HOF distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell are still innovating
Last month I had the pleasure of sitting down with two legends of the whiskey business. Jimmy and Eddie Russell, the father-son duo behind Wild Turkey, are both in the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame, but they aren’t resting on their laurels. Instead, they are still pushing out new products.Wild Turkey 81 is the first spirit created exclusively by Eddie Russell. Like most of us, he saw the boom in the cocktail culture but was disappointed with the options that were available. If you’ve ever ordered a whiskey and coke, watched them pour the proper measurements, and still complained that it tasted weak, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Many lower proof offerings come up limp when mixed into a drink, and the solution isn’t always as simple as, “use a stronger whiskey.” Eddie set out to create a bourbon with which bartenders and mixologists could effectively create top notch cocktails, and he managed to do just that with Wild Turkey 81.
The mash bill is still the signature rye-heavy blend that Wild Turkey lovers will recognize. While the 81-proof spirit is easier on the palate, a big selling point for most guys under 40, it certainly doesn’t seem like anything is lacking. The two main reasons are the the #4 char on the barrels and the length of time the spirit remains in them. The “alligator char” is a deep char that imparts huge vanilla and caramel flavors that you could probably taste at 40-proof (but why would you want to?). The final product is comprised of six to eight year old bourbon, making it the oldest of its peers. These two components allow 81 to keep it’s big signature flavor even at the lower proof.
Jimmy, on the other hand, still has tough guy’s palate. He grew up when men were men and booze over 100-proof was the standard. Because of this, he still swears by Wild Turkey 101 as his go-to. That or a little iced tea…mostly the bourbon though. You’ve likely tried the 101, but you experience probably varied depending where you were in your drinking maturity. For someone who doesn’t drink much whiskey, it’s likely a bit too powerful (challenged issued). My first attempt was high school, and I didn’t go back to it for quite a few years. I’m glad I finally manned up and tried it again though because I have a whole new appreciation for its spicy goodness.The bigger thing I took away from Jimmy was his dedication to non-genetically modified organism grains (non-GMO). In a country where upwards of 85% of corn is GMO, there are very few spirits not using them. I believe Four Roses doesn’t but that’s one of the only bourbons that comes to mind. While GMO grains are not outlawed or regulated at all, Jimmy is still committed to using the real deal. He is willing to pay a premium to know exactly what he’s getting. He said the main concern is that the whiskey distilled today won’t be bottled for anywhere from four years to more than ten. If studies show negative effects from roid raging corn or there is a change in regulations (I’m sure there would be some sort of grandfather clause), he could be left with a boatload of bourbon barrels that he can’t use. That kind of commitment, while is is potentially self-serving, is impressive when you consider the additional costs and America’s willingness to not care.
I discussed Wild Turkey Rye in my very first post here on Guyism, but now they are introducing an 81-proof version of that as well. I’ve yet to try it, so look for an update about it once I have. I’ll admit that I’ve done a 180 degree turn from my stance a couple years ago when you’d rarely see me drinking Wild Turkey. Whether it’s simply a shift in preference or due to the sheer number of different whiskeys I’ve tried in the past couple years, I definitely have a new respect for the brand and its signature flavor.