Drinkhacker Asks: Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell

Like most discerning drinkers, we here at Drinkhacker have many questions we’d like to ask the people behind our favorite wine, beer, or spirit. Every now and then, we get the opportunity to actually do so. For the first in our series of short interviews, we talked to the “the Buddha of Bourbon” himself and the longest-tenured active Master Distiller in the spirits world, Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell.

We interviewed Jimmy at the Wild Turkey Visitor Center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky where you’ll often find him (when he’s not traveling the world) sitting on his stool, happy to talk to any of the thousands of visitors that come through Wild Turkey’s doors every year.

Drinkhacker: Thanks for taking the time, Jimmy. We know you’re a pretty busy man for 82 years young. Let’s get right to it. Any fun whiskeys you’ve been working on lately?

Jimmy Russell: In October, I went out to Virginia to help make a special rye whiskey for the 10th anniversary of the reconstruction of George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon. A whole bunch of us form Kentucky and other places got together on it.

I know you prefer bourbon over rye. How’s it taste?

JR: It was pretty good. It’s got a good amount of corn in it like our Russell’s Reserve Rye, so I like it.

So you were in Virginia not that long ago, and you leave for WhiskyFest in New York City tomorrow. You travel a lot. I hope you’re flying First Class or at least getting some Wild Turkey on the plane!

JR: You know the only airline that carries Wild Turkey is Southwest, and they don’t fly out of Lexington. I’m good friends with the founder, Herb Kelleher, and I keep trying to get him to come out here. He’s a great guy. You know, for Herb’s 65th birthday we printed his face on 65 bottles of Wild Turkey bourbon. He got a kick out of it.

If he’s a Wild Turkey fan, you must be a great friend to have. I’m surprised he didn’t build you a personal runway next to the Visitor’s Center! With all that travel, what’s the furthest you’ve flown for an event?

JR: We go all the way to Japan. The Japanese love bourbon. And their whiskey festivals last two days and start at 10 AM!

Sounds like we’re doing it all wrong in the states! You used to do a lot of festivals with Heaven Hill’s Master Distiller, Parker Beam, who passed away earlier this year. I know you two were very close. Any stories or memories you’d like to share about Parker?

JR: Yeah. Parker and I were close. You know he didn’t know he had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) until he was about 70. And even when he got diagnosed he didn’t want to slow down. He especially loved driving, and he’d get somebody to ride with him and shift gears for him when he couldn’t do it anymore!

Sounds like he was quite a character. And definitely a legend in the bourbon world.

JR: Yeah. It used to be me, and Parker, and Booker Noe, and Elmer T. Lee, and now I’m the only one left.

And it doesn’t look like you’re slowing down any time soon! But the business has really become a family affair for many distilleries. You’ve got your son Eddie sharing Master Distiller responsibilities with you. How about your grandchildren? Are they planning to get into the business?

JR: Oh yeah. My grandson has been getting experience with all the different parts of the distillery. He’ll be with me and Eddie at WhiskyFest in New York, and my granddaughter who works here in the Visitor’s Center will be with us, too.

Well, it sounds like the future of Wild Turkey is in good hands. Now we just need to get 101 on more airline drink menus!

JR: Ha. Yeah, that’d be nice.

wildturkeybourbon.com

Review: Ragtime Rye

We’ve previously encountered New York Distilling Company with its Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye product, and today we take a step back and look at the company’s straight rye, Ragtime. It’s unclear if Ragtime is used as a component in Mister Katz’s, but we do know it is distilled from New York rye grain and aged in full-sized barrels (not minis) for three years. That makes for a young whiskey, but one with a surprising degree of complexity.

This is a surprisingly fully-formed rye, with a very racy nose full of baking spices, brown sugar, and flecks of bitter roots giving it a curious and pungent aroma. The palate brings all of the above to a mostly cohesive whole, eventually. At first blush, some toasty grain notes and barrel char give it a too-youthful presentation, but with a little air things settle down and the whiskey reveals a strong line of butterscotch at the core, ample vanilla, and plenty of that cinnamon/nutmeg-driven baking spice. The finish sees a reprise of that lightly bitter edge, which gives it some unexpected character. The whiskey doesn’t come together 100% completely, as the balance richochets a bit between sweet and bitter without ever finding an equilibrium, but on the whole I find it quite engaging and definitely worth a look, particularly as a cocktail mixer.

