In the world of whisky, what we call bourbon is still, relatively speaking, a baby. Considered to be the American spirit, this barrel-aged whiskey has only been around since the early 1800s, whereas Scotch has about 400 years on it, and Irish whiskeys emerged from monastic roots as early as the 1100s.

While bourbon rose quickly to popularity post-prohibition, it fell out of favour as vodkas were introduced globally in the 60s and 70s. But bourbon has been steadily making its comeback not just in the US, but across Asia too, thanks to a massive resurgence of the classic cocktail scene, with bartenders bringing bold, whiskey-based drinks such as Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Boulevardiers back into business.

Wild Turkey old fashioned
A Wild Turkey Old Fashioned: 2 oz Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon, up to 1 oz simple syrup, 3 dashes of bitters, and orange zest. Stir and strain into a rocks glass over ice. Garnish with orange peel.

One such bourbon brand beginning to take Hong Kong by storm is Wild Turkey, a Kentucky brand that only came to be in 1940 when Thomas McCarthy, an executive of wholesale grocers Austin Nichols, shared whiskey samples with friends during a hunting trip — no surprise, they loved it for its bold, spicy flavour and long aftertaste, made possible thanks to the higher rye content and the deepest No. 4 “alligator” char on American white oak barrels.

Eddie Russell, following in his father’s footsteps, is the current master distiller at Wild Turkey and a Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Famer. He recently stopped by Hong Kong for a series of exclusive masterclasses and special events, where we were able to chat with him about the changing game of bourbon today and the ways he’s brought the spirit to new, younger audiences — plus the best ways to drink it.

How did you get into the bourbon industry, and how has it changed during your 37 years with Wild Turkey?

I grew up thinking I would never work in this industry, but I did a summer job to try and get through my senior year of college and fell in love with it. My dad’s 83 and still coming to work. Once I came here, I knew I wanted to do it.

As for the industry, there’s always going to be ebbs and flows. When my dad started at Wild Turkey in 1954, there were 57 distilleries in Kentucky. When I started in 1981 there were eight. Everyone has to figure out what they are. Jim Beam wanted to be that huge seller so it was made a little cheaper and priced lower. Maker’s Mark was wheat-based so it was different. Wild Turkey wanted to be that premium whisky so my dad, Jimmy, stayed with that. For me, we’re still on that upward run right now, but there’s gotta be a levelling off point. The challenge is to not do anything to harm Wild Turkey 101 and Rare Breed, and yet to come out with more products that will appeal to more people.

 

Wild Turkey - Eddie Russell
Eddie Russell, master distiller, son of legendary master distiller Jimmy Russell. 
To you, what makes Wild Turkey unique from other bourbons?

Its uniqueness comes from it being bottled at a higher proof. Everybody is at 100 proof and Wild Turkey is at 101. We use a little less corn, but non-GMO corn, and it also has a higher rye content, so it’s spicier and bolder. It’s also aged longer. Ageing longer and the higher proof gives it a better taste, because we don’t cut it down so much with water. It’s very complex. A lot of bourbons you have today have a generic alcohol taste with not much flavour. Wild Turkey has a nice spicy character to it, and a very nice long finish. And that’s what the Austin Nichols company really liked about it.

Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon
Wild Turkey 101-proof bourbon
What’s your favourite part of the distillation process? And what frustrates you the most?

The best part of it for a distiller by far is tasting the whisky to pick out the barrels. Sometimes the frustrating part is having to age it so long, you lose so much whisky, and you pay so much taxes on it. But all in all it’s a wonderful process for us — we love what we do.

Wild Turkey - barrels
Wild Turkey bourbon is aged in charred white oak barrels. 

Sometimes it was frustrating for me, working with my dad, because he didn’t want to do anything different. Where I wanted to expand out and bring more people in, like cocktails — he didn’t believe in that. For me, that’s what’s really helped us grow. The rye whiskies that I’m making a lot more — he definitely didn’t want to do that. He’s a stickler for tradition, big time. I never really did convince him, but it’s just that I have the responsibility to make that decision on my own. I make sure that when he tastes it that he’s satisfied and that I’m putting the Wild Turkey name on it. I want to make sure that he’s not disappointed.

Despite these frustrations, you definitely look up to him: you honoured your father’s tenure in the distillery with the Diamond Anniversary in 2014 -- celebrating his 60th year in the business. Tell us about it.

It came out three years ago as a limited edition with 60,000-something bottles. It was a 16- and 13-year-old blend I put together to celebrate my dad’s 60th anniversary. The 16-year-old was for me perfect, but my dad doesn’t like it quite that old. So I added 13 to bring it back to what he liked. He loved it once I added the 13. It was a unique situation for me, because he had always been the guy who had done things like that, and then I got to do things like the Russell’s Reserve and the Diamond, so it was a unique situation for me to pay tribute to the man that taught me what I know, by picking out whiskies for him.

What was the biggest thing you learned about the business from your dad?

From my father, it was either do it right and believe in it, or don’t do it. As everybody was changing, he wouldn’t change because he didn’t believe in that. He thought he had a great product, and he was proud to make it. He knew that probably not everyone would like it, but he was proud of what he made. Apart from that it was his work ethic — coming to work 7 days a week and loving what you’re doing.

Wild Turkey, or perhaps it’s more right to say Jimmy Russell, is also known to be very persistent on ingredient sources: you have been using your own private strain of yeast for fermentation since 1950 and you insist on non-GMO corn. What else about the brand will never change?

