Wild Turkey master distiller Eddie Russell remembers the exact moment his fate was tied to the 100-year plus family business. It was his college break back in 1981 and, in his mind, the summer gig at the Lawrenceburg, Kentucky distillery was temporary. He had no intention of joining his father Jimmy in the family business.
That changed the first time he tasted Wild Turkey's unapologetically bold and authentic bourbon from the barrel. "I realised I didn't want to leave, because right out of the barrel is the best way to taste bourbon," Russell beams, emanating that famous southern charm as we sit down together for a tasting session of the distiller's premium range Master's Keep series in Melbourne's stylish QT hotel.
Visiting Australia to launch Master's Keep 1894, the third annual release from the premium series that's limited to 10,000 numbered bottles, it's the pinnacle of Russell's 36 years in the business. Named for the oldest warehouse (or rickhouse) at the distillery where he got his first taste, it sings with toffee, honey and vanilla notes alongside candied pear, stewed apples, and heady oak and spice accents.
Admiring the finish and the golden legs running down the inside of the glass, much like a wine appreciation session, his passion for Master's Keep 1894 is infectious. As is the way he speaks about what his family have built together. Russell understands that presenting Wild Turkey's human face is a vital part of the company's future in an increasingly distracted world.
"I don't want to ever change Wild Turkey 101 or 86.8, because that's what built our company, but you can't be complacent," he says. "The Master's Keep series has people asking, 'what's the next one going to be Eddie?' I want that excitement."
I was lucky to come along at a time when our consumer changed completely.Eddie Russell
A family legacy
His journey to the top wasn't an easy pass; working with family rarely is. "I thought maybe I could just lay around that summer in 1981 but my dad put me to work at the bottom end, rolling barrels, dumping bottles, mowing grass," Russell chuckles. "Then he left me doing that for about four or five years before he brought me into the distillery and taught me how to make whiskey."
His father still works at the distillery 63 years later, but these days he's the one calling the shots, hand-selecting barrels and crafting their premium drops he hopes will introduce Wild Turkey to new breed of sophisticated imbibers.
"You have my dad who's that very traditional older gentleman who thinks you drink it this way, you sell it this way, we don't vary anything, and then I was lucky to come along at a time when our consumer changed completely," Russell says.
Fifteen years ago, Wild Turkey drinkers were predominantly older men, but these days, cocktail bar culture has inspired a younger, cooler crowd, both male and female. Drawn to a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned, the conversations they're having with bartenders are leading them to try more complex spirits like Campari and Wild Turkey, changing the way they think about them.
Russell's son Bruce, a Wild Turkey brand ambassador, is on the frontline. "He's 28 now so he's out in the bars every night," Russell says. "He has bartender friends all over the world. Whether it's Melbourne or New York, they're such a close-knit community."
Much like the family focus at Wild Turkey, which extends to their employees, many of whom have worked there for 20 years or more, making bourbon the right, not the easy way. "I've grown up around all these people and it just feels like home to me," Russell says, joking that working with family isn't always the easiest path.
"Not only do they hold you to higher standards than anybody else, but when I was growing up my dad was basically the Mick Jagger of our industry. I'm coming in behind him and you know everybody thinks they know more than their dad? Here I was, college-educated, but I learned my name was no for a really long time, because I'd say, 'let's try this, ' and he'd say, 'no.'"
First limited release
These days his name is yes, with the Master's Keep series the ultimate result. Master's Keep 17 Year Old, released in 2015, was his first limited release, and the oldest blend the company had presented to that date. While the majority of Russell's barrels are aged in a metal-clad building on top of a hill, subject to huge temperature changes, this batch were held in a brick rickhouse by the river. Offering a much more regulated temperature that results in a slower aging process, preserving the delicate vanilla and caramel flavours.
"It was the most unique whiskey we'd ever had at Wild Turkey," Eddie says. "It was taking 12 to 13 years for it to taste like a six-to-eight-year-old. Whereas normally at 12-13 it's starting to go on the backside, this was just hitting its stride, getting better and better, so I thought what better to release as my first limited time offering than something I've spent half my career making?"
Bourbon of the decade
The second release, 2016's Master's Keep Decades, marked 35 years in the business for Russell, a legacy he wanted to share with his father, embracing their journey together.
"I need a story to tell as I'm releasing the Master's Keep series and I wanted to celebrate what my father taught me," he says. "I love the 17 Year Old, but the Decades has what I love as well as what my dad loves, a little more boldness to it with a longer finish, because that's what bourbons used to be."
Best enjoyed neat or with a dash of water, Russell is excited to share Master's Keep 1894. "For people in Australia to want to buy, taste and talk about the series, it really makes you proud," he says. "You put your heart and soul into it. It's not our business, it's what we love and you don't find that too much in the world. Luckily for me, I was born in the right family. I didn't start this, I'm just going to make sure I don't mess it up."
This article was brought to you by Wild Turkey Master's Keep 1894.