90.4 proof.

B+ / $40 / nydistilling.com

Review: Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye

Ready for the absolutely craziest thing to come out of whiskeydom since Alberta Rye Dark Batch? Get ready for Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye!

The gist:

Like Basil Hayden’s flagship bourbon, Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye stands out from the crowd. Blending Kentucky straight rye whiskey and Canadian rye with a splash of California port, Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye is packed with harmoniously layered flavor, while maintaining the trademark spicy finish and smoothness of Basil Hayden’s Bourbon. At 80-proof, Dark Rye offers an unparalleled sipping experience and makes for the perfect base to any modern-day twist on a cocktail, including the Boulevardier.

This is a permanent addition to the Basil Hayden’s brand, not a one-off.

Well, let’s give this crazy concoction a try.

The nose is immediately exotic — if not bizarre. Distinctly like an Amontillado sherry, it has those old furniture polish, oxidized fruit, and candied walnut aromas that quickly come across as austere. An undercurrent of raisins and prunes adds more of a sweet note to the nose.

On the palate, the whiskey is downright kooky. Flavors of fresh figs, raisin, salted caramel, and cocoa nibs all mingle to create a syrupy concoction that winds its way toward notes of maple syrup (a dominating flavor), coffee, and more of that Amontillado character. The finish sees a bit of rye spice — mainly sweet and gingerbread-like — before fading into more of a simple brown sugar character.

All of those aromas and flavors sound may interesting on their own, but they don’t all go together cohesively, and what they are really lacking is much in the whiskey department. The classic notes of rye are largely lacking here, replaced by a surfeit of sugary sweetness and overblown fruit flavors. The maple note is particularly off-putting, and while I could see mixing a cocktail with this, on its own it’s a product that is simply too far gone into its own little world.

80 proof.

B- / $40 / basilhaydens.com

Review: Woodford Reserve Distillery Series – French Oak Cask Finished Rye

Woodford’s latest Distillery Series whiskey — the seventh in this burgeoning portfolio of experimental, one-off spirits — has arrived. French Oak Cask Finished Rye is an interesting one. Per Woodford:

The French Oak Cask Finished Rye completes a trilogy of rye offerings released this summer including Blended Rye and Toasted Oak Rye. Developed by Master Distiller Chris Morris, French Oak Cask Finished Rye is a unique batching of the rye mash distillate used in the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Aged Cask Rye [released in 2011] that matured in French Oak barrels for three years. The French Oak barrels originally held Pinot Noir before they were seasoned with Woodford Reserve Bourbon. This combination produced a soft, fruit-forward rye with hints of baking spices.

As with the Toasted Oak Rye, this is a worthy experiment that works well — in fact, it’s probably the best of this trilogy.

On the nose, tons of rye-heavy spice, a hint of brandied cherries, a modest wood profile, and a gingerbread finish all come together to offer a cohesive, almost brazen aromatic profile. The body is a bit more savory than the nose would indicate, offering a burly amaro character up front that blends with cinnamon sticks, licorice root, and cloves. It’s almost overpowering at first, but a gentle sweetness forms on the palate as the finish comes along, a bit of brown sugar, more of those brandied cherries, and a hint of gingerbread cake. It’s a bit brooding, but surprisingly compelling — and perfect for the cooler months ahead.

Fun, unusual, and fantastic stuff. Pick up a bottle if you happen across one.

86.4 proof.

A / $46 (375ml) / woodfordreserve.com

Review: High West A Midwinter Nights Dram 5.4

A Midwinter Nights Dram is High West’s excellent Rendezvous Rye, finished in French oak and ex-Port barrels, bottled non-chill filtered. We first reviewed this unique whiskey in 2014 and gave it high marks (review can be read here). We briefly reviewed last year’s release and gave it an A (review can be read here), but I think this year’s bottling might be even better.

