Some may not realize, but it’s an important day for bourbon. Today marks Eddie Russell’s 40th year of service at Wild Turkey Distillery. It might be a healthy score less than his father’s sixty-six years, but forty years is impressive nonetheless. While plenty of folks work forty years or more, few work that long for one company at one location. But Eddie’s tenure isn’t the only thing we acknowledge today. Years are merely numbers; it’s what’s happened in those years that make it special.
Back in March, I penned “The Essence of Eddie Russell” in celebration of Eddie’s birthday. Today would make a fine day to read it (or re-read it) if you have the time. While my goal with this post isn’t to cover the same ground, there will inevitably be some overlap. Besides, significant things bear repeating. But, to understand Eddie Russell one must first accept that he’s not Jimmy Russell.
A Tale of Two Russells
Jimmy Russell is truly the last of his kind. Eddie speaks of this often. Jimmy began in the Golden Age of Bourbon. He was taught by distillers and plant managers who ran things the old fashioned way. They adhered strictly to consistency and never strayed from their processes. Jimmy largely adopted these same methods. There was some experimentation over the years, such as Wild Turkey Liqueur and Sherry Signature, but those products were developed less out of passion and more out of necessity. As for Eddie … let’s just say he had other things in mind.
Of all the bygone distillers that worked at the distillery now known as Wild Turkey, men like James P. Ripy, Ernest W. Ripy, Bill Hughes, and Ernest “Ernie” Ripy Jr., none have been heralded as innovators. At least, history doesn’t hold them in that light. The same could be said for Jimmy Russell. Jimmy believes in doing one thing and doing it right. While I’ll admit there’s something comfortably romantic about that mantra, I’d argue it falls a little short of the goalpost in 2021. That’s not a slight to Jimmy or any of his legendary brethren from days past, but times have changed. Bourbon has changed and an astute master distiller must recognize that.
For Wild Turkey, Eddie Russell is the first of his kind – an innovator. He’s the first master distiller to walk those fabled floors in Tyrone and confidently step outside of the well-worn paths trodden by his predecessors. Of course, he didn’t have to. One could argue his life would be a lot easier if he didn’t. (There would be a lot less “Don’t tell Jimmy” moments, if you know what I mean.) Nevertheless, Eddie has stayed true to himself. Even with a father and mentor so tied to the old ways, he’s never buried his talents.
I suppose it started after Eddie Russell was named Associate Master Distiller in 2008, possibly earlier. Yet, by 2011 he’d crafted a new 81-proof Wild Turkey Bourbon (a/k/a Wild Turkey 81) to replace the lackluster 80-proof expression. Innovative? Not really, though it showed a willingness to take a bold step. The 80-proof expression had long held a place in Wild Turkey’s portfolio. Transforming it into an older, more consistent product – one that would eventually bear his signature by 2016 – was a notable shift from “business as usual.”
Wild Turkey 81 would soon be followed by Wild Turkey Spiced, a curiously inventive bourbon-based liqueur marketed to compete with a certain mainstream pirate-themed rum. While I wouldn’t consider Spiced a homerun (it was discontinued a year or so later), Eddie was testing new ground – sailing new waters (no pun intended). It’s also missed by a strong contingency of Australian consumers.
Then came Wild Turkey Forgiven. We all know the tale – a distillery employee accidentally batched bourbon with rye whiskey (true story) and the rest is history. Instead of letting the whiskey go to waste, Eddie appreciated the taste and seized the opportunity. Jimmy approved and all was forgiven. The first batch was released in 2013, followed by a second in 2014. While the inspiration to fashion a “bourye” may not have been Eddie’s, it showed that Wild Turkey could find different things – unconventional things – and have success.
In 2015, Eddie Russell was named Master Distiller alongside Jimmy. Ever since, in these last six years under his guidance, Wild Turkey has blossomed with new and exciting offerings. For example, the entire Master’s Keep line is one experiment after another – some Jimmy would likely never attempt.
Speaking of which, have you ever noticed that Master’s Keep boxes and bottles bear only Eddie’s signature? It’s for good reason. They’re Eddie’s babies, each a representation of his passion and skill to stretch a single beloved bourbon/rye mash bill into something truly unique. From barrels hyper-aged in offsite stone rickhouses to choice bourbon finished in hand-selected Oloroso Sherry casks, Master’s Keep provides a one-of-a-kind tasting experience, conceived through innovation and tempered by decades of expertise.
Together as One
This year, Eddie Russell will present what may be his boldest experiment to date, Master’s Keep One. Exactly what One will be is still shrouded in relative mystery, though we have some very solid clues. The 2020 TTB filing states it will involve a “toasted oak finish.” A specific rickhouse is disclosed, Eddie’s personal favorite, G, as well as a bottling proof of 101. In a recent podcast interview with Chris Swonger of DISCUS, Eddie remarked that Master’s Keep One consists of eight to ten-year bourbon (of Jimmy’s preference), batched with fourteen-year bourbon (of Eddie’s preference), placed into secondary maturation in Tyrone’s rickhouse G. The secondary maturation process (barrels, staves, chips, etc.) and additional aging time, were not revealed.
I don’t know about you, but I’m thrilled to give One a try. Yes, we all love a mature barrel-proof Turkey, but we’ve had that many times before. And yes, toasted oak could be viewed as a popular fad in American whiskey, but Eddie’s never been one to do something just because everyone else is. In fact, Eddie has repeatedly stressed his belief and sincerity in his whiskey. It’s innovation born from desire, not mimicry.
If we take a step back and look at the whiskey world at large, there are distillers one could recognize as stronger innovators than Eddie Russell. I don’t think Eddie would disagree with that observation. That being said, when it comes to Wild Turkey, no master distiller has colored outside of the lines more than Eddie. He’s shaking things up, and in the very best way. Rest assured, he’ll never change what Jimmy has built – doesn’t want to – but moving into the “Roaring 2020s” Wild Turkey must maintain relevance while staying true to its roots. Eddie Russell through his balance of passion and heritage – his mindful innovation – is the perfect distiller for the task.
Happy 40th anniversary, Eddie! May you garner continued success by never backing down from your passion. You might always be known as “the new guy,” but therein lies a brilliant play on words. You are the new guy, and we’re eager for the next 40 years of new things you have in store.
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