I’ve been a bourbon drinker for a while now, and despite being frequently asked about my impressions of bourbon country in Kentucky, up to this point I’ve had nothing to say. But the legend of that area travels far and wide, and rather than have someone else tell me about it, I wanted to see for myself. So on a frosty autumn morning in late October, I finally got that chance.
As I drove through the rolling hills and changing leaves, a thick fog enveloped the Kentucky River, creeping by in slow sheets, and heightening the drama of my entrance into Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, the home of Russell’s Reserve (and its parent brand Wild Turkey). Rounding the bend of an s-curve bridge, the fog cleared for a moment, and perched atop a wooded hill, I could see what looked to be a farmhouse roof/turned tasting room.
Arriving at the Visitor Center, I was immediately greeted by a few women employees who felt more like aunts than strangers, and they told me to make myself at home. Lining an entire wall of the entry hallway was a collage of the visual history of this famous area, with photographs, old bottles, and even Prohibition documents that outlined the people, events, and products that helped shape this town into what it is. But one figure stands out amidst all of that multi- generational history — Jimmy Russell, the very man I was there to meet.
Jimmy Russell is a living legend in the bourbon world, and apart from working here for 63 years, is a member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame, and is largely responsible for the return in popularity for this “true American spirit,” as he calls it. Getting the chance to not only meet him in person, but to sit down in his office for an interview was a really unique opportunity, and something I’ll never forget.
We talked for over an hour about his love for making bourbon, the ups and downs of the business over the years, and why he insists on never changing the recipe for Russell’s Reserve. In his words, “If you’ve got something going good, you don’t fool with it.” Born and raised right there in Lawrenceburg, Jimmy still lives within a mile of his childhood home, and is continuing a family tradition of making bourbon, passed on by his father. One of his sons, Eddie, and his grandson Bruce, have followed in his footsteps. His granddaughter Joann works for the company as well.
Starting the job in 1954, Jimmy says he’s never actually worked a day in his life, because he loves it so much. “The day it feels like work is the day I’ll retire.” And much to everyone’s delight, it doesn’t seem like that day will be anytime soon.As our conversation wound down, Jimmy had business elsewhere, in this case the Visitor Center, where he personally greets guests, takes photos with them, signs their purchased bottles, and insists that they call him “just Jimmy.” Both humble and wise, he’s the type of man we all can learn a thing or two from.
Next, I met up with Eddie Russell, Jimmy’s son. Also a member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame, Eddie was the originator of the Russell’s Reserve line, creating the first batch in honor of his dad’s 45th anniversary at the company. Somehow, everyone managed to keep the true identity of the product from Jimmy, despite the frequent tasting sessions for feedback. It was only after the bourbon was bottled that Jimmy learned it was in his honor, and since then, it has become a family effort. The result being a superior bourbon that represents their combined distilling experience of nearly 100 years.
Now a little bit wiser to the Russell family history, Eddie gave me a private tour, including the distillery, barrel aging houses, and surrounding grounds. Unlike most tours, I got to see behind all of the curtains, and open the doors that say “employees only.” Everybody there greeted each other by name, and it felt more like a family reunion than a major distillery. Folks genuinely care about the work they are doing there, and many are carrying on three or four generations of working there, the Russells included.
One of the most interesting things by far was the barrel house, or “rickhouse,” as they call it in bourbon country, which has been standing since 1894. Full of aged, weathered wood, the late morning light filtered through dusty panes of glass that have stood the test of time. Contrasting with more modern, climate controlled barrel houses that other companies might use, the Russell’s prefer to keep things the way they’ve always been, and keep time honored traditions alive. It’s one of the coolest buildings I’ve ever seen, and I walked the halls in silence for quite some time, admiring the barrels yet to be bottled, all in various stages of their lives.
As the day came to a close, we met back up with Jimmy, so that I could thank them both, and be on my way. Out of curiosity, I asked them both which of the Russell’s Reserve line was their favorite, and they both said the 10 year small batch bourbon, which is a testament to the quality. If two Bourbon Hall of Famers provide a recommendation, I’m sure going to follow it.
And while there is always debate about how you should drink it, Jimmy was adamant that it should be enjoyed any way you want to. “The most important thing is that you slow down, enjoy the flavors, and the company of friends and family around you,” he told me. “I have one favorite cocktail though...I like to take one cube of ice, and flavor it with bourbon,” he added with a chuckle.
It was a fitting note to end on — a lighthearted joke from a man who is ensuring his family legacy through dedication and hard work, and is still loving every minute of it.
If you find yourself in Kentucky, make a point to stop by the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg – which is situated between Lexington and Louisville. I’m sure the Russells would love to meet you.