Jimmy Russell’s Diamond Anniversary Marks Change and Constancy At Wild Turkey

By Richard Thomas

Jimmy Russell

Jimmy Russell,
Master Distiller at Wild turkey since 1967
(Credit: Richard Thomas)

The whiskey-soaked TV series Justified is often billed as a show where you can read a man by the bourbon he drinks. In the early seasons, bad-ass, white hat Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens is a Jim Beam man, whereas arch-outlaw Boyd Crowder asks for Wild Turkey. Even when Crowder becomes the crimelord of southeastern Kentucky, he spends some of his drinking attention on Turkey’s Russel Reserve. Crowder’s devotion to Wild Turkey indeed reflects his character, with the classic Turkey 101 being equal parts potent, yet also restrained, and traditional. That is the way Wild Turkey has always been as far back as I can remember, thanks to Jimmy Russell.

The Line That Jimmy Built
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Russell coming to Austin Nichols, aka Wild Turkey, where he has served as Master Distiller since 1967. To put tenure into perspective, Russell had been at the helm of the Lawrenceburg, Kentucky distillery for almost 20 years when the mid-1980s saw the introduction of the first small batches and single barrels to Kentucky bourbon, and that in turn was three decades ago.  Even the proprietary yeast strain used at Turkey has been around for only 59 years, one less than Jimmy.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed

Wild Turkey Rare Breed
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

With a tenure like that, the Wild Turkey line is very much the creation of Jimmy Russell. His son and deputy Eddie, with nearly 30 years experience at the distillery in his own right, can claim the bourbon-rye hybrid Forgiven, Jimmy Russell’s own Diamond Anniversary bourbon, and collaboration on Russell’s Reserve, among other projects. Yet the former two are limited editions, and Russell’s Reserve along with everything else Turkey does reflect first and foremost what Jimmy likes.

And what does Jimmy like? Look first to the classic Wild Turkey 101, a middle-aged (averaging eight years) bourbon bottled at proof well above the norm. When the company shifted their entry-rung Wild Turkey 80 to Wild Turkey 81 a few years ago the proof nudged up only a point, but the average age increased from four to seven years. Neither Jimmy nor Eddie were especially fond of the younger, lower proof version.

A big part of the reason the only very aged bourbon in the Turkey line is Eddie Russell’s Diamond Anniversary edition (13 to 16 years old) is, ironically, that Jimmy doesn’t care for older whiskey. Likewise, Wild Turkey did not release a single barrel expression until earlier this year due to Jimmy Russell’s strong emphasis on consistency. The distillery has introduced new products and tweaked a few production points, but overall the Wild Turkey of today strongly resembles what it was when my father was a young man, learning his trade on horse farms just twenty miles away, up Versailles Road.

Wild Turkey 101 Rye

Wild Turkey 101 Rye Whiskey
(Credit: S.D. Peters)

Going Large In Lawerenceburg
For a few years now I have thought that Kirin Brewing’s revival of neighboring Four Roses has overshadowed what Campari has been doing at Wild Turkey. The Italian drinks company acquired Turkey from Pernod Ricard in 2009, and since then they have invested $100 million in the Lawrenceburg distillery. The fermenting tanks have doubled in size and there are more of them, the distillery has a sparking new bottling plant, and in terms of just rye whiskey production has ramped by a factor of five since Campari took over. The most recent addition has been the multi-million dollar visitors center, perched on a bluff commanding a sweeping view of the Kentucky River gorge.

During the previous decade Wild Turkey turned out a line of consistently good products, but their reach and visibility was somewhat lacking. The ’00s saw Four Roses explode onto the scene, Buffalo Trace rise to the top of the premium bourbon heap, and Jim Beam march inexorably forward. Having built one of the biggest distilleries in North America for the brand, Campari clearly has big plans for Wild Turkey, both in the U.S. and internationally. The brand already has a strong presence in Japan and Australia, and it looks like Europe might be next.

Money talks, and Campari has said loud and clear that they believe in “the house that Jimmy built.” What that also says is that, except for Wild Turkey getting bigger, we can count on not much changing on those Kentucky River bluffs down by Lawrenceburg.