t change what Jimmy and Dad did as far as laying the foundation. I’m riding on Jimmy’s coattails, but his coattails are big enough that I feel pretty safe. I could fall and stand back up, and there still be riding because the whiskey my grandfather and Dad have laid down has been so great.

My job’s easy. I’m going to be able to blend whiskey that two masters have made. My job is going to be putting delicious whiskey together. It’s almost like I can’t lose.

How involved is Jimmy these days? 

Eddie: He’s doing okay. He can’t hardly walk anymore. He’ll be 89 next month. He’s always had bad knees but still goes to our visitor centre.

He has to pull up the door to get in, but he’s learned the trick. Jimmy pulls up and honks the horn. Bruce knows that’s his signal to bring everybody out to talk to him because he physically can’t walk in there.

But he gets in that visitor centre two or three days a week for a few hours. And it’s amazing when the visitors walk in, and there is Jimmy Russell. You know, 69 years of making whiskey, and he still wants to go to work. That’s just incredible.

What are you doing in terms of environmental sustainability within the distillery?

Eddie: We started some of our initiatives about six years ago. We took some of the best practices from other distilleries. We’re all open to each other. It’s one big family, and we took some best practices from a couple of other distilleries doing some water conservation,  which is a huge thing for us and power conservation. We reuse water where we can. We’ve probably knocked our water use down by 30 to 40%. That’s a huge thing for us. Another is our heating. We used wood-fired stoves, and as much as that was tradition, it was wasteful. We’ve gone to natural gas, and it’s made us more efficient.

Bruce: Environmental factors are always important because we’re the only all-natural whiskey by law. When it comes to our water, our wood, and our ingredients, we’re the only distiller that only uses non-GMO (grain) in Kentucky. When the environment changes for the worse, it will hurt us because we can’t put any artificial flavours or colours in there.

We’re trying to be as efficient and effective as possible at the distillery. And then the next thing that’s in the back of our mind is wood conservation. With climate change and the growth in bourbon, only so much wood can be used. We want to make sure our barrel partners are cutting down trees sustainably, that we’re replanting, and that we’re not taking trees that are too young or too old.

Where most people’s concerns are right now in our industry is the wood. When Jimmy started, we only got wood from one or two states. Now, we’re getting it from a handful of states. It’s a huge concern for us looking down the line. We’ve got an eye on it.

What trends are you seeing around the consumption of Bourbon on-premise?

Bruce: Consumers are young; they’re my age or younger. Korea has grown 30 times in four years as a market for us. It’s insane. I am 34, and I would have been the oldest person in the room. It’s a very young market, and they’re going to bars. In Japan and Korea,  two of our biggest markets now in the world -Japan’s been a market for a really long time. And Korea is our biggest value market currently – they’re both trying it as highballs.

Europe’s more cocktail-driven, but it’s young people, 40 and under. They’re going into a bar. They’re taking a suggestion from that bartender, essentially our first point of sale. They are our brand ambassadors. The young consumer is believing in the bartender. They’re believing in their expertise. They’re getting that drink. They’re falling in love with the brand, and then it develops from there.

And they’re big into bourbon right now, all of them. We do bartender events because they want that knowledge; they want to know.

The cult of Wild Turkey.

Eddie: It’s amazing, and I think it all gets back to Jimmy because he was the master of the story and was happy to go anywhere and talk about bourbon. A few other bourbon distillers travelled, but not like Jimmy did. He was a road warrior and would still do it if he could. It’s being authentic. Jimmy was Jimmy, no matter where he was. He told you the truth. It wasn’t marketing stories which resonates with just about anybody, no matter where you go. Now we’ve got three generations, and it touches people because it’s a family. It’s a tradition; you’re not changing. In that way, Jimmy promoted bourbon 100%. Now, he would tell you that all the bourbons are good; some are just better than others, meaning his own, but he was a bourbon master first. He went all over the world dozens of times, and he talked about bourbon. Then he talked about Wild Turkey. He definitely was the best ambassador for bourbon there ever could have been.

Bruce: It’s his entire life. That’s what he lives for. You know, he’s drinking our bourbon. Hopefully, he’s pickled. He’ll live forever. While he’s alive, he will crawl to the distillery if he has to, just to talk to people. It humbles Dad and me and makes us want to go to work; you know, you’ve got a 90-year-old guy willing to drive to the distillery to spend a few hours with people. He is a storyteller. He thrives off people. He’s at his best when he’s around a group of people.

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