‘Most people don’t start out making good whiskey’: Wild Turkey’s Eddie Russell on pushing the bourbon envelope

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Wild Turkey is one of the biggest names in American whiskey, and master distiller Eddie Russell has seen it all: the rise of craft bourbon, the growth of his family business into an empire and the evolution of the bartending community. Imbibe sat down with him to talk cooking small batches, balancing big flavours and taking late-night phone calls from a certain Hollywood actor


Wild Turkey recently released Longbranch, a bourbon produced in collaboration with Matthew McConaughey. What was it like working with the actor?

It was probably the most difficult product I’ve had to do because before it was always just me. I had an idea, I knew what taste I was looking for, and this was letting him taste and trying to figure out what he liked.

We started calling back and forth. It was at first just what are we looking for? We were trying to tie Kentucky and Texas together and asking how do we do that?

When I think about Texas I think about mesquite wood, so we settled on that and then it was working on the name, working on the package and because I really only work on the juice, that bit was new and fun.

I did have some really late night phone calls from him, possibly tasting too much, and I got emails that I had to decipher because they always start with ‘McConaughey here’ and then it’s a run-on sentence. There’s no periods, no capital letters. He relates a lot of stuff to music and would talk about the treble and the bass (laughs) so I had to figure all that stuff out.

It was a little over a year and a half. I probably sent him 50 samples. The first time I sent him samples I sent him three or four and it after two weeks I hadn’t heard anything, so I sent him a little email and he called me up and he said, ‘I just want you to know it’s just like reading a script. I don’t just read it when I get it. It’s gotta be the perfect time.’ I said ohhh-kay.

It’s been a fun journey. He’s a little different, but most artistic people are.

[Longbranch was] an experiment. This is a process we’ve never done before, with a mesquite charcoal and oak charcoal.

So we used white oak first, and white oak takes out some of the big, strong, harsh notes, but it also gets it ready for that mesquite. At first I just used mesquite, and it was really smoky. It was almost like a peated Scotch. And I wanted this to be a straight bourbon whiskey, and with a straight bourbon whiskey you can’t do too much to it.

So it was going through that whole process of submitting to the TTV, will this pass to be a straight bourbon, making sure [McConaughey] liked it, so there was a lot involved. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

Do limited edition bourbons such as Wild Turkey’s Rare Breed – despite being relatively easy to find – play in to the craft market?

I think they definitely do. Craft is a tricky word because we’re all crafted. Craft a lot of times means smaller batches, you know, or smaller distilleries, but Jimmy, my dad [master distiller Jimmy Russell], and Booker Noe and Elmer T. were three of the five people making all the bourbon when I was growing up, and back in the mid-80s they started travelling a little bit, and people started asking how you like your whiskey and they’d say, straight out of the barrel.

So they really were the first people to move our category into a premium category with smaller batches like Rare Breed, which is a barrel proof, and single barrels. Our industry didn’t grow that much but it just moved it a little higher into a premium category, so that’s definitely what’s growing things now. Your core brand is growing some, but the premium is growing in the double digits and it’s a trend with the younger generation.

Is the bourbon craft movement within the smaller distilleries doing anything that is inspirational to your brand?

Well, that’s a hard question because a lot of them aren’t making their stuff, they’re just buying from big people with great marketing stories. There are a few, you know there are some kids – I call them kids, they’re young men – up in Washington state, Westland, who are doing some really neat stuff with single malts which has never made it big in America. So you appreciate people who do that.

I like it, my dad doesn’t, but I like it because I think it brings more interest into our category, so people are looking for new things. And I always say eventually they’ll get to the good stuff. There was 57 distilleries [when]my father started in Kentucky in 1954. There was eight left when I started in 1981. So those eight figured out what they wanted to be, they figured out how to make good whiskey, so that’s sort of the trend now.

What do you think those smaller brands can learn from Wild Turkey?

Most people don’t start out making good whiskey at the beginning. It’s not a business you can really read out of a book and do, it’s something you’ve got to experiment with and work a lot and luckily for me, I’ve got hundreds of years behind me, so it’s just figuring out what you want to do with the product you’ve got.

What’s a day at the distillery like?

For me, the first thing I do when I get there is something my father never had to do – answer about 80 emails and put out a few fires.

You always say you’re never gonna be like your father but I’ve turned into him, because every morning he’d come in, walk around and look at the mashes. Now I do that too. Just by sight and smell you know if everything is good.

Then you’re usually in the distillery talking to the employees for a few minutes, and then it’s into the lab tasting and smelling your whiskeys. Right now I do a single barrel programme, so people come in and taste barrels.

‘Most people don’t start out making good whiskey at the beginning. It’s not a business you can really read out of a book and do.’

We in the last seven or eight years have gone from one of the oldest working distilleries to one of the most modern. We’ve spent fifty million dollars basically building a new distillery that’s very computerised and built a new bottling about five or six years ago, so there’s been a lot of money invested in Kentucky and new equipment and stuff like that. It’s amazing to see what’s happened.

Are there generational workers at the distillery, similar to your family’s situation?

There’s a family that was a father and three of his sons there, there are still a lot of husbands and wives there, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters. There’s a lot of them.

I think at our distillery, once they come they realise how much of a family business it still is, because that’s the way my father always wanted it. I know everybody that works there, I talk to everybody that works there. They know me, they know I did their job before because I’ve done ‘em all.

Not all distilleries are like that, but I think that’s just my father’s personality and how he wanted to keep things.

