Over the month of November 2017, Flight Club will be bringing you “30 Turkeys in 30 days.” Each day, we will post a review of a different Wild Turkey product. Throughout that journey, we will provide you with background information on the company, the products and the people behind the products, all of which we hope create a better understanding of what Wild Turkey brings to the world of bourbon. A table of contents for each of these posts can be found here.
Chapter 5, Part 1.
In Chapter 1, we brought you the history of Wild Turkey, from the days of Thomas B. Ripy, through the Austin, Nichols company, to its present day ownership by the Campari Group. But no history of Wild Turkey would be complete without the stories of Jimmy Russell and his son Eddie Russell, present day co-Master Distillers.
To begin at the end, Jimmy Russell has now been part of Wild Turkey for over 60 years, beginning as in 1954 (his diamond anniversary would occur in 2014, and we will review the Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary bottle later this month). He now holds the title of being the longest-tenured active master distiller in the world. His son, Eddie Russell, started with the company in 1981, only being promoted to Co-Master Distiller in 2015.
When Jimmy entered the Wild Turkey Distillery, Bill Hughes was Master Distiller. Soon Ernest W. Ripy Jr. (of the Ripy lineage) took over as the fourth-ever Master Distiller at Wild Turkey. Under their tutelage, Jimmy would learn the art of making bourbon.
Jimmy would take over as the fifth Master Distiller in the late 1960’s. Wild Turkey would have much success over the next decade, but soon the bourbon market would crash – at least in the United States. Wild Turkey, under Jimmy’s control, would hold course – both in terms of marketing and production – and would work to expand international markets (including, specifically, Japan). Jimmy would become one of the original brand ambassadors in the industry and would help during the late twentieth century to restore the legacy Wild Turkey and the overall bourbon industry in the United States.
Jimmy is known to prefer younger bourbons, those under 12 years old. “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.”
Interestingly, Eddie would create the Diamond Anniversary bottle for Jimmy’s 60th anniversary at Wild Turkey. That bottle would be a blend of 13 and 16 year bourbons.
Eddie’s career at Wild Turkey may be best viewed as a shadow of Jimmy Russell. He began with what is called a “relief operator” but what Eddie describes as sweeping floors. He says he has performed every job at Wild Turkey over his tenure.
Eddie has learned his trade as Jimmy apprentice. While he did receive a degree from Western Kentucky (business degree), his art as Master Distiller were largely learned on the job at Wild Turkey. Eddie would not earn the title as Co-Master Distiller in 2015.
Eddie flavor profile is known to differ from Jimmy in that Eddie enjoys older bourbons much more than Jimmy. Jimmy’s palate is often referred to as old-school – focused on big bold taste. Eddie says he enjoys something that starts and ends as creamy and sweet, with a spice component in the middle The Russell Reserve products are build around Eddie’s palate (while 101 has always been indicative of Jimmy’s profile). Eddie’s favorite age is said to be 10 year, which is where he bottled the original Russell’s Reserve.
Eddie’s eldest son, Bruce, has also been with the company since 2010.
Russell’s Reserve Bourbon
Russell’s Reserve was launched in 2001 as a Wild Turkey line extension (meaning it included the Wild Turkey branding on the labels). It is said to be the creation of both Jimmy and Eddie Russell, although Jimmy himself credits Eddie with creating it in 1998 on behalf of Jimmie’s 45th anniversary and retirement. It was a 101 proof, 10 year bourbon, named in honor of Jimmy Russell.
In around 2005-2007, Wild Turkey reduced the 10 year bottle to 90 proof, launched a 6 year Rye, and repackaged the line without Wild Turkey on its label. From then forward, it would stand as its own brand, which (interestingly based upon later product line extensions) was intended to be a more contemporary, with a lower proof and milder flavor (we will review the 10 Year in Parts 7 and 8 of this Chapter). Russell’s Reserve 10 Year is a batched bourbon, each batch consisting of 150 barrels.
As mentioned, in approximately 2012-2013, the Russell’s Reserve brand would be expanded to include a non-age stated, 110 proof single barrel bourbon called Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel. It is non-chill filtered. It is said to be “center cut” from the rickhouses. While non-age stated, Campari indicates that the bourbons are all between 8-9 years old (although Eddie indicates it is between 9-11 years old). It is likely that the 110 proof product could only have occurred as a result of the increase in barrel-entry proof that occurred in 2004 and 2006 (which is discussed in Chapter 4). Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel continues as one of three Single Barrel Wild Turkey products currently released, alongside the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye and the Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit discussed in Chapter 2.
Nose: Ethanol heat; plum; red hot candy; corn; dry oak; red licorice; white pepper; green grape; fresh cut grass; vanilla; dried apricot. Complex but hot (it smells over 110 proof) (3.5/5)
Palate: Apricot; white fig; caramel; cocoa hit mid palate (with a dive towards dryness); Thai chili peppers. (3/5)
Finish: Medium; cocoa; basil/herbal; baking chocolate; allspice; lingering chili spice. (3/5)
Overall: This Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel bottle drinks more spice forward than what we are used to in the Russell’s Reserve line. It has great complexity, but the dryness of the finish tends to leave the lasting impression. (3.5/5)
Value: This bottle was picked up recently at $55. It come across right on the money. Satisfied. (3/5)
“This Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel bottle drinks more spice forward than what we are used to in the Russell’s Reserve line.”
Scott is a co-founder of Flight Club and a frequent writer and reviewer on the Club’s blog.