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"Bartenders changed everything," says Wild Turkey master distiller as he celebrates 35 years in the industry

Published:  25 May, 2016

Eddie Russell, master distiller at Wild Turkey grew up in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, in the heart of bourbon-making country.

His father is legendary distiller Jimmy Russell - now in his eighties.

It's a lot for a son to live up to, and Eddie - the third generation of distillers in his family - admits he was initially reluctant to join the family business.

"I went away and got a summer job," Russell explained. "I had visions of myself going off to college and working in the city, but when I came back I realised that this was home."

Russell was in the UK over the weekend and in London yesterday (May 24), where he celebrated 35 years with Wild Turkey along with Joy Spence, master blender at Appleton Estate rum in her hometown of Kingston, Jamaica, also for 35 years.

Looking back at 35 years in the industry, Russell identified a few key differences.

He added: "My father did everything. He worked seven days a week and did multiple jobs within the business. I just wanted to make the whiskey, but that wasn't the way it was back then. These days it's different, everybody specialises in something."

Eddie Russell Wild Turkey Eddie Russell Wild Turkey

The other thing that has changed enormously is the image of bourbon, which has experienced an explosion in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years.

Russell is the first to admit that Wild Turkey and other bourbon companies owe a debt of gratitude to the bartenders who revolutionised the way the product is consumed in the on-trade - through cocktails like the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned.

"The bartenders changed everything," he said. "When my father was running the business it was only older gentlemen who drank bourbon. It's the bartenders who have brought it to a whole new generation.

"We're a premium brand. I'm interested in things like single barrel and small batch, but other than that we haven't changed the product much. I realised that over time, that Wild Turkey is traditional drink. We like to keep it simple."

When he can, Russell likes to spend time with the bartenders who experiment with and mix his family's drink and visited many of them while he was in the UK to celebrate his landmark anniversary with umbrella group, Campari.

See the full interview with Joy Spence at tomorrow.