In the glass, this whiskey is a bright copper color. The nose offers rich red cherry and strong spearmint notes. The palate presents lots of brandied cherry, coupled with cinnamon and candied ginger. The finish is quite long with its robust rye character fading to a final note of dark chocolate. This is a full bodied dram with lots going on, and the flavors blend beautifully.

98.6 proof.

A / $90 / highwest.com

A Visit to Copper Fox Distillery

While only an hour and a half outside of Washington, D.C., Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia seems worlds away from any city. Many new distilleries today are taking up shop in suburban business parks or urban warehouse spaces, which makes this location, in an old 1930s apple warehouse and cider mill at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, all the more unique. Rick Wasmund, the founder of Copper Fox, likes to point out that his distillery is still in the apple juice business, using applewood (along with cherrywood and, more recently, peachwood) to smoke the malted barley that goes into their whisky.

You’ll notice that’s whisky with a “y” only. Virginia is most definitely not in Scotland, but Rick learned the art of whisky-making on Islay studying under the legendary Jim McEwan at Bowmore Distillery. Copper Fox was also the first distillery in North America to install a malt floor and kiln since Prohibition, so if any American distiller has earned the right to drop the “e,” it’s probably Rick. It was his desire to understand the potential for fruitwood-smoked malt (vs. more traditional peat) that took Rick to Scotland. After returning stateside in 2000, Rick searched for the perfect location, recruited investors, and opened Copper Fox in 2005 (with only his mother and another partner) and set to work perfecting the malting process that has made him famous in the craft distilling and brewing community.

Our tour began in the malt house, where Copper Fox uses traditional floor maltings to germinate their grain, all of which is sourced from farms across Virginia. Next was a peak inside the malt kiln, an unassuming space behind a large chalkboard door that bears a list of nearly three dozen breweries from around the country brewing with Copper Fox malt. Inside, an old pot-bellied stove and Weber charcoal grill are used to dry and flavor batches of malted barley resting on the perforated floor above. Copper Fox uses a unique system of pot stills: one large pot still, a secondhand Vendome, feeds a smaller custom-designed all copper pot still with a curiously wide and squat reflux chamber. The tour ends with a look inside the barrelhouse, where all of Copper Fox’s whisky is aged in used cooperage, typically for under two years, with toasted fruitwood added — although how much and how often remain trade secrets. In keeping with the refreshingly quirky aesthetic of the distillery, a large painting of two cherubs hangs high on a wall in the barrelhouse, a nod to the angel’s share of spirit lost to evaporation.

After my informative and entertaining tour, I had my pick of drinking options and settings. In addition to their traditional tasting bar, Copper Fox just recently opened an on-site cocktail bar that has a riverside patio with great mountain views. While many distilleries have started offering cocktails, Copper Fox is raising the bar with homemade shrubs and even a line of custom bitters that will soon be for sale.

I saddled up to the tasting bar and sampled Copper Fox’s core range, as well as a couple of limited edition offerings only available at the distillery gift shop. Thoughts follow.

Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky – The flagship 100% malt product. This single malt really showcases the applewood and cherrywood smoke. It’s cereal-forward and earthy, typical of a younger single malt, but plentiful fruit notes round the edges nicely and give it a surprising balance. 96 proof.

Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky (“Green Top”) – This is a distillery exclusive release of the standard single malt extra aged in an apple brandy barrel. The brandy really compliments the applewood smoke in the malt and sweetens the overall experience with spearmint and honey notes. 96 proof.

Copper Fox Rye Whisky – While the mashbill is a robust two-thirds rye, the one-third malted barley still contributes a lot to the flavor. There are great pepper and cinnamon notes on the palate, but the lingering fruit quality and subtle smokiness make this a truly unique rye. 90 proof.

Copper Fox Port Finished Rye Whisky (“Blue Top”) – Another bottling only available at the distillery, “Blue Top” takes the standard Copper Fox Rye and ages it in used port style wine casks from a local Virginia winery. The wine-finish amplifies the fruit component in the rye, ripening the cherry notes and producing a wonderfully syrupy mouthfeel. 90 proof.

