Meet Your Maker... hanging out with whisk(e)y's master distillers
Earlier on sfbg.com, Virginia Miller turned WhiskyFest into Whisky Week, meeting with seven different distillers who'd come to attend the Fest from such far-flung booze berths as Kentucky and Scotland. Here's part one of her scotch-heavy Whisky Week highlights. Read on for part two: conversations with bourbon and rye distillers.
10/8 COFFEE WITH JIMMY RUSSELL OF WILD TURKEY - The morning before WhiskyFest I learned about a company that's been a Kentucky mainstay since 1855, and met with its master-distiller since 1954. Jimmy Russell comes from a family of distillers: grandad, dad -- who worked for him at Wild Turkey in the early years -- and now Russell is distilling with his son, Eddie. Jimmy could not be more charming. An older Southern gentleman, he's soft-spoken, with an adorable sense of humor that I discovered as we chatted over coffee.
Russell makes Wild Turkey bourbons and ryes "the old-fashioned way" and says he doesn't even tell his son all of his distilling secrets. They use barrels charred four times and made of white oak mainly from Missouri, Kentucky and the Ozarks of Arkansas. Their basic bourbons are a blend of six, eight and ten year-aged, with a lower proof than some bourbons, generally 108-110 proof. He explains lower proof is actually more costly as there is more water added to dilute higher proof bourbons.
The distiller's yarns about his town of Lawrenceburg, KY are fascinating, particularly because it's in a mostly dry county where no drinks are allowed in restaurants and bars do not exist. "We're not dry, we're moist", he says, as there are a few limited options to purchase drink in the area. It was only a couple years ago they secured a souvenir liquor license, one of many complicated hoops to jump through to in order to allow tastings in their actual distillery. Russell says he adheres to the Southern Baptist tradition that one only drinks hard liquor for medicinal purposes. He qualifies in a gentle, Southern drawl, "I keep a cough pretty much most of the time".
10/7 SIPPIN' WHEATED BOURBON WITH PARKER BEAM – Amidst the annoying happy hour din at Bloodhound last Thursday night, distilling legend Parker Beam was hanging out with the Heaven Hill crew and a few of their whiskeys. They pulled out a bottle of brand new Parker's Heritage Wheated Bourbon, an earthy, wood-laced wheat beauty whose mix blends in corn and malted barley.
Parker raised a glass as we attempted to chat above the din. Hearing took some effort as the delightful Parker speaks in a slow, Southern drawl that lulls one into a real enjoyment of the moment. His passion for distilling shines in his calm demeanor. He's distilled for decades, both with father, Earl and son, Craig. And yes, he's related to "that" Beam. His grandfather and namesake, Park Beam's, brother was the storied Jim Beam (aka James Beauregard Beam). Parker is part of a royal distilling heritage. I asked if his son had any children who might next enter the fray. "My son has five daughters, so no," he surmised. "But who knows? Maybe we'll have the first female bourbon distiller someday." It wouldn't be the first noteworthy accomplishment in the Beam family's rich history.