There are certain moments in my whiskey journey that I’ll never forget (most of which were firsts): my first sip of 1980’s Wild Turkey, meeting Jimmy and Eddie Russell for the first time, my first Russell’s Reserve private selection, the publication of my first book, among others. But one that will surely rank as the most endearing took place last Thursday night at Hermitage Farm in Goshen, Kentucky. What I assumed would be a release party for Wild Turkey Generations, turned out to be something much greater than I imagined. Far beyond the appreciation of a beloved spirit or brand, it was the recognition of a lifetime of dedication and steadfastness – a celebration of family, rooted in Kentucky pride and supported by a roster of industry legends.
We arrived at the farm just as the sun was beginning to set. I had commuted with a group of fellow spirits writers and Campari representatives – some I was meeting for the first time and others I’ve come to know over the past year. We exited our bus just in time to grab a few sunset photos. It was beautiful. If you’ve ever seen an autumn sunset in rural Kentucky, you know what I’m describing.
Looking back, it seems almost symbolic. With the close of each day comes the promise of a new dawn. I failed to catch it that night, but those seconds of wonder would encapsulate – without a single word – the heart of that evening.
We made our way to the main hall, stopping just outside to mingle briefly with friends and associates over cocktails. There were many familiar faces – not necessarily individuals I knew personally, but ones I’d admired and respected for years – individuals like Fred and Freddie Noe of Jim Beam and Max Shapira of Heaven Hill. Of course, there were plenty of folks I knew quite well, like Eddie and Bruce Russell, JoAnn Street, Bo Garrett, Benny Hurwitz, and Bernie Lubbers. The minutes of conversation flew by. I tried my best to soak it all in, but admittedly, I was overwhelmed in the best of ways. As professional as I strive to be, the giddy whiskey enthusiast inside of me was perched firmly on cloud nine.
But then, there are the unspoken legends, like Roger Street. Roger is Jimmy Russell’s grandson (JoAnn’s brother) and an invaluable resource on the Russell’s family history. Back when I was writing the manuscript that would become American Spirit: Wild Turkey Bourbon, Roger played a crucial role in its completion. After hours of phone conversations and countless text messages since 2019, I finally had the chance to meet Roger and his lovely wife in person. As an author and advocate of the Russell family, it meant a great deal to me to talk with him face to face. Needless to say, I look forward to future exchanges (and manuscripts).
As they ushered us in I had a few minutes to chat privately with Eddie Russell, which is always a pleasure. We talked about his upcoming tour in Korea, Japan, and Australia. He’d be joined this time by Bruce, and I couldn’t help but think about what it must be like for Eddie. At some point years ago, this same overseas adventure happened for his first time with Jimmy. (Yet another glimpse into the heart of the evening.)
Walking into the main hall, I was mesmerized. The “who’s who of bourbon” list was only getting longer. There was Chris Morris of Brown-Forman, Ed Foote of Stitzel-Weller fame, and Jim Rutledge, former master distiller of Four Roses and proprietor of J. W. Rutledge Distilling Co. But even in the presence of such notable American whiskey royalty, what gave me the most comfort was seeing my friends – Ryan Alves, his partner, Amelia Neuroth, and the always impressive Caroline Paulus. In so many ways, I consider these folks family. And there we were, together, taking in what would surely become one of the most unforgettable nights of our lives.
Seeing as my glass was empty, I felt a stop at the bar was only appropriate. I ran into Bo Garrett, who’d just ordered a Russell’s 10, neat. While the Turkey selection was plentiful, Russell’s 10 sounded perfect to me. And it was. We chatted for a bit, each remarking on how humbled and grateful we were for the invitation to such a special occasion.
But just as we’d started our drinks, Jimmy and Joretta Russell made their way by us to their table. It was a simple thing – an elderly couple walking hand in hand – yet, it was moving all the same. Everything that makes Wild Turkey what it is today can be traced back to Jimmy and Joretta. From 1954 to 2023, this has been their adventure together, we’re just oblivious to it most of the time. We think about the bourbon in our glass or the latest bottle we’ve acquired. But for Jimmy and Joretta, Wild Turkey Distillery – its people and culture – has always been their life.
Everyone took their seats as we were introduced to our emcee for the evening, JoAnn Street.
I’ve always admired JoAnn’s passion for her family’s legacy. My very first distillery tour was led by JoAnn. She did an outstanding job, offering an entertaining and engaging insider’s perspective of every facet of whiskey production from grain to glass. But that Thursday night JoAnn had a momentous task, and she once again led with class from the heart.
Filled with emotion, yet pushing through with finely tuned professionalism, JoAnn spoke about her family with reverence and love. Like the bourbon Jimmy has long perfected, it was genuine and true. It felt nothing like any industry event I’d attended in my career. It felt like a celebration of family, and I had the privilege to witness the strength of the unique bond that extends beyond the Russells to all of Kentucky’s distilling families.
Next to speak was Fred Noe. Fred had plenty to say about the Russells and garnered his fair share of jovial chuckles from the crowd. But like JoAnn before him, there were plenty of emotions to wrangle, particularly when the talk turned to the loss of his father and mentor, Booker Noe. Fred expressed his gratitude for the Russells, adding that Jimmy has always been like a second father to him. When Booker passed, he found great comfort in Jimmy’s presence, stating that Booker and Jimmy were cut from the same cloth. This is the side of bourbon that many never see – the unity and support these families rely on and extend to one another freely. I suppose it’s always been this way and sincerely hope it always will be.
