Wild Turkey master distiller: The history
The youngest of the three Russell children, Eddie Russell learned the Bourbon-making trade the way his father had before him.
Like father, like son. That certainly holds true at Wild Turkey's Lawrenceburg, Kentucky distillery. Master Distiller Eddie Russell, the brains behind the premium range Master's Keep series, followed his father Jimmy into the family business with over 100 years of history, swearing he was only stepping into a summer job while at college.
Thirty-odd years later, Eddie's eldest son Bruce similarly fell into service.
He had witnessed firsthand the passion Eddie poured into Wild Turkey, particularly in the creation of the Master's Keep Series, broadening the scope of the family business and reaching out to new, discerning and younger drinkers.
That resulted in Australian exclusive Master's Keep 1894, the third annual release from the Master's Keep series, with its heady, oaky, spicy notes and hints of toffee, honey, vanilla and stewed apples. Limited to just 10,000 bottles, the bourbon, takes its name from the foundation year of the distillery's oldest warehouse, or rickhouse, where Eddie got his first taste straight from the barrel all those years ago.
Eddie's desire to leave his own mark on the company was infectious, Bruce says. "I realised there was something really cool going on in our distillery and it was something that I wanted to be a part of."
He made it his mission to hang to at the distillery as often as possible, picking up all he could from his father, grandfather and their dedicated employees, many of whom have worked there for decades and are just as much a part of the family.
"Because it's such a small community, where we're from, everybody that works at the distillery is from there," Bruce says. "I know all their family and friends. I went to school with their kids."
Of course, youthful dreams of being just like our fathers can fade away. Striking off on his own at 18, just like his father, it was a summer job that drew Bruce back into the fold aged 21. "I started giving tours and almost immediately fell right back in love with it and knew I wasn't gonna leave again," he says.
Wild at heart
Learning the family trade reignited Bruce's love of Wild Turkey, and his gift at guiding distillery tours marked him out as an impassioned storyteller, able to inspire others. Campari spotted this talent and signed him up as a national brand ambassador, travelling the country.
"It's amazing that I get to go on the road and just talk about my dad and my grandad for a living," Bruce says. "I take a lot of pride in it, not only because Wild Turkey is so good, but also because it's made by my family."
Eddie's Master's Keep drops – 17 Year Old, Decades and 1894 – have appeal far beyond the tradition 50-plus southern male drinker personified by his grandfather Jimmy, Bruce argues. "Our consumer is now 21 and older, male and female, and everybody is enjoying Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, Sazeracs and whiskey sours. The cocktail scene changed that, and so I've tried to take that knowledge and reach out to those people that work behind the bar, focusing on what works best for them. Which of our spirits are best in mixed drinks? Which works best neat? What works best on the rocks?"
That conversation has proven invaluable, Bruce believes. "It's very important to have that trading engagement, because if you can build that relationship and make somebody behind the bar fall in love with your product, then it's like having a free ambassador right there. They are the ones who are going to reach out to the consumer for you and make them fall in love with Wild Turkey in turn."
Catch yourself some Rye
Bruce says Eddie's Master's Keep series is a big part of this shift. "Dad's tried to make stuff that would be interesting not only for our base consumer, but also for the person behind the bar. People have come around to see that there are a lot of great whiskies being made here at Wild Turkey. It's an authentic, quality product and the perception has almost done a 180, especially in the cocktail and bar scene. You're seeing 101 Rye in most of the best bars the world on their cocktail menu and that's great."
The 101 Rye is Bruce's personal favourite. "I just love that it's dryer and spicier, a little more complex and versatile," he says.
After a few years on the road, he's looking forward to spending more time working at the distillery alongside Eddie and Jimmy. "My goal is to get my hands dirty and do some real work, as grandad would say," Bruce laughs. "I would love to make a mark on the production of our product, and especially Rye 101, because that's what I'm in love with."
Master of the universe
His dream is to become a Master Distiller himself one day, but the family connection is no shortcut. 'That's a title that's earned, not given. I want to put in 20-30 years, earn my stripes and continue making the same great stuff that dad and grandad have always made, and to be honest I don't trust anybody else to carry on what my grandad has laid down as the foundation for this amazing distillery, this amazing product that's now a worldwide thing."
Perhaps one day it will be Bruce creating a new Master's Keep limited edition drop, just like the exclusive 1894. "The Master's Keep series is a great chance for Wild Turkey to do something a little different, to experiment, and each one has a unique story behind it. That's what people are looking for now. I'd love to do that, and I think you'll probably see that sooner rather than later."
This article was brought to you by Wild Turkey.