At this point in my life, going to Kentucky supersedes any other vacation for me when it comes to excitement. There is just so much to offer there for the bourbon fan: distilleries, great restaurants, amazing bars, shopping for unique and rare bourbons, opportunities to meet some of the individuals I have gotten to know through social media... and the bourbon celebrities. You know who I am talking about; the people who don't consider themselves celebrities because they are simply people working a job, but for the bourbon fan(atic), they are very much as big of a celebrity as any professional athlete, TV or movie actor/actress or rock star on the planet.
These are the people we, as adults, put on a pedestal, for what they are able to accomplish in the world of bourbon. One of the greatest aspects of our beloved distilled spirit is the fact that no matter how much technology gets added into the equation, the need for artistry in this business remains. Those creative geniuses, the ones calling the shots in the world of bourbon, that's who we acknowledge as the celebrities of the business.
With that definition, there is no bigger celebrity that Jimmy Russell. What he represents to the world of bourbon puts him in the range of a national treasure. His 64 years in the industry represents a roller coaster of the best of times, to the worst of times, back up to the best of times again. He, along with his contemporaries, names like Booker Noe, Elmer T. Lee and Parker Beam helped changed the industry forever and put it back on track after it was all but forgotten.
Jimmy Russell is the creator of Wild Turkey 101, one of the most recognized brands in the world. He introduced flavored bourbon back in 1976 with his Wild Turkey Honey. Whether you are a fan of that particular product or not, you have to acknowledge it has brought waves of new fans to bourbon and has a special place in the history of the business.
On a personal basis, I love to think about the knowledge about the industry Jimmy represents. After all, no one inherently knows how to create bourbon. It's a learned trade. You draw upon those who did it before you and pull a little bit of knowledge from each person to create your own style in the business. If you think about Jimmy Russell, starting at Wild Turkey in 1954, you begin to think about the old-timers of the time teaching a young Jimmy how to make bourbon and you quickly realize what he was able to pull from them probably represents another 30 or 40 years before he began his career and those individuals were learning from old timers when they got started so suddenly, Jimmy's 64 years of experience is probably representing 125 years plus of firsthand knowledge of this business.
I love Jimmy Russell. I can say that without reservation.
Jimmy is a guy I knew back when I was just a bourbon drinker. I wasn't bourbon hobbyist, collector or necessarily interested in bourbon history or how production worked. That would come later after a trip to visit the distilleries when a fondness for a distilled spirit turned into a passion.
The point being that I didn't have to be a fanboy of bourbon to know who Jimmy Russell was. He's larger than life. He transcends bourbon and creeps into popular culture.
As I have followed the progression of bourbon drinker, to hobbyist, to passionate collector, to dabbling in the industry via books and podcasts to finally, making it a full-time career, Jimmy Russell has become even more impressive, even larger than life and a person I admire more than ever. With all of his contemporaries now gone, he's really the last of the generation that seen the boom in bourbon from the 50s-70s, the downfall from the 80s-90s and then the rise again to where we are today.
As I have gotten more immersed in the business, Jimmy had been elusive for me. I have't been able to secure an interview with him for my podcasts. Every time I dropped into Wild Turkey he wasn't there.
I had started to think I would never get the chance to see him, and then last fall, I went to The Bourbon Festival in Bardstown to cover the event for Bourbon Zeppelin
. On All-Star night, I turned the corner, and, there he was. I got to spend a few brief moments with him chatting and it was amazing. It was one of the greatest moments in my life so it was way bigger for me personally than just meeting a "bourbon person."
Of course, that was a rushed encounter. As I spoke to him, there was a line waiting to do the exact same thing behind me. While I wouldn't trade that interaction for anything in the world, there wasn't a chance to really get to know Jimmy a bit.
That moment was about to come, though.
Tracy Napolitano of the New Orleans Bourbon Festival invited me to Louisville with him to make some barrel picks. These selections would be bottled with a New Orleans Bourbon Festival logo on them and sold in New Orleans as a means to promote the Festival. It really was an honor and another of those surreal moments that makes what I am doing now with my life so very special to me.
On our last day in Louisville, we had an open day before we would head to Frankfort for an evening dinner prior to heading back home. We spent the morning hitting a few distilleries and meeting some of our friends in the business.
It was after lunch and I asked Tracy if it would be okay to swing down to Wild Turkey as I heard they had a gift in their gift shop that was perfect for my co-host Renee Howe and her birthday was coming up so I wanted to get it for her. Not sure if Tracy was into that idea or not, but I did remind him Jimmy Russell is sometimes in the gift shop so he agreed to let me make the side trip on our way to Frankfort.
We pulled up and saw a truck that met the description of what we heard Jimmy drove. Plus, it wasn't even in a parking spot, it was just pulled up in front of the building.
Could that possibly be Jimmy Russell?
We walk in the door... and there he was: Jimmy Russell. It's an awe-inspiring and breathtaking moment if you are a true fan.
Wait... it gets better.
It was Jimmy sitting at a table... by himself, Tracy and I and no one else. Off to our left there were a few gift shop employees, but this was a meeting without a line of people behind me also waiting to speak with Jimmy. It was him, Tracy and I.
Jimmy explained he had come in for a big tour and they just left. So, we started talking... and talking... and talking. A few times, I thought I might politely let Jimmy go, but he was asking us questions. To leave would be rude!
We ended up speaking for almost an hour!
What did we talk about?
I wish I could tell you, but I won't.
You see, I wasn't interviewing Jimmy for Bourbon Zeppelin
and we weren't podcasting. This was just three guys talking about bourbon and life. It was a private conversation, and out of respect for Mr. Russell, it will stay that way, but I can tell you this...
It was amazing.
We talked about so many incredible things that related to the industry, and we laughed and shared some common experiences about vacations. It was just incredible. Afterwards, Tracy and I both ran over to the gift shop, bought a bottle of Wild Turkey 101 and had Jimmy sign them for us.
My bottle of 101 signed by Jimmy. I bought a one bottle wood display case for it with UV protected glass. It is now my most cherished bourbon collectible.
It was an incredible afternoon. I got to meet Jimmy Russell, and the interaction turned out to be completely engaging and fulfilling. Jimmy Russell was able to create a moment Tracy Napolitano and I will never forget, simply by being Jimmy Russell, and that is pretty darn great.