“The bartending community changed everything for us”

By Deb Jackson, Editor National Liquor News

Eddie Russell the Master Distiller for Wild Turkey has noticed a change in the demographic of people drinking whiskey, and he thanks the bartending community for this shift.

Russell has been at Wild Turkey for 36 years and for the first 20 years he says his consumer was a 50-and-older male, whether that be in the US, Australia or Japan.

“I’ve noticed a shift big time, it’s changed dramatically for the whole Bourbon industry, not just Wild Turkey. And that’s not something we did,” he said.

“Believe me, I grew up with Freddy Noe from Jim Beam and we were all best friends in Kentucky, so we grew up together and would talk about how we could get younger people into the industry, and we would do lower proofs and all kinds of things, but really it didn’t work, it was the bartending community that really changed things.

“So while it used to be 95 per cent of people who used to drink my Bourbon would be a 50 and older male, I think about 48 per cent now are 21 to 41 males and females that are drinking our Bourbon and they’re starting in a bar, because this bartending community, they’re knowledgeable.

“When I was younger and would ask for whiskey on the rocks, people would look at me like I was rough and going to start something. Now my son walks into a bar and orders a neat Rye or a Bourbon and people look at him like he knows what he’s doing, so that bartending industry changed everything for us.”

Eddie tells the story of how his dad Jimmy Russell and fellow distiller Booker Noe (from Jim Beam) began to premiumise their brands back in the 1980s and 90s, before the word ‘premiumisation’ was a part of anybody’s vocabulary.

“In our industry there’s always going to be bumps and waves and when vodkas came out our wave was completely killed.

“When my dad started, there were 57 distilleries in Kentucky in 1954. When I started in 1981 there was eight. So vodka really killed a lot of distilleries and a lot of brands. And that’s why I can never forget about the older gentlemen because they kept us alive,” said Russell.

“Talk about premiumisation now, my dad and Booker Noe started saving us back in the 80s or 90s. Nobody knew who they were but then marketing decided to put them out on the road and first question they got was ‘how do you like your whiskey’ – well it’s best right out of the barrel. So my dad released single barrels, which nobody had ever done. Then Booker and my dad released barrel proofs, so they started making things more premium back at that time.”

So what’s next for Wild Turkey? Currently Russell is working with Matthew McConaughey, the company’s Creative Director on a new whiskey due out early next year. It will most likely become a permanent extension to the Wild Turkey range.

“It’s just like in his commercials him being the Creative Director, he wanted control of all of that. So I said he can have control of everything but the liquid, because he’s not there making it, I am.

“I’m looking at things to try and tie Kentucky and Texas together along with Matthew and me together, so I’m not looking for your general Wild Turkey taste.

“I think it’s going to be really great for Australia because he likes a little over proof so it’s probably going to be over 80 proof.”

Other than that, business is good for Wild Turkey and the Russell’s. “I get the question all the time, ‘how is your business doing?’ and I always answer, ‘if it got any better I don’t know if I could keep up’.”

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