The Evolution of Wild Turkey

On his visit to Manila, master distiller Eddie Russell talks about the future of the classic bourbon

by Philbert Dy

 

Eddie Russell, master distiller at Wild Turkey, one of the most famous bourbon brands in the world, speaks with a heavy Kentucky drawl that’s perfect for telling long, folksy stories about the origins of the brand. And he delivers these stories, going into the legend of those hunting trips that would give the bourbon its name. And he speaks simply of some of the things that he and his father, the legendary distiller Jimmy Russell, disagree about.

 

But on this particular day, he is not some porch in Kentucky, entertaining some guests. He is at a superclub at one of the big casino hotels in Pasay. And while he talks tradition, he speaks even more plainly about the business, and the ways that Wild Turkey had has to evolve to meet the market.

 

 

“It used to be that our brand was about the older gentleman, the older style of drink,” he says. “What’s happened in the last eight to ten years is that young bartenders started making these classic cocktails with bourbon.”

 

“Now there’s a lot more young men and women who like to drink bourbon, and that’s great for us. Now, instead of waiting for people to turn fifty, we can get them when they’re younger to start drinking bourbon.”

 

 

The line of whiskeys introduced that day, which are now officially available in the Philippine market, reflect the changing times. The classic Wild Turkey 101 is there, of course, its classically sharp honey and vanilla edges always a welcome presence. But the lower-proof Wild Turkey 81 is right there with it, its more subdued tones making it a friendlier spirit overall. It doesn’t dominate cocktails, and it sips easier for the novice.

 

But it’s the other two expressions that really symbolize the different directions in which Wild Turkey is being pulled. The Wild Turkey Rye was specifically made to meet the demand for cocktails. Rye whiskeys are generally more suited for cocktails, their odd, spiky flavors not particularly suited for drinking neat. But they tend to add compelling nuance to any drink. And then there’s the Russell’s Reserve 10, a small batch bourbon that is lively and wonderful on the palate, all the interesting things about their flagship product turned up to 11. It’s a spirit that would be wasted in a mixed drink, its best qualities meant to be savored in small sips without dilution.

 

“Now, instead of waiting for people to turn fifty, we can get them when they’re younger to start drinking bourbon.”

 

Russell, on his part, seems to acknowledge that push and pull. But as much as tradition is clearly a part of his being, he’s being pragmatic about the needs of the business.

 

“That’s the difference between me and my father. I’ll never change Wild Turkey by any means. I’ve brought out different expressions, but I don’t ever want to lose those older gentlemen who like to drink it neat or on the rocks. But you have to expand into that market now.”

 

And so, in the Philippines, where bourbon still isn’t really all that well known, Wild Turkey seems to be taking a slow and steady approach in letting the market come to them, concentrating on getting bars to serve their products.

 

“We let people taste it. We let people know what makes it a little bit different. My focus here is going to be a lot more into cocktails, since it’s emerging right now. We’re visiting bars, talking to bartenders, and letting them make us drinks.”

 

“The bartenders are our first-line ambassadors.”

 

This is where Wild Turkey is now. The craft and tradition are still present, but they’re exploring new avenues, trying to attract a much younger crowd than they’ve been used to. They’re evolving, presenting a more open, welcoming façade, trusting that the product will shine through in the end.