LAWRENCEBURG, Ky. (AP) – Jimmy Russell strolled into a roomful of tourists, and soon the patriarch of Kentucky bourbon was surrounded by fans, posing for pictures and autographing bottles. The man behind Wild Turkey even took a turn as barkeeper, pouring samples of amber whiskey at the distillery’s visitors’ center.
When Brian Leathers of Hammond, Louisiana, told him he’d been drinking Wild Turkey for years, Russell replied: “I’ve made every drop.”
That was no idle barroom boast. The 79-year-old master distiller known as “Jimmy” to everyone in the bourbon industry has indeed been responsible for every drop of Wild Turkey produced for generations of consumers.
Celebrating his 60th year in the business, Russell has overseen production of about 3 million barrels of bourbon as Wild Turkey’s master distiller – enough to fill about 20 million cases, according to the brand’s parent company, Italian-based Gruppo Campari.
In a business where age is valued, Russell is seen as a special vintage. Known among his peers as the “Buddha of Bourbon,” Russell is the longest-tenured master distiller in the tradition-filled industry.
“If there was a Mount Rushmore of bourbon, Jimmy would be one of the first faces on it,” said Kentucky Distillers’ Association President Eric Gregory.
Jim Rutledge, master distiller at Four Roses Distillery, marvels at Russell’s energy in promoting his brand and Kentucky bourbon.
A couple of years ago, as a group of bleary-eyed bourbon makers prepared for an early-morning flight home after attending WhiskeyFest in Chicago, Russell was bound for another promotional excursion to Australia, he said.
“He’s meant more to our industry than any single person,” Rutledge said.
Russell still comes to work almost every day and rarely takes a vacation. If he’s not sampling bourbon in a storage warehouse or checking on production, he’s taking a brand-building trip or chatting up distillery guests in the new visitors’ center.
“We sell four times as much liquor … if he’s sitting there, because everybody wants to get his signature,” said his son Eddie Russell, who has worked alongside his father since the 1980s and who, like his dad, is a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.
It’s the same attention to detail his son remembers when tagging along as a youngster.
“He came in on Sundays when nothing going on,” said Eddie Russell, associate master distiller at Wild Turkey. “Even as a kid, I thought, ‘What is he thinking – that it’s not going to be there?'”
Jimmy Russell shrugs off his longevity.
“It’s never been a job to me,” Russell said. “It’s something I enjoy doing.”
He’s nearly the last of his generation of bourbon makers.
Two of his closest friends – Booker Noe at Jim Beam and Elmer T. Lee at Buffalo Trace – have died. Parker Beam at Heaven Hill Distilleries is battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Noe’s son Fred, the current Jim Beam master distiller, said his father and Russell trusted each other so much they’d share samples of each other’s whiskeys being developed. Fred Noe said Russell is like a second father to him.
“You can’t find a better ambassador for bourbon and the state of Kentucky than Jimmy,” Noe said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in Germany or Japan or Bardstown or wherever, Jimmy is the life of the party.”
Russell grew up three miles from the distillery and went to work there Sept. 10, 1954, at age 19. His father and other relatives worked at distilleries. So did his wife.
He learned the craft from a whiskey maker who suffered through Prohibition and went on to become Wild Turkey’s master distiller in the mid-1960s.
Since then, he’s seen booms and busts. He’s been part of the wave of pricier small-batch and single-barrel bourbons and flavored whiskeys. Russell introduced a honey-flavored Wild Turkey whiskey decades ago.
Wild Turkey’s finest small batch and single barrel whiskeys carry the Russell name.
When he started, the distillery produced about 60 barrels a day. Now production is about 560 barrels daily, he said.
Gruppo Campari has put more than $100 million into Wild Turkey since buying the brand in 2009. Investments included a distillery expansion that more than doubled production capacity, a new packaging facility and more warehouses where the bourbon ages.
“This is the best time that I’ve seen,” Russell said. “When I started, bourbon was a Southern gentleman’s drink. Now it’s become a worldwide drink.”
His job might seem like a dream to bourbon fans, but it requires close attention to detail, he said. And it requires years of patience while the whiskey matures.
To make his point, he asked, “Are you going to write this story eight years from now?”