5 Questions with Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell: How to Drink Bourbon and More

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Jimmy Russell how to drink bourbon
Jimmy Russell

Photo Credit: Courtesy Wild Turkey

Whether you call them mixologists or bar chefs these days, bartenders are returning to their roots and making classic cocktails like Manhattans and Old-Fashioned once again. That couldn’t delight Wild Turkey’s legendary Master Distiller Jimmy Russell more. He’s celebrating his 60th year with the brand, which is calling 2014 “The Year of Jimmy Russell.” Haute Living caught up with the Bourbon Hall of Famer who knows a thing or two about whiskey—how to make it and how to drink it— at an exclusive whiskey tasting at Churchill bar in Duboce Triangle during his recent trip to San Francisco.

HL: Explain bourbon and whiskey.

JR: Bourbon is a whiskey. But whiskey can’t be a bourbon. Our federal government tells you how you have to make bourbon. It has to be made with at least 51% corn. It has to be distilled under 160 proof. It must be put in a new charred oak barrel at 125 proof or less. No color, no flavor, or anything can be added to bourbon. The day it’s made, it looks just like water. All the color and everything has to come from aging in that new charred oak barrel. (With) whiskey, you can use the barrels over and over again. You can do just about anything you want to it. But bourbon you cannot. Bourbon is a distinctive product of America — bred, born and raised in Bourbon County, Kentucky. That’s where it got its start and that’s where it’s still going strong.

 

jimmy russell how to drink bourbon
Jimmy Russell (left) with his son and fellow Bourbon Hall of Famer Eddie Russell.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Wild Turkey

HL: What’s the key when it comes to drinking bourbon? Is there a certain temperature, a certain glass?

JR: Well, good bourbon, you just drink it out of anything — even the bottle [laughs]. I like mine neat or on the rocks. In hot weather I like it chilled a little bit. But you drink it anyway you like it. If you like to mix it, that’s fine with me. But me personally, I love to sit down with my wife at nights, read or watch television and enjoy the flavor of bourbon. I sip on it. My wife loves Wild Turkey bourbon sours. One of the best mixers I think you can have with good flavored bourbon is ginger ale or ginger beer. They marry together well.

HL: How long should bourbon age?

JR: Most of your bourbons on the market are four or five years old. It hasn’t matured enough for me at that age. It’s still, I call it green. I like bourbons from 6 to 12 or 13. A lot of people think the older it is, the better it is. But me personally, if it gets much over 13, and I don’t care for it because we have to use a new barrel every time. You lose a lot of that caramel and vanilla; the white oak wood becomes the dominant flavor. I don’t like a lot of woody taste. Now, if you like a lot of woody taste, you’d like an older bourbon. My personal taste, I want a combination of the caramel, vanilla, sweetness and wood.

Jimmy Russell how to drink bourbon
Jimmy Russell

Photo Credit: Courtesy Wild Turkey

HL: What’s the biggest change in the bourbon industry that you’ve seen over the last 60 years?

JR: The biggest change is better equipment. You used to have to sit there and open and close valves by hand where now you have computers. They can push buttons and open and close the valves. But as far as making the bourbon, we haven’t changed a thing. It’s still the same way. One good thing is when I started, we were making about 70 barrels a day. Now we’re making 560 barrels a day. The bourbon business was big in the 50’s, 60’s, and up to early 70’s. Then the white goods — the gin and vodka — came along and you young people started drinking that. Bourbons sort of slacked off. We never changed. We kept right on doing it the same way and we kept going all the time. Now it’s come back strong.

Our export market is huge now. Anywhere you go in the world, people talk about bourbon, Kentucky bourbon especially. Bourbon used to be a southern gentleman’s drink. They got off work in the afternoon, they got their cigars, they got their cards, they got their bourbon and went to the back room and played cards. It’s common worldwide. Everyone’s drinking it.

Ladies now are the biggest buyers When I first started out, I’d do seminars and tastings and there would be one or two ladies there. Now I could almost bet you that more ladies would be there than men at most of them now.

jimmy russell how to drink bourbon
Jimmy Russell

Photo Credit: Courtesy Wild Turkey

HL: What have you learned over the years?

JR: I’m still learning. With bourbon you’re always learning. Things just come along that maybe didn’t happen before. You’re always trying to improve and put out the best product that you can in the world. We strive for that at Wild Turkey. Our main concern is to be consistent in taste and flavor. Kentucky is ideal for making bourbon. It’s got the good limestone water, which is very important. You’ve got to have the hot weather. You’ve got to have the cold weather. We have our own yeast culture. We make our own yeast everyday. All I can tell you about it is I know it’s 60 years old. It was there when I got there and we’re still using the same. We haven’t changed our formula one bit.

 

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