We were fortunate enough to enjoy the company of Eddie Russell, master distiller at Wild Turkey. We talked about innovation, Matthew McConaughey, and rye whiskey’s renaissance.

When you hear that four of the biggest names in global distilling are going to be in one place at the same time, that’s something you have to take advantage of. That’s exactly what we did when Eddie Russell, Patrick Raguenaud of Grand Marnier, Dennis Malcolm of Glen Grant and Joy Spence from Appleton Estate in Jamaica attended Gruppo’s Campari Meet the Masters event at Carlton House Terrace in London.

Naturally, we took the time to talk all things bourbon and beyond with Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame inductee Russell, who joined the family trade in June 1981 at the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Russell started from the bottom, working as a relief operator, a supervisor of production, a warehouse supervisor and manager of barrel maturation and warehousing before he became master distiller in January 2015. By doing this he followed in the footsteps of his father, Jimmy Russell, who has having clocked up over 60 years of service to the dram and is currently the longest-tenured active master distiller.

Wild Turkey has been distilling delicious whiskey since 1869 after it was founded by the Ripy brothers, although it did close between 1919 and 1933 because of Prohibition. Originally known as the Ripley Distillery, Wild Turkey got its name in 1940 thanks to Thomas McCarthy, a distillery executive, who brought some whiskey on a wild turkey hunt and shared it amongst his friend. They enjoyed it so much that they requested he bring some more ‘Wild Turkey’ bourbon on the next hunt and the name stuck. The distillery, which was purchased by the Campari group in 2009, is known best for its flagship bottling, Wild Turkey 101, a bourbon bottled at a weighty 101 proof (50.5% ABV) with a mash bill that includes a higher-than-standard rye content and whiskey that was aged for at least six years in heavily charred barrels.

To learn more, we spoke to the man himself, Eddie Russell.

Eddie Russell

McConaughey and Russell collaborated on Wild Turkey’s new release, Longbranch

Master of Malt: You’re just about to release Longbranch with Matthew McConaughey. What effect do you think celebrities have on brands?

Eddie Russell: It’s very mixed for us. It was good that he could get out and reach a lot more people, but in the US when I’m meeting with bartenders, I never talk about Matthew McConaughey, because for them when you have somebody like that you’re this corporate giant. So it’s more about the Russell family and Wild Turkey than it is about Matthew, but corporate thinks a different way. With Matthew though, it has been a very fun deal. He fits our brand perfectly and we’ve come out with a good product. But you have to be very careful about how you deal with that, especially with a younger generation, which is growing in our industry. They help some but for our industry, it’s not as important. For vodka, it’s a lot more important, or even Tequila, but for our industry, it’s more about the generation of the family that’s made the whiskey. It can be a slippery slope, in America definitely.

MoM: Speaking about the importance of family, how do you manage to innovate when you work for a distillery with such a long tradition and family legacy?

ER: It’s always been a tough deal for me because my dad’s been such a traditionalist. Innovation was a bad word for him. But that was what it was about it for his generation. They had one product and if you didn’t like it that was fine with them! So for me, coming in, I thought ‘change everything’. But then I realised ‘don’t change what my dad built’. There are ways to innovate without changing that. I don’t do the trendy stuff. But I do try to do things that are different and unique, based on our principle of having a very premium type bourbon. So it’s been one of those deals where I had to be very careful on how far I’d go on any type of innovation. But we still bring out good products, like Longbranch which will be showing up here in the next month.

Eddie Russell

The legendary Jimmy Russell at Wild Turkey Distillery

MoM: What’s the one memory or lesson that really stands out for you from working with your dad?

ER: From my industry what stands out to me is before Prohibition there was a couple of hundred distilleries in Kentucky. After Prohibition, there was 57. When I started there was only eight. Our industry is probably still the only one that we all are good friends. It’s very competitive out in the market but my dad’s best friend was Booker Noe (former Jim Beam master distiller), Elmer T. Lee (former Buffalo Trace master distiller) and Parker Beam ((former Heaven Hill master distiller). Because there were only eight of them and they were all best friends trying to keep this industry alive as it was dying. Today it’s still the same way. I mean Fred Noe (current Jim Beam master distiller) and I grew up together, we’re best friends. You just don’t see that too much in any other industry, it’s too competitive. But for us it’s such a small industry. That was probably the most surprising thing because if Heaven Hill was having problems my dad would jump in the car with Booker Noe and drive down there and help Parker Beam out. Or if we were having problems they’d come and help my dad out. That was so surprising to me growing up because you’re basically competitors, you’re in the same industry! But they wanted to make sure everybody was going to survive.

