The Spirit of Kentucky: Wild Turkey's Jimmy Russell is globe-trotting 'rock star'

jpatton1@herald-leader.comAugust 10, 2013 

For Kentucky's bourbon houses, the most powerful weapon in their promotional arsenal is the master distiller.

He's the face of the brand, the hand every visitor wants to shake on the distillery tour, and the palate they want to learn from.

The schedules are packed for distillers like Chris Morris at Woodford Reserve, Fred Noe at Jim Beam, and Parker and Craig Beam at Heaven Hill.

"We couldn't possibly have Parker and Craig everywhere they are wanted because they are wanted everywhere these days," said Larry Kass, director of corporate communications for Heaven Hill.

Often they are deployed to events like Tales of the Cocktail or WhiskeyFest.

But the undisputed king of the bourbon road, the one other distillers call "the Ironman," is Wild Turkey's Jimmy Russell.

"He's quite our rock star," said Randal Stewart, public relations and events manager for Campari America, which owns Wild Turkey.

Russell, 78, is just back from Japan. Next month, he'll plans to put in an appearance at bartenders-only summer camp, Camp Runamok in Bardstown, celebrate the grand opening of Wild Turkey's new visitors' center, and fit in some dates in Florida before heading to San Francisco for WhiskeyFest.

"He travels all over," Stewart said. "When he gets to a market he says all the time, 'Keep me as busy as you can.' He's very late-night, too."

Occasionally, the master distillers find themselves crossing paths. Once, at WhiskeyFest in Chicago, Tom Bulleit of Bulleit Bourbon found himself working the room alongside Russell.

"I said, 'I'm tired. I'm going home,'" Bulleit recalled. Then he asked about Russell's plans. "And he said. 'Well, I'm going to Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong.'"

Everywhere he goes, fans want a picture with the man who makes the mash.

This spring, Tommy Tardie, owner of The Flatiron Room in New York, had his Jimmy moment.

As owner of a Manhattan bar with a wall of more than 700 whiskies, you would think Tardie would be sort of immune to the star power but when he and his brothers bumped into Russell and Elmer T. Lee at Buffalo Trace, he turned into a fanboy.

"I didn't want to be like a groupie," Tardie said, but he had to get pictures.

"My brothers thought it was cool. And I said, no, you don't understand. These guys are legends," Tardie said.

Now, he said of his brothers, "they're ordering Russell's Reserve and Elmer T. Lee."

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl

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