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Interview: Wild Turkey’s Master Distiller Jimmy Russell

October 6, 2014

Jimmy Russell, the master distiller of Wild Turkey, celebrated his 60th anniversary at the distillery last month. Russell started in quality control in 1954 and became Wild Turkey’s master distiller in the mid-’60s. SND’s Adam Polonski recently spoke with Russell about his legacy and the evolution of the Bourbon business over the decades, as well as Wild Turkey’s plans for the future. Wild Turkey depletions in the U.S. market rose 10% to 590,000 cases in 2013, according to Impact Databank.

SND: What was the state of the Bourbon industry when you started at Wild Turkey, and what lit the spark for the current boom?

Russell: The Bourbon market was pretty strong in the 1950s and ’60s, up into the early ’70s. Its strength was mostly in the Southern states. Rye did pretty well, but then went down to almost nothing for a long time, starting in the middle ’70s. A lot of younger people started drinking gin and vodka, and that’s when the Bourbon market had its lowest time as far as I’m concerned. But Wild Turkey still did all right, even in those years. We had a little gain each year. The export market started growing big in the late ’80s, and in the early ’90s a lot of us came out with small batch, single barrel and barrel-proof Bourbons. That really brought the Bourbon business back. We introduced Rare Breed, our barrel-proof Bourbon, and Kentucky Spirit, our single barrel, in the early ’90s. Russell’s Reserve was launched about 15 years ago, and Russell’s rye was five or six years ago. In my younger days, Bourbon was mostly a Southern gentleman’s drink. Now people 21 and up drink Bourbon, and ladies are really into Bourbon now.

Russell: We’ve always been in good shape on our Bourbon. We had planned for this, as we began to see several years ago that Bourbon was growing. But the rye shortage—we didn’t see that coming. We’re still on allocation on all of our ryes. You just can’t turn it around overnight. We took Wild Turkey 101 rye off the market because we didn’t have any, but now we’ve got it back in some selected bars. We’re in better shape for rye this year, and we’ll be in better shape next year, except for Russell’s rye and 101 rye.

SND: Is Wild Turkey’s new distillery helping ease the rye shortage?

Russell: Yes. The new distillery doubled our capacity. We’ve been there about six years now, and we’ve been making more rye every year. We should be hitting the market with some of the new whiskey next year.

SND: The company’s story is that Wild Turkey Forgiven ($49.99) was created by mistake. Is that true?

Russell: I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. We mixed Bourbon and rye together, and we’re short of rye. A lot of people thought we were pulling a marketing spiel on them. I wish it were a marketing spiel, because then we’d have plenty more rye. But everybody loves it. As we’re now getting caught up a little more on our rye, we’re coming out with another small run of Forgiven this month.

SND: What are your thoughts on the flavored Bourbon trend?

Russell: To me it’s a stepping ground up into Bourbon. You’re going to see a lot more flavors. How long they last, nobody knows. Our American Honey has been on the market since the late 1970s and keeps growing. It has a good Bourbon flavor with a little honey, and it’s a little sweeter. It really has brought more people into the Bourbon business.

SND: Do you have any plans to retire?

Russell: As long as I’m in good health and enjoy what I do, I’ll be around for a while, I hope.

SND: Do you think Bourbon will continue to grow?

Russell: I hope so. Our company just spent over $100 million in the last five or six years here in Kentucky. We’ve got over a half million barrels in storage right now and we’re making more every year. We’re planning for 10 or 12 years from now. If the category doesn’t keep growing, we’re going to have a lot of Bourbon on our hands five years from now. But I do see it growing. More and more foreign countries are opening up to Bourbon. This is a big market.



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