In the summer of 1981, at the end of his first week working on site, a 21 year old Eddie Russell was led up the old set of stairs attached to Rickhouse A at Kentucky’s Wild Turkey Distillery. His father was the Master Distiller at the time, and his reward for a week’s hard labour in his first summer job was a taste of Wild Turkey straight out of the barrel. It was this taste – of this whiskey – that made the young Eddie decide that he too was going to be a Master Distiller.
“My Dad told me the day I went there to work twice as hard as anybody because he didn’t want them to think I was getting special treatment” Eddie tells me. He looks out of place at Gilt Lounge in Sydney’s QT, his southern drawl and proudly branded Wild Turkey polo shirt in stark contrast to a venue modelled after a 90s New York vodka lounge. That’s soon forgotten though, as we start sipping the copious amounts of whiskey that are already poured for me when I arrive. At 11am. “I don’t get drunk” he cheekily boasts as we start by sharing a 17 year old barrel-strength release from his Masters Keep series.
“He [Eddie’s father] wanted me to learn it hands on. He would answer questions, but a lot of times he’d just say “Get in there and figure it out!” He wanted me to learn the same way he learned.”
Eddie Russell was originally hired to carry out general duties at the plant, painting the warehouses, mowing the lawns and rolling the barrels. Once he’d proved to his austere dad, industry great Jimmy Russell, that he was fit for the job, he became a relief operator, filling in for just about every other role in the distillery. “At that time there was five different jobs and I had to learn each one of them. And then about four years, my Dad brought me out of the union, general employees into the distillery to start teaching me the making of the yeast and how to make the mash.”
This quickly earned Eddie the respect of his peers, some of whom still work under him today, where he reigns as one of the most respected Master Distillers in Kentucky. “For me it’s not only knowing my job better but also being respected by our employees better because I worked side by side with them for five years doing the jobs that they’re still doing to this day. Our average age of service … we have about 160 employees with 27 years. I have eight people who have 40 years of service. It’s a very good job in Kentucky. The industry is robust, it’s unionised, so they make good money and have good benefits. So it’s just like me, third, fourth generation. I’m on the second generation, so people I started with back in 1981, their kids are coming on board.”
This family-friendly approach to making one of the world’s most famous whiskies has extended into Russell’s home too. Though his brother and sister showed no interest in following their father into the family business, Eddie has two sons, both of whom share their father’s infectious love for the iconic spirit. When his younger son started working as a tour guide of the distillery to earn some extra cash, he approached Eddie with some touching words. “Within a year or two he came to me and he said “Dad, I really like this.” The thing that sort of got me was he said “I realised you and Mimmie [their affectionate name for Jimmy], what you did, but I didn’t realise the depth, the pride you had in it, the soul you put in it. I’m really interested.”
The older son lives in Austin Texas and works as a brand ambassador, but plans to return to Kentucky in December to start learning the business.
When I prod Eddie to start running me through the glasses of brown liquid laid out before us, he wastes no time. Today, we’re drinking through the Master’s Keep series, a limited edition release of some of the best whiskies in the Wild Turkey barrel houses, each with its own special purpose for creation and story. Sipping through these, it’s easy to see Eddie’s knowledge is the result of painstaking labour – a labour of love which has, over the course of decades, helped shape Wild Turkey as a company that does a lot more than RTDs.
On the Master’s Keep series Eddie says: “I wanted to get back to more of what my Dad was about, which was a higher proof. He always stuck with the higher proof whiskeys when everybody else was going lower proof.”
He’s in town to release the latest in the series, titled 1894. 1894 is the year that Rickhouse A, Wild Turkey’s first barrel-ageing warehouse was built, and that very same place where Eddie first sampled barrel strength whiskey. As an extra point of difference, however, this whiskey is only for release in Australia.
“This one is related strictly to Australia. When I came out with this one [he points to the bottle of Masters Keep Decades sitting on the table], this came out in Australia before it did America because we were signing Matthew McConaughey up and they didn’t want to do all that. So Australia is always [first], they’re our biggest export market by far. So they’re always wanting something just for Australia. This was something I did, it’s only sold here, there’s only 10,000 bottles, 1894 is when our original warehouse was built on our property. So all the whiskey in this has come from that warehouse, and it’s what changed my mind about thinking I was just going to work a summer job, to staying. That’s where I had my first taste of whiskey right of out the barrel. This has some 13 year old in it, some 11 year old and some 6 year old … it’s only going to be sold here, and it’s just being released this week, 10,000 bottles. Once it’s gone it’s gone.”
While these limited release whiskies mightn’t be around for much longer, especially considering Australia’s gluttonous love for all things Wild Turkey, it’s easy to see that Eddie Russell, and his entire family’s indelible stamp on this famous Kentucky brand will be around for generations to come.