Today is a special day – a special day for Jimmy Russell and Wild Turkey; more importantly, a special day for bourbon.
September 10, 2019 marks Master Distiller Jimmy Russell’s sixty-fifth anniversary at Wild Turkey Distilling Co. Sixty-five years. Incredible. Who works at the same distillery (or any job, really) for sixty-five years? Almost no one … except James Cassidy Russell.
Pardon my French, but Jimmy Russell is a bourbon badass. I don’t mean that in a flippant, irreverent sense. Not at all. I mean that in the most earnest sense. Jimmy Russell is a bona-fide bourbon badass. His experience, mature beyond his years. His humility, as unfiltered as his stubbornness. His skill, as bold and genuine as a straight whiskey gets. Author Fred Minnick once said to me, “Wild Turkey is the quintessential bourbon story.” To that I’ll add that its indisputable centerpiece is Jimmy Russell. Rock has Elvis. Country has Hank. Soul has Marvin. Bourbon has Jimmy.
You’ll likely read a lot about Jimmy over the next few weeks. And you should. After all, Jimmy’s sixty-fifth should be celebrated indefinitely as far as I’m concerned. But instead of discussing Jimmy’s life and times with bourbon (they’ll be plenty of opportunities for that), I’m going to focus on his longstanding contributions to the brand itself. “The Essence of Jimmy Russell,” if you will.
Imagine our world fifty years from now. Picture a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon. What do you see? 101, most likely. Or maybe it’s Rare Breed or Kentucky Spirit. But chances are you’re thinking of an expression that wouldn’t exist without Jimmy Russell. I know, I know. I hear the comments from the bourbon geek peanut gallery already. Yes, Wild Turkey 101 existed before Jimmy Russell started distilling bourbon. Just hold your Glencairn. I’ll get to that in a bit. 😉
Before getting started, I should say that If you want the real Jimmy Russell experience, head down to Lawrenceburg and meet the man. He’s often found “holding court” at the Visitor Center. He’ll happily talk to you for hours. Graciously sign your bottles. Smile affectionately for your photos. Make you laugh. Make you thirsty. That’s Jimmy Russell through and through. Hell, it’s that exact incomparable warm attitude that arguably saved bourbon from virtual extinction in the 1980s and 1990s. Booker, Elmer, and Parker all played crucial roles, but there’s a magnetism surrounding Jimmy that you need only experience once and your life is forever changed.
Jimmy Russell dispels myths, opens minds, and reverses staunch opinions in a matter of minutes armed only with a grin and eighty-four years of honest Kentucky country-boy wisdom. It’s not that he’s trying to – I mean, he wants you to love bourbon as much as he does – but it’s not a sales pitch. He wholeheartedly shares his passion with you. And whether you prefer your bourbon neat, on the rocks, in a cocktail, or even as a flavored liqueur, he doesn’t fault you for it. He just wants you to love it as much as he does … in whatever way means most to you.
So what if you can’t make it to Lawrenceburg? How does one experience the essence of Jimmy Russell? Sure, there’s podcasts and YouTube (I highly recommend Al Young’s Nunn Center series, as well as the official Diamond Anniversary video), but there’s arguably a better way to connect to all that Jimmy has to offer. Ladies and gentlemen, the essence of Jimmy Russell can easily be found in his personally crafted whiskeys. His “bourbon babies,” as I like to call them.
On this day of Mr. Russell’s astounding sixty-five year distilling career, I present to you Jimmy’s industry best. No, they’re not rare “dusty” bottles. They’re not limited editions, export-only curiosities, or collectible ceramic decanters either. They’re the expressions that Jimmy’s legacy will forever be tied to. Sixty-five years of quality and magic sitting on your local liquor store’s shelves.
5. Wild Turkey American Honey (formerly Wild Turkey Liqueur)
I realize my readership is made up primarily of bourbon enthusiasts, and as such this particular entry is sure to get some eye-rolls and mumbles. But stick with me.
Did you know that Jimmy Russell invented flavored bourbon? Long before Red Stag and Fireball, there was Wild Turkey Liqueur (1976). A simple combination of Wild Turkey bourbon, pure sugar and honey, Wild Turkey Liqueur was Jimmy’s way of attracting new consumers at a time when bourbon was far from en vogue. Did it work? Well enough that the spirit is still selling strong today. While known as Wild Turkey American Honey since 2006, the neoclassic liqueur is found virtually everywhere. And personally, combined with an equal part of Wild Turkey 101, there’s no better Hot Toddy base out there.
4. Russell’s Reserve 10-Year-Old Bourbon (formerly Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve)
Years before Russell’s Reserve was a brand, it was a ten-year, 101-proof Wild Turkey bourbon. The first Wild Turkey domestic release to bear an age statement since the discontinuation of Wild Turkey 101 8-year and 101 12-year, Russell’s Reserve 10-year was a welcome expression for veteran Wild Turkey fans in 2001.
In 2005, Russell’s Reserve 10-Year was lowered to 90-proof and transitioned to the more familiar squat-sized bottle. Its label and embossing have changed a few times since, most notably with the inclusion of Eddie Russell’s name as master distiller in 2015, but the whiskey within remains a testament to Jimmy’s excellence in crafting mature, yet elegant and easily approachable whiskey.
3. Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit
Ancient Age master distiller Elmer T. Lee introduced Blanton’s to the world in 1984. It was the first mass-market, single-barrel bourbon release, and it debuted at a time when the industry was waist-deep in the infamous “Glut Era.” A bold move by Elmer, no doubt.
