A chat with the master: Eddie Russell

31 August, 2018 by tallenby

Wild Turkey master distiller Eddie Russell was recently in Australia to promote his new whiskey Longbranch, a collaboration with Hollywood star Matthew McConaughey.

National Liquor News’ Deb Jackson sat down with the legend of bourbon to chat about McConaughey, Longbranch and the American whiskey market more widely.

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HOW WOULD YOU PREFER DRINKERS ENJOY (AND BARTENDERS SERVE) LONGBRANCH AND OTHER WILD TURKEY WHISKEYS?

When I was growing up, it was neat or with an ice cube – some gentlemen might put water in it. That’s how I drink it, but what’s grown our industry is that 21-40 year-old males and females, they’re starting out in that social setting in a bar, where bartenders are serving them a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned, and there’s some great drinks being made.

So sometimes it’s easier to start that way, but things like Longbranch – if you want to drink bourbon straight, 101 and Rare Breed might be a little bit too big for them. This is a little bit of a lighter taste, a little more citrus, a little fruitier, so it’s an easier step into the category. So for me, what Booker Noe and my dad and all those masters taught me, you drink it neat or on ice and that’s it. My dad thinks a mixed drink is an ice cube!

But I think it’s much easier to convert people in a bar. If someone goes in and they like the taste of that mixed drink and they want to try bourbons, you don’t have to go buy a whole bottle, you can try a few in the bar, next time try a few different ones, and figure out the one you like.

IF YOU’RE DRINKING A WHISKEY COCKTAIL, WHAT DO YOU ORDER?

What got it all started was the Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, but my favourite is a Boulevardier. That’s what I like: Wild Turkey, Campari and a vermouth. It’s a Negroni but instead of the gin you’re using bourbon.

WHAT DID YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT WORKING WITH MATTHEW?

Not too many celebrities get that involved – they’re ready to take the money and get out there and talk about it, but he wanted to be in from day one, and involved in everything about it, so that was really cool for me.

Just getting to know him too, he’s really hilarious. Figuring out what he was actually talking about in emails… he’s a big family man too which is very important to us, because our industry and especially Wild Turkey is about that generation after generation. But just figuring out his quirks, meeting his family… we’ve become very comfortable around each other and that’s really neat.

ARE THERE PLANS TO WORK TOGETHER AGAIN?

That depends – I’m there for life and he’s contracted every three years, and right now he’s so excited about Longbranch that I think he’ll do another three year contract. Right now I’m not thinking that way, because we’ve got something that he loves, and my dad might get rid of me if I put too many out there with Matthew’s name on it!

HOW DO YOU ACCOUNT FOR THE POPULARITY OF AMERICAN WHISKEY AMONG BARTENDERS AT THE MOMENT?

Well it wasn’t us. In American whiskeys, vodka came out in the early ‘70s and it hurt the brown spirits industry. And my father and some of the other master distillers started helping a little bit by doing premium, very small-batch, barrel proof whiskey – something that was their best whiskey rather than a bigger blend.

We used to think that the only people we were selling to were 50 and older males, we weren’t getting any young people. So doing some lower proofs in America brought some of the young people in. But the bartenders did it on their own – there was 4 or 5 influential bartenders in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and the bigger cities that wanted to go back to what was going on in the past. These guys went from making 14 ingredient vodka cocktails to perfecting the classic cocktails, like Manhattans, so they did it on their own.

Then it was us realizing what they were doing for our industry – lets be more open to them. So my generation is actually working with them, whereas 95% of what my dad sold was in a retail store. Bartenders really brought the younger consumer into the market with mixed drinks.

HAVE YOU BEEN NOTICING ANY TRENDS IN THE LAST FEW YEARS?

Well it’s definitely been going toward the more premium end, which is good for all of us. My son works for us now – he’s 29 – and they’re looking for a better bottle of bourbon now. They’re probably drinking a little less but they’re looking for more quality, whereas when I was growing up you bought the cheap stuff. In America, it’s harder to keep the 40 or 50 dollar bottle of whiskey on the shelf than the 20 dollar bottle, because they’re looking for quality.

That’s why I do things like 1894, Longbranch, the Rare Breeds – you’re picking out a smaller amount of barrels, your best barrels. Single barrels went crazy in America, because people realised if you’re picking out your very best 500 barrels out of a million, they want those. Whereas in the old days we just wanted to drink them ourselves!