Fred was followed by Eric Gregory, President of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, who opened with a prerecorded message from Governor Andy Beshear. Eric then offered his gratitude to the Russells, revealing he had something special to share. He stated that if there were ever a Mt. Rushmore of bourbon, Jimmy’s countenance should be the first to be carved. But bourbon isn’t quite there – at least not yet. Instead, the KDA decided that their headquarters would be forever named after Jimmy and Joretta Russell. It was an incredible honor, and it couldn’t have been bestowed upon a more deserving couple.
When confronted by a problem, Jimmy would repeatedly tell Eddie, “Get in there and figure it out.”
It was time to hear from the Russells. Eddie took the microphone and began with his early years in Lawrenceburg. It was a story I’d heard many times before, but this time it felt different. Eddie and Jimmy have always stood independently. It may surprise some to read this, but they’re quite different in their approach to making whiskey. But that night Eddie made it perfectly clear – everything he learned, he learned because Jimmy gave him the insight, tools, and experience to figure it out for himself. When confronted by a problem, Jimmy would repeatedly tell Eddie, “Get in there and figure it out.” And that’s precisely what Eddie has done for 42 years. And to see what Eddie has accomplished in his tenure … I can say that Eddie doesn’t live in the shadow of his father. Eddie shines a light of his own – a light that shines brightly upon all that his father set in motion.
Then Eddie took a few minutes to talk about Bruce. It was apparent that Eddie has enjoyed his time working alongside his son at the distillery. He joked that Bruce is now getting to do “all the cool stuff” he was never able to do. But even with a jest or two here and there, it was easy to see Eddie’s heartfelt pride for his son. The Russell name wasn’t just continuing on at Wild Turkey for a third generation, it was continuing on in the right way – the Russell way – and I’m confident that everyone in that room felt the same as Eddie.
And with that, it was Bruce’s turn at the mic.
One thing that has always struck me about Bruce Russell is how he shares traits of his father and grandfather. He can be reserved and contemplative like Eddie, yet at the same time entertain you with stories delivered in Jimmy’s conversational style. But that night was unlike any other; Bruce was his own Russell.
I’ve never doubted Bruce’s ability to excel in a leadership role. In the years I’ve spent visiting the distillery, I’ve watched Bruce go from assisting Eddie with barrel selections to supervising the program himself. But there, in the presence of family, friends, and industry icons, Bruce spoke as a leader – with confidence tempered with respect and humility. He touched on his childhood – growing up at the distillery as if it were home. He talked about working with Jimmy and Eddie and the similarities and differences in their methods. He recognized the individuals in his life who continue to inspire and encourage him, from lifelong friends to coaches and cousins.
Thursday evening’s speech only reinforced what many have long presumed – that Bruce Russell is the future of Wild Turkey. As the brand’s newly minted Associate Blender, he’s responsible for much of what we look forward to tasting each time we visit our local liquor store, and he’s doing a damn fine job.
But the night wasn’t over. After a short intermission to enjoy some quality cuisine and live music, it was time to taste Generations, the first and only Wild Turkey expression to date for which all three Russells contributed to the final product.
For those unfamiliar, Generations is a barrel-proof Kentucky straight bourbon composed of 9-, 12-, 14-, and 15-year whiskey. Jimmy selected his personal favorite 9-year-old barrels from Tyrone’s rickhouse K, while Eddie and Bruce found choice 12- to 15-year-old barrels in the storied rickhouses of Camp Nelson. The net result is a complex combination of grace and strength, much like the Russells themselves.
Though I’d experienced Generations prior to the event, I’d held off sipping it for several days. My goal was to re-experience it from a fresh perspective, and that’s exactly what happened. Say what you will about expensive bourbon, but to me Wild Turkey Generations is more than a limited-edition whiskey. It’s a testament to a one-of-a-kind legacy established 69 years ago in the heart of Anderson County … from father to son to grandson. And its flavor profile speaks of that transition, with sweet notes of creamy vanilla and butterscotch, to layers of oak and savory spice, Generations is unlike any Wild Turkey bourbon before it.
The evening concluded with bourbon and desserts (kind of one and the same, honestly) in a building adjacent to the main hall. While a range of Wild Turkey options were available, I opted for Generations, of course. I spent the remainder of the night catching up with friends and acquaintances and congratulating the Russells on the exemplary whiskey in my glass. It was an honor to attend, to say the very least. To be among such noteworthy individuals … Very few families could bring that many Kentucky legends together at one time.
It’s hard to comprehend what Jimmy Russell has witnessed in his 69 years as a distiller. Everything we hold dear about bourbon today came about thanks to the hard work and dedication of a handful of people like Jimmy. He is the last of his kind, upholding the traditions practiced and taught by pre-Prohibition master distillers and late contemporaries like Booker Noe, Elmer T. Lee, and Parker Beam. Those traditions have since been passed to the next generation to cherish and cultivate for the generation that follows, and so long as the sun rises and sets over Kentucky, those carefully curated traditions will be entrusted to future generations. This is the legacy of Wild Turkey; this is the legacy of America’s spirit.
My sincerest thanks to Campari America and the Russell family for the invitation. It was a dream come true.
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