Whether Jimmy Russell admired his friend’s gamble or just thought it was plain crazy, it ultimately worked and Jimmy wisely took note. By 1994, the first Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit bottles were being filled, at the brand’s signature 101 proof, no less. They were very much a reflection of Blanton’s – ornate glass, a hefty pewter top, and handwritten barrel details on each and every label. Wild Turkey’s first single-barrel bourbon expression was a respectable success, quickly earning its status as a staple in the distillery’s portfolio.
Twenty-five years later, in early 2019, Kentucky Spirit’s iconic “turkey feather” glass was changed to a much simpler and less ornate bottle style. While not as well received by everyone (including yours truly), I’ll openly admit that this year’s Kentucky Spirit remains signature Jimmy Russell at a consistently high quality. You might even say the profile bar has been raised a bit. At least that’s my experience.
Regardless of bottle styles and labels, the most important thing is always the whiskey. At a time when American enthusiasts pay premiums for export eight-year age-stated Wild Turkey 101, they’re either quick to forget or slow to remember that Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit is essentially the very same thing in single-barrel representation. Factor in private selections and the odds are in your favor that you’ll find a considerably unique pour.
And that’s the beauty of Kentucky Spirit. It’s as if Jimmy Russell himself rolled out a special hand-selected barrel just for you – his timeless 101-proof Kentucky Straight bourbon whiskey. That’s what Kentucky Spirit means to me. Sure, there’s always Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, but that’s Eddie’s baby. If you’re looking for classic Jimmy Russell with a single-barrel spin, look no further than Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit.
2. Wild Turkey Rare Breed
Want to know a secret? Here goes … Wild Turkey Rare Breed is perhaps the most undervalued Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey on retail shelves today. I’ll circle back to this shortly, but before I do, let’s start from the beginning.
There’s few people in the bourbon world that command attention like Jimmy Russell, but Jim Beam’s Booker Noe was damn sure one of them. Honestly, if I could go back in time and interview one person in the industry, it would probably be Booker Noe. As die-hard of a Wild Turkey fan as I might be, I make no qualms about my semi-annual Booker’s purchases. Unfortunately, its price has crept well above the everyman’s budget. But fret not. We bourbon fans still have Jimmy Russell’s affordable and widely available Rare Breed.
So why this talk of Booker’s when we should be talking about Rare Breed? Well, that’s just it. There would probably be no Rare Breed were it not for Booker’s Bourbon. Introduced in 1988, Booker’s cast the die for what constitutes a retail “small batch” bourbon, and it did so at full barrel strength (just how Booker Noe liked to sip it). Surprisingly (maybe unsurprisingly now), it caught on and by 1991 it was time for Jimmy Russell to answer the call.
While the batches, bottles, and labels have changed multiple times over the past twenty-eight years, Wild Turkey Rare Breed has remained a consumer favorite. Some batches are better than others, but all stay true to Jimmy’s original combination of pure barrel-proof six-, eight-, and twelve-year Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. And just as it has from its introduction, Rare Breed still competes with Booker’s – arguably more so now that Booker’s is nearly double the price of Rare Breed.
Which brings me back to my initial assertion: Wild Turkey Rare Breed may be the most undervalued bourbon whiskey available today. For under $50 you’re getting a six-to-twelve-year, full-barrel-strength bourbon distilled by the longest-tenured master distiller on the face of this Earth. No mysteries. No gimmicks. As Elmer T. Lee once remarked after nosing Rare Breed straight from the palms of his hands, “Pure Jimmy Russell.”
Nailed it, Elmer.
1. Wild Turkey 101
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that Wild Turkey 101 occupies the top spot on this list. It’s the classic everyman’s bourbon whiskey. Available, versatile, affordable, and undeniably delicious, there’s very few bourbons – hell, very few whiskeys – that “check the boxes” like Wild Turkey 101. And what made that so? Jimmy Russell.
As many astute bourbon geeks know, Wild Turkey 101 originated in 1942, years before Jimmy Russell started working at Wild Turkey. (I’m betting young Jimmy was busy playing baseball and football with his school friends.) At that time Austin, Nichols Wild Turkey 101 was a wholesaler’s label, similar to something you’d find today at Costco. It was sourced from numerous distilleries in Kentucky, bottled and distributed nationwide. By 1971 Austin, Nichols zeroed in on a single quality source for their bourbon supply, J.T.S. Brown & Sons in Lawrenceburg, KY, changing the name of the distillery and bourbon history forever. And the master distiller? You guessed it. Jimmy Russell.
Wild Turkey 101 may have originated in the mind of a Brooklyn executive, but the Wild Turkey 101 we know and enjoy today comes from the hard work and persistence of Jimmy Russell – decades of hard work and persistence. The recipe, yeast, and process – all Jimmy’s classic, time-tested Anderson County magic. Even in modern times with state-of-the-art facilities and computerized automation, 101 simply wouldn’t taste like 101 were it not for Jimmy’s expertise and years of brand-defining influence.
If there’s one bourbon whiskey that says, “Jimmy Russell,” it’s surely Wild Turkey 101. It belongs in every five-star establishment, every dive bar, every liquor cabinet, every suitcase, every flask, every cocktail or mixer, and every variation of whiskey glass known to man. It’s as timeless as bourbon itself – the standard, the archetype, the mark of an American living legend.
I ask that you join me. Pour your favorite Wild Turkey and raise your glass to Jimmy Russell on his sixty-five years of remarkable, unparalleled service. Spread the word, share your bourbon, and above all else, savor every last drop and minute. Time is immeasurably valuable and never guaranteed. As such, live life to the fullest. Find your passion and stick with it. Live like Jimmy Russell and you’ll never work a day in your life. And if you’re lucky, you might just do it for sixty-five years.
Cheers to Jimmy!
See also: An Open Letter to Jimmy Russell
Jimmy Russell photo by Victor Sizemore. Wild Turkey American Honey photo by Ryan Alves.