Full disclosure: I don’t know what the perfect bourbon tastes like. I’m more of a scotch man. That said, after sitting down with Associate Distiller Eddie Russell of Wild Turkey Bourbon the other day, I’ve certainly gained a greater appreciation for the true American spirit.
Not syrupy, artificial or overly sweet, both tasting and talking along with Mr. Russell left a favourable flavour in my mouth. I learned about the 158-year history of the Austin Nichols Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky and the impressive commitment to classic distilling techniques that’s survived for over four generations.
“We’ve had the same proprietary yeast culture since before I was a born,” Russell explains. “My dad used to have yeast cultures in the fridge when I was growing up, in case the power went out. Now we have it frozen and stored in deep vaults all over the world.”
You can stop holding your breath now. Barring a global catastrophe, there will always be bourbon flowing.
The distillery itself opened up shop in 1855 and has survived through everything from Prohibition to rising corn and grain prices, prioritizing tradition and purity over all else. Aside from Wild Turkey’s classic, 81-proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon, they’ve also got a classic Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey that’s now available in the LCBO.
“Rye was in fact originally what was made in the States, long before bourbon,” says Russell. “To be a true rye whiskey, there are a number of government regulations. It needs to be at least 51% rye grains, be finished in new white oak barrels, and only be cut down with water.”
“Up here in Canada most whiskeys are mainly corn whiskey with a little rye. So they’re softer and sweeter, whereas this is a wet, earthy, peppery taste that comes through in the rye grains.”
Eddie Russell began his career at the distillery as a relief operator, slowly working his way up the ranks over the past 29 years from Supervisor of New Production to Warehouse Supervisor, Manager of Barrel Maturation and Warehousing to his current role as Associate Distiller. (Aspiring young distillers take note, even in the family these promotions don’t happen over a glass of bourbon).
Though Mr. Russell still prides himself on having a palate for his family’s past, as well as the creation of his award-winning “Russell’s Reserve” 10-year-old small-batch bourbon (unfortunately still not available in Ontario), he’s looking towards the other side of the glass as the years progress.
“The old Master Distillers didn’t want to do anything to their bourbon. They wanted you to drink their bourbon the same way they did – neat or with a little bit of water, or a cube of ice,” Russell says. “For me, I’m really into the cocktail culture. I work a lot with the bartender guilds in the United States. What they’re doing is completely different from way back when I was a kid – enhancing the flavours that I’ve got in my bourbon rather than masking them.”
Continuing on the thread of creating a genuine, timeless whiskey, while also making his spirits more approachable, Mr. Russell is elevating his bourbon within the barrel rather than outside of it.
“I’m experimenting with different finishings on my whiskey,” he tells me. “I’m using our straight bourbon and finishing in scotch barrels, rum barrels, wine barrels, even sherry barrels to see what new subtleties and flavours we can generate. It brings out the best of both worlds.”
That said, Russell remains steadfast in what goes into his stills.
“We’re completely GMO-free,” he lauds. “All of our corn has been sourced from the same guy for 45 years, our rye comes from Germany because it’s the only place where we can get the proper quality, and our grain comes from the Midwest.
“Knowing that my dad never changed anything about our whiskeys is important to me.”
And it would seem to me that the method is working out in everyone’s favour. So, cheers to you, sir, for making our world a little bit boozier and more beautiful with your bourbon. It certainly brightened up my day.