MoM: The industry has changed a lot since then and America has led a micro-distilling boom. How has that experience been for you being part of such a traditional distillery? Has it affected your sense of what craft is?

ER: In America craft is over-used a lot. We’re all craft; from making the whiskey to blending whiskey. Craft now seems to signify small. But a lot of small distilleries buy their whiskey from a big distillery, bottle it and call it craft. I do small limited editions, like Master’s Keep, where there are only 15,000 to 30,000 bottles. In America craft is a word that’s thrown a lot but it’s not paid too much attention too, it’s almost been ruined as a word.

Eddie Russell

Patrick Raguenaud, Eddie Russell, Joy Spence and Dennis Malcolm at Campari’s Meet the Masters

MoM: You touch on limited releases there, something you’ve been able to focus quite a lot on. What does that allow you to do as a distiller?

ER: Well it allows me to release things that pretty unique without changing Wild Turkey. In our industry nobody finished in cask, but now it’s big because everybody is buying their juice from the same distiller so they’re finishing in casks to make it taste different. I released an oloroso sherry-finished 12-15-year-old last year, and my dad he wasn’t for it at all. But it turned out great and what I’m trying to do is put things out there, 15-30,000 bottles. For people that want to get it, it’s there, but it’s not a permanent product. I think that’s a very good way to go. Now I’ve developed Russell’s Reserve and Longbranch that are different than 101, that are permanent products but they are strictly straight bourbon whiskey. So the limited edition, my Master’s Keep Series gives me a chance to do things that are different. But they are one-time deals.

MoM: Rye has experienced a renaissance in recent times. Why do you think there’s been an increase in demand and what do you see the future for it being?

ER: The demand has come from the bartending community because they realised all those classic cocktails were made from rye at the beginning because that’s what was first made in America. Then as bourbon come along, rye basically died. I mean us and Jim Beam were really the only two distilleries making it. I used to make rye two days a year. I’d make one day in the spring, and one day in the fall. Now I’m making rye up to four days a month. Back in 2009, I got involved with the bartending community and they started telling me they were going to start making cocktails with more rye, I started making more rye. My next Master’s Keep is going to be an aged straight rye whiskey, barrel-proofed, non-chill-filtered. I have some great rye; 101 Rye, Russell’s Rye, a single barrel rye, but this is going to be aged twice as long as anything we’ve ever put out.

Eddie Russell

The Boulevardier is Russell’s favourite cocktail

MoM: How does bourbon’s relationship with cocktail culture affect your process?

ER: The cocktail industry has changed my industry a lot, so I pay attention to it. It’s just changed my consumer base over the last 10 years. The cocktail industry is not going away and a lot of it has to do with a younger generation. Where I grew up in America my mom cooked every meal and everything was sort of sugar-based or sweet. Whereas my son grew up eating Mexican food and Indian food and we didn’t have that when I was growing up. So it’s a change in their taste profile, it’s a change in their attitudes. My generation didn’t want anything to do with the past, this generation is looking ‘What did grandad drink? What did great-grandad drink?’. So that’s been a big change also. I’m not going to change my liquid to suit them, but I can still come out with stuff that they might want. Wild Turkey 101 is great for a cocktail anyway because it has this bold taste.

MoM: We’ve heard you’re partial to a Boulevardier, how do you make it?

ER: I do two parts bourbon, one part Campari and one part sweet vermouth. A lot of people do one, one and one. I’m just used to a bigger, bolder taste. An Old Fashioned is probably the most requested drink in America but for me, I’m not used to the sweetness. It’s just not what I like. So the Boulevardier is a little bolder drink. It’s sort of surprising because I never liked the bitters that well but my sons taught me a lot about them and the bitterness just goes really well with that bourbon taste.