“Always drink the good stuff.”
Those are the words that Eddie Russell, Wild Turkey Master Distiller, told me one evening back in 2018. Because life is too short to drink bad whiskey, right?
Ensuring that Wild Turkey continues its tradition – and reputation – as leaders in the distillation of bourbon whiskey that is both revered and coveted, Russell has been hard at work to produce a new drop that is one of his finest to date: Master’s Keep Cornerstone Rye.
Not only is Cornerstone Rye an amalgamation of quality and craftsmanship, but it is the oldest rye that Wild Turkey has produced to date, and now presents a one-of-a-kind, limited edition experience for any whiskey aficionado.
The story goes that Russell hand-picked and set aside a secret lot of his oldest and boldest rye whiskey barrels, all aged from 9 to 11 years, then used his experience to create a spirit that is bold and perfectly balanced.
If there is one thing that stands out with Cornerstone Rye, it’s that this is unmistakably iconic of Wild Turkey’s flavour profile. It delivers notes of warm vanilla, black pepper and toasted rye, with hints of honey and baked apple. The finish is bold, crisp and clean, with notes of sweet spice and oak.
But we’ll let Eddie Russell explain Cornerstone in greater detail. Because, we were fortunate enough to speak with the Master Distiller on all things Wild Turkey, business during COVID-19 and why Wild Turkey has become such an important label in the spirits industry today.
Man of Style: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Eddie – it’s nice to speak again. So, how did Cornerstone Rye come to fruition? Is this a rye whiskey that you’ve wanted to create for a while?
Eddie Russell: Thanks, guys. Well, Wild Turkey has been dedicated to rye whiskies for decades – basically for as long as my father Jimmy Russell has been around. In fact, rye is the original American spirit, but Prohibition caused rye to fall from favour for decades. Like bourbon, rye has been championed by the U.S. bartending community for the past several years and we’re really seeing a tremendous uptick in interest for both cocktail-forward ryes like our 101, and collectible ryes like our new Master’s Keep Cornerstone Rye.
For the past three decades at Wild Turkey, I personally have distilled and enjoyed rye whiskey, but at the end of the day, my heart is always with bourbon. Although, my son Bruce was the one who made me realise that there is this incredible opportunity to experiment with higher aged ryes. Bruce’s appreciation for the spirit pushed me to revisit the distillery’s legacy of producing ryes – so I would say this one has Bruce’s stamp of approval. And, it’s got me excited to release our oldest rye in the history of the distillery.
MoS: Great little anecdote there, Eddie. How would you describe Cornerstone? What are some of its best drinking features?
ER: I would describe Cornerstone Rye as an unmistakable nod to the iconic Wild Turkey flavour profile with its enticing, bold and spirited aroma. Some of the best drinking features are how it tastes on the palate; it delivers notes of warm vanilla, black pepper and toasted Rye, followed by a cascade of honey and baked apple. At 109 proof (54.5 alc. by volume), the finish is bold, crisp and clean, with lingering notes of sweet spice and oak.
MoS: And how would you best enjoy a glass of Cornerstone?
ER: Neat.. absolutely neat!
MoS: 2020: it’s been an interesting time for the world to say the least. With stay-at-home orders put in place globally, if you could only take one bottle of Wild Turkey into lockdown with you, which would it be?
ER: Masters Keep Decades. This bourbon is the total package for me. When I started tasting barrels for this, I wanted to sell them as single barrels because they were so good. I always loved bourbon that hits all the marks: nose, taste and finish. The nose has a rich toffee and orange peel then it goes from sweetness to bold baking spices. The finish is big and bold oak and spice with a very clean ending.
MoS: Has the business been affected at all during this unprecedented time?
ER: The COVID crisis has affected everyone. We are feeling it and living it, personally and professionally, every day. We are focusing on relief efforts across markets on how we can support the industry as a whole. In Australia, Wild Turkey is part of a COVID-19 response initiative ‘Shaken Not Broken,’ providing cocktail kits and access to an online ordering platform so venues can bottle cocktails and make them available for pick-up or delivery. Over 200 bars are participating and you can find them all on ’Shaken Not Broken’ site if Aussies would like to support their local.
Back here at home in America, we supported COVID-19 first responders, with the Wild Turkey team in Kentucky working with local government officials to donate 25,000 litres of neutral-grain spirit that was transferred to a certified processor to produce and bottle hand sanitiser distributed to essential workers. Campari America also donated $1 Million to ’Another Round, Another Rally,’ and started a social movement #AnotherRoundChallenge to encourage consumers to tip their servers.
“If you are going to do something, do it right or don’t do it at all.”
MoS: That’s a fantastic effort all around. So, for those that might not know, what does a day in the life of a Master Distiller look like?
ER: On a typical day, I’ll be checking fermentation, tasting batches or barrels that are aging. Meeting with my team on new products or just brainstorming for products in the future. I am probably different than most because I do our private barrel picks at the Wild Turkey Distillery in Kentucky. I will do a couple of these almost every day with different groups. It has changed in the last 10 years to more travel and education. It involves not only talking about our products but telling the story of our past.
MoS: I feel that Wild Turkey has made quite the resurgence over the last 5-years, working with the likes of Matthew McConaughey and distilling some fantastic bourbon. Can you talk to me about this?
ER: Bartenders changed the game for bourbon. As I was beginning my journey in this business, it was a product more enjoyed by older men usually with friends. They drink it neat or on the rocks. They brought bourbon to a younger generation in a social setting. They made classic cocktails with bourbon. The bartending community started looking closely at the bourbons they were using. They wanted products that are genuine and authentic. They also wanted bourbons made the right way. They needed the bourbon to be flavourful but also they needed it to stand up to the mixers. That’s where Wild Turkey stepped in – we hit all the marks.
MoS: Your father is a world-class distiller, and a big part of the Wild Turkey DNA – as are you. What are some of the most important lessons you learnt from Jimmy when it comes to distilling and carrying on the Wild Turkey name?
ER: I always go by his saying; ‘if you are going to do something, do it right or don’t do it at all.’ He would always tell me if something is not broken, don’t try to fix it. This is the most important to me. Everyone thinks they can just change things and it will not matter. He would say it doesn’t matter now but I don’t sell it for 7 to 12 years. What if it does change it, you can’t go back because in another 7 to 12 years you may have lost your business.
MoS: What’s next for Wild Turkey, Eddie?
ER: We’ll be releasing another bottle in the Master’s Keep series; a 17 year old aged the second certified Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey to ever be released by Wild Turkey Distilling Co. Stay tuned for more information and when it will hit Australian shores.
For more information on Wild Turkey and the Master’s Keep Cornerstone Rye collection, visit the website here