Vir Gin – The only product in the current line-up that is not a whisky, this is nevertheless a single malt gin made from 100% malted barley with a special emphasis on anise hyssop. Other botanicals used in production include Mediterranean juniper and citrus, as well as seasonal offerings from the distillery’s garden, making each batch unique. My sample was full of licorice on the nose and palate with a rich, malty body and peppery finish. 90 proof.

copperfox.biz

How to Make the Perfect Sazerac Cocktail

So you’ve mastered mixing the manhattan, the old fashioned is old news, and you can recite the difference between a gin martini and a vodka martini in your sleep. And yet, that classic cocktail itch is still there. Well read on, because today we’re going to explore another simple, early cocktail, one that isn’t as well-known as the others. If you want to impress your whiskey cocktail-loving friends, try to mix up a Sazerac and see what they think.

The story of the Sazerac goes back to New Orleans in the 1830s, where apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychuad began providing Cognac toddies using a bitters of his own design. The toddies became such a local sensation that a bar called the Sazerac Coffee House began buying his bitters to use in their own cocktail, mixing Cognac with absinthe, bitters, and sugar to make the Sazerac, which is claimed to be the first-ever ‘branded’ cocktail (the old fashioned was around at the time, but was generally just referred to as a ‘cocktail’). Eventually, the Sazerac Coffee House simply bought the rights to Peychaud’s bitters entirely, and when an insect epidemic destroyed French vineyards used to make cognac, the heart of the drink was switched to rye whiskey. In a big blow for Sazerac lovers, absinthe was banned in the US in 1912, and for the next hundred years Sazeracs generally used an anise-flavored liquor called Herbsaint in its place, though in these enlightened days absinthe is freely available again. Now that you know the history, let’s gather our materials and see what we can do with NOLA’s historic (and official) drink.

The ingredients for a Sazerac might sound familiar if you make a lot of classic cocktails: a sugar cube or sugar syrup, 1.5 ounces of rye whiskey (bourbon if you’re a modernist; Cognac if you’re feeling really old school), a quarter ounce of Herbsaint or absinthe, three dashes of Peychaud’s bitters, and a lemon peel for garish. The Sazerac company, no longer a meager bar but now an enormous multinational corporation most well-known for owning Buffalo Trace, of course recommends its own Sazerac brand rye for the job, which is a solid, spicy, and fairly inexpensive choice. We here at Drinkhacker are always fans of Utah-based rye wizards High West, or for a rounder drink you can try Old Grand-Dad’s rye-heavy bourbon. For bitters, there’s only one choice: the Sazerac was built around Peychaud’s bitters, and without it, it’s hardly a Sazerac at all. Peychaud’s is lighter and more floral than the more commonly-used Angostura bitters, and will highlight different aspects of the rye in the glass. The choice of absinthe isn’t quite as vital as the choice of rye, since as you’ll see you really use a very small amount of it, but Lucid is a perennial favorite in our Sazeracs. Just like with an old fashioned, sugar syrup works just as well as a sugar cube and requires much less work, but if you’re serving for guests and want to go through the whole ritual, muddling a sugar cube will add to the mystique.

Now that you have your materials, let’s start making the drink! First, pack an old fashioned glass with ice, and in a second glass mix the sugar with the bitters. If you’re using a sugar cube, pour the bitters on top of it before muddling; if you’re using syrup, just make sure it’s well-mixed with the bitters. Add the 1.5 ounces of whiskey to the glass with the sugar and bitters and stir well — don’t shake. Now that your first glass is sufficiently chilled, dump the ice and add the absinthe. You’re really just using the absinthe to coat the glass, swirl it around good and get it on as much of the inside surface as you can, and then discard the remainder. Finally, add the contents of the second glass to the old fashioned glass with the absinthe rinse. Garnish with a thin slice of lemon peel, and enjoy!

The Sazerac might sound a lot like an old fashioned, but the change in bitters and the addition of the absinthe both show that little things can have a big impact on our cocktails, in this case giving the drink a more complex, herbal character. It’s a unique treat for fans of classic cocktails, and is sure to impress at your next gathering. Try it out and let us know what you think in the comments, and as always, if there are things you’ve always wondered about in the world of alcohol but have been afraid to ask, send us an e-mail to [email protected]

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