Watching Jimmy Russell enter the lobby of Wild Turkey Distillery is an interesting study in human interaction. The two-dozen visitors here recognize him instantly yet try not to stare overtly at the 82-year-old master distiller. And though he smiles easily and nods invitingly to the onlookers, none approaches him for an autograph or a chat. Whether out of shyness or respect for the legend in their midst, his fans keep their distance.
“Let’s go to the distillery where it’s quieter,” he says to me, walking stiffly toward his Toyota Avalon parked out front. Seeing the city boy reporter waiting outside the car for him to unlock it, he says, “It’s open. We don’t lock anything around here.”
There it is, just hanging there: the chance to ask whether similarly lax security measures might have led to the infamous theft of those Wild Turkey barrels a few years ago. But like his reticent fans, out of respect I resist the wisecrack even while knowing few people like a good joke more than Russell.
In a short and excellent film biography Wild Turkey made about him last year, Russell reminisced about the days when the staff played tricks on each other, like sneaking onto a rickhouse floor above a coworker and pouring water on them through the narrow gaps between the wood plank floors.
“You didn’t get mad at them, you got even,” Russell says in the flick, grinning mischievously.
The grin remains a constant through our conversation until I ask about the business of bourbon and its particulars. Like a dog on point, Russell tunes in to questions about his craft, listening carefully in order answer clearly.
“There’s a lot of history in this business, and I like to get it right,” he says, and then adds with that grin, “especially when I’m part of it.”
James Cassidy Russell was 18 when hired on at Wild Turkey in 1954. Working as a still hand tasked with “doing any old thing they told me,” Russell gripped grain shovels as often as pens used to record still data and samples. The toil garnered none of the praise and respect bestowed in heaps on him now, yet he loved the job.
“It was interesting to me, everything about it, and I had a good teacher in (master distiller) Bill Hughes,” Russell says.
It didn’t hurt that his fondness for the job was sparked by another employee who’d later become Mrs. Joretta Russell.
“She worked here before I did,” he says.
In November, his bride suffered a heart attack that led to a quadruple bypass, a setback he says frustrates her more than it fazes her.
“Never been sick a day in her life, nothing beyond having to take an aspirin or two,” Russell says. To wit: At large bourbon tasting events, Jimmy sits and talks to fans while his 84-year-old wife stands, smiles and pours bourbon — for hours on end. “Her doctor said the only thing that saved her after that heart attack was she was so fit. She exercises three days a week with some other ladies.”
Russell gets his exercise six to seven days a week traversing the mammoth, modern distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ky., built in 2009. At present it makes about 500 barrels (26,500 gallons) of whiskey each day, though Russell says its capacity could be ramped up to 900 easily.
“All we’d have to do is add three more (33,000 gallon) fermenters,” he says. “When we built this new (distillery), we did it with growth in mind.”
Periodically on our walk through the distillery, he stops beside a fermenter and peers inside to check its contents: the fermenting mash of cooked ground corn, rye, malt, water and yeast. He points to the thick cap of grain mash floating on top and explains what’s happening.
“See that? Those are called peanuts,” Russell says, noting the peanut-shaped clusters etched into the mash floating to the top of the distiller’s beer. “When you see that shape, you know it’s fermenting right. If you don’t see that shape, or it comes up too high in the fermenter, you know there’s trouble.”
Such as the fermenting mash becoming too hot. High heat kills the yeast, which stops the conversion of grain sugars into alcohol. And since Wild Turkey uses open fermenters, airborne yeast can invade and contaminate the wash if the desired yeast doesn’t propagate and dominate the mixture quickly.
“It doesn’t happen often, but it can happen,” Russell says. Stepping slowly toward another fermenter, the grin returns when he says, “We have a pretty good handle on things here.”
For most of his 62-year career, Russell made nothing other than Wild Turkey 101 proof, the legendary Kickin’ Chicken. But as bourbon’s resurgence began in the mid-1980s, the distillery recognized the need for variety. He helped create Wild Turkey Rye, Russell’s Reserve, Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel and others.
Needing a spokesman for the brand, the distillery sent Russell on the road to visit cities and towns where Wild Turkey was popular. There he met drinkers, retailers, bartenders and restaurateurs who were thrilled to connect the brand with the man who made it.
“I had a man come up to me and say, ‘You’re real!’” Russell recalls. “People like that. They like to know who’s making what they drink.”
Russell recalls bourbon as “a Southern gentleman’s drink most of my career,” but regards mixology as the most interesting driver of bourbon consumption today. His 55-year-old son, Eddie Russell, who shares the master distiller title with his dad, just returned from an extended brand tour in Europe, where he met with 60 Polish bartenders whose bourbon cocktail skills impressed him.
“To me, it’s really exciting to see the growth of bourbon all over the world right now,” Russell says.
And he means it literally. His travels of late include such far-flung destinations as Australia and Japan. One visit to the Land of the Rising Sun saw him and Eddie greeted by groupies standing outside a bar bearing welcome signs. As his son recalls the story, Jimmy just laughs. When I ask whether his celebrity status has changed him at all, his face screws into a mask of modesty.
“I’m just plain old Jimmy,” he says. “As long as I make consumers happy, I’m happy.”