LAWRENCEBURG — When Jimmy Russell started working at what is now the Wild Turkey distillery, it wasn't for the bourbon. In fact, he couldn't legally drink, since he was only 19.
What brought him to Anderson County Distilling Co., as it was known then, was love. "My wife, Joretta, was working here," Russell said.
Russell didn't realize it at the time, but that would be the beginning of 60 years at the distillery.
"I enjoyed it," Russell said. "I did a little bit of everything. I was in quality control in the distillery. ... You might go get samples of grain, run an analysis on it, then you might end up with a scoop shovel shoveling it out before the day was over. I was doing everything in the distillery ... help making the yeast with the old master distiller."
Usually, he said, when you start in one area at a distillery, you'd stay there. But Russell said that once he got good at a job, they would move him. He didn't realize it, but that was perfect training for running the whole place. He became master distiller "sometime in the late '60s," he said.
Since then, his job has been basically to keep things steady. He has now been master distiller longer than any other in the industry.
"We haven't changed anything at Wild Turkey. We're still using the same formula, the same yeast and everything as the day I came here," Russell said. "We haven't changed a thing. We make our yeast every day."
But the business has changed.
About 25 or 30 years ago, Austin Nichols & Co., which owned the distillery, decided to send Russell into the field to educate sales and marketing people on whiskey and bourbon.
And a star was born. Russell, who will turn 80 in November, still travels the world as one of the industry's foremost bourbon ambassadors. When he attends tasting events, fans ask to take pictures with "the Buddha of Bourbon." When he speaks in Japan, autograph seekers line up.
"When I first started out, it was all whiskey. Didn't make any difference what it was, it was all whiskey," Russell said. "Nowadays, it's amazing to me how much the bourbon business has grown. And the education people have nowadays. When you say something now, you better be right on it."
One of the biggest shifts he sees: women in bourbon. "They're well educated," he said.
Groups like the Bourbon Women are revolutionizing things, he said.
Russell and Wild Turkey were pioneers, too, in flavoring whiskey: In 1976, they launched Wild Turkey Honey Liqueur, relaunched now as American Honey.
"Now everybody's coming out with flavored bourbons," Russell said. "You got to go with what the public wants."
Last year, Wild Turkey added a spiced flavor. But Russell isn't sure how long that trend will last. "It's made a good run," Russell said. Can you become like vodkas? Having too many different flavors?"
A bigger trend he sees is the small batches, the single barrels, the premiums, the expensive special releases, which do well in export markets too.
So it's fitting that Wild Turkey will celebrate Jimmy Russell's tenure with a very special release — a limited edition commemorative Diamond Anniversary Bourbon, created by his son and fellow distiller, Eddie Russell, who has already worked at Wild Turkey for more than 30 years. (Both Russells are in the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame; they joke that someday they might retire together.)
Diamond was blended from 13- to 16-year-old Wild Turkey barrels hand-selected by Eddie Russell.
How does it taste?
"It's great," Jimmy Russell said. "I know it would be with Eddie making it."
Beginning in May, Diamond Anniversary will be available only at the new Wild Turkey Visitors Center until August, then expand in limited release to key markets around the country in the fall, with a suggested retail price of about $125.
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.