Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell was honored tonight in a special, by-invitation-only Tales of the Cocktail event at the Jazz Parlor and Balcony of Maison Bourbon. Jimmy has worked for Wild Turkey for 60 years, and is the longest-tenured, active whiskey distiller in North America, possibly the world. (Try calling him "Mr. Russell," and he'll tell you to call him "Jimmy.") He grew up five miles away from Wild Turkey's original distillery and began working for them at the age of 19 before he could even drink legally. Ushering in a worldwide respect for bourbon was no easy task, and Jimmy is known in the industry as "the master distiller's master distiller" and "The Buddha of Bourbon." He humbly attributes his fame to when younger generations rebelled against the scotches favored by their elders and turned to bourbon. "You don't want to drink what your dad's drinking."
"60 Years Strong: The industry's toast to Jimmy Russell" was a tour de force of cocktails created by bartenders from around the country, inspired by each era of Jimmy's career, and, of course, all made with a bottle from Wild Turkey's lineup:
1950s - "Iron Ranger" with pineapple, lemon, falernum, and simple syrup.
1960s - "Cuban Missile Crisis," a play on a Manhattan with Coke-flavored vermouth.
1970s - "Jimmy Wallbanger," a play on a Harvey Wallbanger with the addition of maple syrup and absinthe.
1980s - "Midnight Stinger" with Fernet Branca, lemon, and simple syrup.
1990s - "Top of the Pops," with ginger beer and cinnamon.
'00s - "Old Fashioned" with cane sugar and bitters.
Noted bartender and emcee Erick Castro ushered in each decade with a brief update of what was going on in the world at the time as well as what was going on in Jimmy's life at the time. As each cocktail came out, the DJ altered his playlist to reflect each era as well.
Waitstaff dressed in costumes representing the decades (James Dean, disco, etc) served up both the drinks and local "snacks" like po-boys and crawfish pies.
Jimmy mingled with the crowd the whole time, determined to make sure everyone was having a good time. For the record, he takes his bourbon neat. "Sugar gives you hangovers. I've never had one." (I like this man more and more.)
Jimmy's son, Eddie Russell, closed the event with a heartfelt toast to his dad. Eddie is also a distiller and is the fourth generation of the Russell family to work for Wild Turkey.
Servers handed out Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary in glasses with measuring lines for One Finger, Two Fingers, and Jimmy Russell. In his toast, Eddie revealed how he decided the blend of Diamond. It would have been bourbon aged 16 years, but knowing his father's tastes, Eddie mixed it with a younger (13-year-old) whiskey.
"Even now, all the young, pretty ladies flock to my dad," he joked, gesturing at the female cloud surrounding Jimmy. "I'm his son!" he said to them with a smile.
"My father is the Michael Jordan of bourbon. There can't be more than one Michael Jordan. I'll never fill his shoes. I just try them on sometimes," Eddie continued, eliciting a response from both Jimmy and the crowd.
Indeed, the Diamond bottles are inscribed with Jimmy's signature and labeled to indicate they are a tribute to his legacy. Eddie explained that he found some exceptional bourbon years ago during the development of Wild Turkey Russell's Reserve, which was released to coincide with Jimmy's 50thanniversary. "They thought he was going to retire! I set aside the bottles once I picked myself up off the floor from laughing."