Talking Whiskey With Eddie Russell

What’s more traditional in the world of whiskey than the Russell family at Wild Turkey? You might say that bourbon is in their blood, this multigenerational team of master distillers. Today, Eddie Russell and his legendary father, Jimmy Russell, share the top distilling job at the company, and together can count 101 years of professional experience. (A fitting number, of course, given Wild Turkey’s flagship product.)

It’s an unparalleled active legacy. And it spans an array of top-quality whiskey products, like the popular Master’s Keep line. First launched by Eddie in 2014, this super-premium series shows off the oldest expressions of Wild Turkey.

Sean Yelle, category directory for dark spirits at Campari America.

To discuss the strategy behind these releases, and the current state of whiskey in general, we recently caught up with Eddie Russell, along with Sean Yelle, category directory for dark spirits at Campari America, which owns Wild Turkey.

Beverage Dynamics: Master’s Keep 2019 is a rye, a first for this line. Why a rye?

Eddie Russell: Wild Turkey has been dedicated to rye whiskies for decades – basically for as long as my father, Jimmy Russell, has been around. In fact, rye is the original American spirit, but Prohibition caused rye to fall from favor for decades. Like bourbon, rye has been championed by the U.S. bartending community for the past several years and we’re really seeing a tremendous uptick in interest for both cocktail-forward ryes like our 101, and collectible ryes like our new Master’s Keep Cornerstone Rye. 

For the past three decades at Wild Turkey, I personally have distilled and enjoyed rye whiskey, but at the end of the day my heart is always with bourbon. My son Bruce though – he’s the one who made me realize there is this incredible opportunity to experiment with higher aged ryes. Jimmy and me – we’re going to hit the bourbon. But you ask Bruce and he’s going to hit the rye. His appreciation for the spirit pushed me to revisit the distillery’s legacy of producing ryes – so I would say this one has Bruce’s stamp of approval. And, it’s got me excited to release our oldest rye in the history of the distillery.

Sean Yelle: We view the Master’s Keep series as an opportunity to remind the whiskey world of the innovation coming out of the Wild Turkey Distilling Co. We only use two mash bills, one each for bourbon and rye, and what Master’s Keep showcases is the range of flavor we are able to achieve at our Lawrenceburg-based distillery – all brought to life by the masterful hand of Eddie Russell.

It only felt appropriate for our fourth Master’s Keep release to pay homage to rye, which has long been an integral, if at times underappreciated, pillar of the Wild Turkey Distilling Company. It’s the oldest rye we have ever released, and if you haven’t tasted it yet, please stop what you are doing and find a bottle and pour yourself a glass. It was my second month on the job when I was lucky enough to taste barrels with Eddie. He gave me a sample of the Cornerstone liquid and it blew me away. I thought it poor form to ask for seconds, but I was certainly tempted to do so!

BD: We’re currently in a new golden era of American whiskey. Do you see any end in sight — or will the good times roll for many more years ahead?

ER: The future is bright for bourbon. I think there are younger men and women who have and will always enjoy bourbon, but the best part of what is happening in our industry and what will help sustain it in the future are new consumers discovering the whiskey category. Also, the U.S. is typically a barometer for what will happen in the rest of the world, and there are plenty of international markets starting to love the taste of bourbon.

SY: I believe that American whiskey has made the transition from being simply a local spirit to one where consumers appreciate the quality and craftsmanship of the premium range of products on the market. We are seeing this both domestically and internationally. We believe that this premiumization of American whiskey will allow the upper range of the category, where our brands are now playing, to withstand downward pressure as consumer tastes inevitably shift.

BD: Why has modern America fallen in love with whiskey?

ER: The biggest change in the recent past is that the bartending community started making classic, bourbon-based cocktails, and exposed a younger group of men and women into Bourbon. For me, my favorite bourbon cocktail is the Boulevardier — favorite of any cocktail, actually. And how could someone not fall in love with bourbon after just one sip of that cocktail?

BD: What are your thoughts on age statements versus blends?

ER: I do like the age statements. Even with an age-stated bourbon, it still can be a blend of different ages at times. Sometimes consumers think ‘the older, the better’, which is not always true.

BD: When I think of Wild Turkey I think of consistency and quality. Why are those two features so important for whiskey brands, especially in today’s ultra-competitive market?

ER: Consistency and quality are two values my father ingrained into me since the beginning. We want consumers to know each time they buy a bottle of Wild Turkey Bourbon that they will get the same taste. Single barrels are different, but that is what makes them fun. Quality will always be the hallmark of Wild Turkey products. As Jimmy always says, ‘Do it right or don’t do it at all’.

SY: With the explosion of new world brands and the shortage of aged whiskey, consumers are now feeling cautious on spending $30-plus for a whiskey they don’t know. Consumers want to know they are making good decisions based on the liquid rather than the beauty of the packaging. Jimmy Russell always believed in making whiskey ‘one way, the right way’, and we have carried that ethos with us over the years. It is the reason why you should always trust in Wild Turkey to turn out high quality, consistent products.

BD: What would you say to the consumer who’s newer to whiskey?

ER: My advice is always to go to your local bar and try a different bourbon each time. Then you can find the flavors you like. Of course, we feel people will discover on their own how good Wild Turkey tastes. Cocktails, like the Boulevardier or the Manhattan, are always a great way to be introduced to bourbon, too.

BD: What’s coming down the pipeline product-wise that you can speak about?

SY: While we can’t speak about any specific innovations currently, you will find an increased focus on more premium expressions ensuring that we deliver great whiskey across all price points.  The Russell family is a national treasure, and we will carefully innovate only when the product is worthy of putting it into a bottle carrying their signatures. Fortunately, we have one of the best teams around and there is a bright future ahead for the brand.

We are seeing continued success from the past few years of work and we are doubling down on our efforts to continue providing surprise and delight for our consumers. With the hot days of summer wrapping up whiskey season is upon us and we plan on making our signature drinks of the 101 Old Fashioned, Wild Turkey Bourbon & Ginger, and a Russell’s 10 Boulevardier easy to find and enjoy.

We are also excited to bring to life some new and provocative work with our Creative Director, Matthew McConaughey, before the end of the year as we continue our ‘Real Bourbon. No Apologies’ campaign. Finally, we have spent the past two years ushering in the spirit of Thanksgiving with our own endeavors in what we have coined as ‘Turkey Drops,’ and in our third year we are planning on going even bigger to give our thanks to those who share our value of conviction for all that they do.

Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz or Instagram @cheers_magazine. Read his recent piece, How Has Rabbit Hole Distillery Emerged in a Crowded Whiskey Market?

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