I’ll never change 101 and the Rare Breed, because Jimmy built this business with those. I’ve never used a different recipe, never used a different yeast. My dad doesn’t want to do anything he thinks is artificial. Enzymes [used to prepare the mash for fermentation] are natural things, and they come in a barrel. But to my dad, that’s not natural. He wants his to come from malted barley. You have to have at least 10% malted barley, and we use 12% in our mash pits. That’s also why we don’t control the temperature of fermentation, which most anybody would. Does it make it taste different? You get a little more yield, you get a little more alcohol, but that’s never been what it was about. Most people think nothing about it, but for my dad, that’s just the way he is. In my 36 years, I’ve only heard that it tastes better — that’s what it’s about.

Wild Turkey is a straight bourbon whisky, aged in new charred barrels. One way you’re getting creative with it is by finishing it in specialty casks. Is that a growing trend in these next couple of years?

In the bourbon industry, no one’s really done any finishes or experimented too much. It’s starting to happen more now, because so many people are buying their whisky from the same distillery; they’re doing things to make it taste different. There’s one out now that’s doing really good called Angel’s Envy — finished in a Port cask. They don’t make their own whisky, so they had to do something to make it different. But people like that.

Wild Turkey
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep

My next Master’s Keep is going to be a sherry cask finish, which is not normal for a bourbon. It’s my straight bourbon whisky before it goes on finishing. I age it in my oak barrels, and then I finish it in a sherry cask. By definition of law it’s no longer a straight bourbon whisky. They call it a specialty whisky. I’ve tried rum casks, I’ve tried a few wine casks. I didn’t release any of those — my friends usually get to drink that stuff. But with sherry casks, I actually went to Spain to pick out a few 30-year-old sherry casks. [For the blend,] I’ve taken mainly 12-year-old, some 15-year-old, and it’s coming out this fall. There’ll be about 90 cases for Asia. That’s our industry now — everybody wants those limited editions: it’s like when you say you’re out of whisky, it works. A lot of people buy them and never drink them, or they resell them on the internet. But I make them to drink.

Japan is your other major Asian market, but bourbon is still relatively new in this part of the world. Do you notice that drinkers’ tastes are a lot different in Asia compared to the States?

It’s still relatively new in a lot of Asian countries. In Japan, scotch has been around for a very long time. They tend to like a more premium, older aged product, so we do that for them. I do two products there I don’t do anywhere else, an 8-year-old and a 13-year-old.

Australia became our biggest export market, even though we do a lower proof there. I take the 101 and reduce it to 86.8, because they pay such taxes. I pay US$13.50 tax per gallon of 50% alcohol, they pay AU$83.84 per litre of alcohol. So there, a lower proof is the only way they can really afford to drink it.

Here in Hong Kong, I think it’s going to come through the bartending community — they are who’s grown our business. It’s going to come through the guys making the Manhattans, the Old Fashioneds, the cocktails with bourbon. That’s what’s brought new people into the industry in the States. But in the old days, people drank it neat or on the rocks. It’s a learning experience for me as to what’s going to work best here. And what Hong Kong bartenders want most is knowledge. They want to hear what a bourbon is, the laws behind it, what makes us different. They’re your best ambassadors because if they like your product, they’re telling people why to choose Wild Turkey and not Michter’s, Jim Beam, or other bourbons. Trying to educate people about bourbon is what we’re happy to do.

What do you like to drink normally?

I’m not a beer person. I’ve never got the taste for scotch. It’s just not my taste profile because I grew up on bourbon. I don’t go buy a bottle of wine and sit and drink it all night. If I’m having a good meal I’ll like a good shiraz or a cab, something like that. Over the years, I liked tequila somewhat, but I can’t drink too much of it, it makes me forget what I’m doing sometimes! I’ve had great rums. I don’t drink vodka. There’s some good gins out there. But I’m drinking bourbon most of the time.

What’s your favourite way to drink bourbon?

Neat or with an ice cube. I’m a professional taster in spirits — I can taste four or five things, that’s it. And that’s what I love about Bourbon cocktails, there’s usually about only three or four ingredients. The Boulevardier would be the one I make at home:

Wild Turkey - boulevardier
Wild Turkey Boulevardier

Boulevardier
1 1/2 oz Wild Turkey bourbon
¾ oz Campari
¾ oz sweet vermouth

That’s sort of my profile. I like an orange peel, that citrus flavour, and I’ll add that too. I like the contrast of that Campari bitterness, but not too much bitterness, which is why I’ll go with three quarters of an ounce.

Which variety of Wild Turkey is best for cocktails? Would you get offended at people using the 101 or Rare Breed?

My dad would, but I would not. I had people come and make a drink with Rare Breed, and I had people say “that’s crazy, it’s too good!” but it’s about them taking our brains and making those good drinks, so it doesn’t insult me at all. A lot of people are using the 101, because it’s bigger and bolder, and stands up in a drink. My 81-proof standard, I initially brought it out for bartenders because it’s got a lower proof and older age which had more flavours. You can use any of them.

Wild Turkey 81
The Wild Turkey 81-proof was made to be a great mixing bourbon.
How is the bourbon industry changing as a whole today?

Until recently, our industry has been very male-dominated. This has changed a lot in America because there are as many great women bartenders as men now, there’s as many women drinking bourbon as men. Now there’s a lot of young women getting into our industry as far as making it, tasting it and doing things. When I went to Japan, there used to be a lot more older gentlemen bartenders, and in my last visit there were a lot more younger men and women bartenders. They have different thoughts, they want to make different cocktails, they don’t want to be as traditional. It’s good for all of us.

Wild Turkey Lawrenceburg
The new Visitor Center at Wild Turkey’s distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. 
Evelyn Lok
Managing Editor
When not trying out the latest beauty and wellness trends, Evelyn is likely enjoying a perfectly balanced negroni or exploring some of Hong Kong's best new places to eat and drink. At Lifestyle Asia she covers everything from the biggest events in town to interviews with Hong Kong specialists, with topics spanning art, food and drink, health, tech, and travel.