Did you always want to make bourbon?

I did not. I came from a little town with ten thousand people, there’s not anything to do or see. You grow up thinking you’ll get a college education and move away. I actually went there for a summer job, just was gonna work three months and go back to school.

‘We in the last seven or eight years have gone from one of the oldest working distilleries to one of the most modern.’

Within two or three weeks I just knew it was where I was supposed to be. My son followed the same path. He’s our brand ambassador and lives in Austin, Texas, but he’s getting ready to move back and start getting his hands dirty working in the business. It’ll be challenging, I think he’s even more hard-headed than I was, but it’s definitely challenging working with family.

Do Wild Turkey’s three generations, your father, you and your son, have very different tastes in bourbon?

I think my son is so much like my dad. His taste profile, his thoughts – my dad always had this charisma, and my son has it. It’s amazing to see how much he’s like him. My dad fought me the whole way, but my son can’t do anything wrong so I have to be the guy who steps in and says no (laughs).

My father’s [taste]was that older generation, where they wanted a big whiskey to just knock your socks off. That was what bourbon was about. The Russell’s line I do and a lot of the LTOs I do are more creamy and sweet up front, they still have that Wild Turkey spice, but it’s a different taste profile. Instead of big right at the beginning, it’s sort of smoother, easier to drink. That’s the big difference. I only have one recipe and one yeast, so I have to pick those barrels to make it taste like that.

The bartenders love the big, bold whiskey because it stands up in a drink, but if they’re drinking it neat they’d rather have a smoother, softer taste. That’s what I’ve worked on a lot.

My dad sold 95% of what he sold in the retail store. Now we’re getting more and more of that on-premise, drinking it in a bar. It’s easier to go to a bar and try two or three bourbons than go to a liquor store and try two or three bottles. It’s a lot better for us and brings more people into the category.

 

What’s your setup for experimentation with your products?

My dad and his generation didn’t do much, but it’s just a constant thing for me. I have a series called Master’s Keep of different flavoured whiskies, I’ve done four and actually did one just for Australia.

My new one is 12- to 15-year-old bourbon finished in an oloroso sherry cask, which is something our industry never did. My dad still tells me it won’t work but it’s really good liquid.

Everybody’s different. There are distilleries that experiment with everything. At Wild Turkey, we don’t do that. We do a few things. 101 is by far our biggest seller and that will always be our biggest seller.

We had a nice brunch yesterday with 30 bartenders, and I said if anybody’s got any ideas I’m happy to take ‘em – I do that where my father never did. He thinks a mixed drink is an ice cube in bourbon.

Do you see any inspiring aspects of Scotch or Irish whiskey?

It definitely taught me lessons, because I learned this business from my father. I’d say why do we distil at such low proofs, and he’d say, well how do you like your steak, and I’d say medium rare. And he’d say that’s how I cook my whiskey, to keep all that flavour in there.

So I went back and learned the science behind that. We do a thing where we use column stills in our business, ‘cause we don’t do a wash like the Scotch and Irish, so they take the grains away and run just the liquid. We run everything, so a column still keeps everything moving.

Then we actually pump whiskey right back into the top, and I never could figure out why and I asked my dad and he said, ‘cause it makes it taste better. That was his answer to everything.

I visited Glen Grant, our sister company and [its master distiller]Dennis Malcolm, and I got to talking to him about the pot stills, the heavy alcohol is actually washed back down and they re-distil it so the lighter alcohols go out. Then I realised that’s basically why we were doing it, because the people who built our industry were Scotch and Irish people that came over when America was formed. Things like that have been inspirational to me.

What about other whiskey markets? Are they doing anything that’s exciting to the Wild Turkey brand?

Really, it’s such a change because when I started, six percent of our business was export and that was mainly in Japan. Now Australia is our biggest market, but they do what they call ready-to-drink (RTDs) which you can’t sell hardly anywhere else.

Now you’ve got bartenders using centrifuges to do things with your whiskey, to take colour out, to do all these different things. That never happened before. It’s cool to see that.

When I was growing up, you bartended to get through college, or it was an older man that was bartending. Now these people get into it and they feel they’re into it for their whole lives.

We have a thing called Camp Runamok in Kentucky where [bartenders]come in and sleep in a boys’ camp and they visit distilleries for a week. If you go to Kentucky and go to the distillery you learn more about the culture and what it’s about. 10, 12 years ago, people only looked at it and thought, what’s the difference between Scotch whiskey and Irish whiskey and bourbon whiskey and Jack Daniel’s. Now they’re past that. They want to know what’s your pH level when you set your fermentation, what’s the temperature of your still, what your mashbill is, so you give ‘em as much information as you can.

A lot of people think you shouldn’t tell all that but I think it doesn’t matter. They could take my recipe and try to make whiskey. It wouldn’t taste like mine. It’s all the little things you do that they’ll never understand unless they’re actually making whiskey.

If you could communicate one thing to anyone who’s using Wild Turkey, from the bartender to the person putting it on the table, what would you want them to know?

For me it’s genuine because it’s never changed. Everybody else has changed their recipes, they’ve changed their proofs. We still have the same original recipe, the same proprietary lease. We’re the only distillery that’s never used GMO corn. Those things my dad wouldn’t change, which I thought we needed to change, but now it means a lot to that community because we’re so authentic.

There’s a lot that’s not that authentic. That’s what I always preach to people, and that’s what I try to tell through the stories. I tell a lot of stories, because I want to keep that alive.

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