Glen Grant distillery hosts meeting of two master distillers as Wild Turkey's Eddie Russell flies in

Sean Murphy heads north to Speyside to witness the meeting of two master distillers as Glen Grant's Dennis Malcolm welcomes Wild Turkey's Eddie Russell as he enjoys his first trip to a Scottish distillery.

Published 20th Sep 2016
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

On first impressions, and much like their two distilleries, the two men couldn't be any more different.

Yet the more time you spend in their company you begin to realise that, like the whiskies they both passionately produce, there are striking similarities.

Eddie Russell is a reserved American, careful with his words, polite and considerate. He is as far from the commonly proliferated stereotypes of American tourists as can be; he listens carefully, soaking in the atmosphere, as his host, Glen Grant's master distiller Dennis Malcolm, talks about his distillery, interjecting only to offer insightful statements of his own in his slow southern drawl.

This is the Wild Turkey Master Distiller's first trip to Scotland, the visit coinciding with the launch of the brand's new packaging in the UK, and a chance for him to meet up again with Dennis, who is an old family friend.

It's also a chance for the Bourbon distiller to discover how the techniques used in a Scottish distillery differ from those used in Kentucky.

Eddie is part of a Bourbon distilling dynasty, his father Jimmy has been producing Wild Turkey since 1954 - he is now considered to be the longest-tenured, active spirits Master Distiller in the world - and Eddie's own son now works for the distillery promoting the brand.

So what, in his opinion, makes Wild Turkey so special?

"For me, which is mostly different from nearly all bourbon distilleries, it's that we only have one recipe. Some bourbon distilleries have up to ten different recipe combinations, so they make different flavours using those different recipes and different yeasts. We just have one, so our ageing process is very important to us. It's what makes Wild Turkey unique."

Despite playing a massive part in building the brand, Eddie is hugely modest and attributes most of the success to his father.

"We are the only distillery that never used GMO crops, and we never changed the recipe. We never cut corners, we never followed the fads, and that's what Jimmy built Wild Turkey to be.

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"That's what's helped us and now the Bourbon industry is the best its ever been in the 35 years I've been there."

The Visitor Centre

Where Eddie is reserved, Dennis is every bit the show man, holding court with all the skill and dedication he shows in his whisky production, skill that has been perfected over 50 years in the business, and it's easy to see why he was recently awarded his OBE for services to the industry.

He begins with a tour of the new visitor centre - which, like Wild Turkey, has received much needed investment from Campari - and an anecdote about flood defences, cracking jokes and keeping the group entertained.

Dennis pushed for the site's former Coach House to be transformed into the Visitor Centre in 2008, as he quite rightly wanted to show his distillery off.

It seems his hard work has paid dividends as he explains that the visitor numbers have risen from 13,000 in 2014 to over 17,300 in 2015.

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It's easy to see why; the staff are courteous and bright, the building is clean and well presented, the tour itself is cheaper than alot of the bigger distilleries nearby (£5 per person) and there are bottles of the Major's Reserve at a long table that are self serve, meaning guests get to taste the distillery's produce before they even begin the walk round.

And Dennis himself must be a big draw, happy to be at the centre of attention he soon has everyone laughing again as he points to a quote from legendary whisky writer Michael Jackson, "For years my most memorable dram was my first a flowery, sweet Glen Grant..." which adorns the visitor centre wall.

"He told us he had it when he was 19, I dunno what took him so bloody long though, I'll tell you I certainly was a lot younger when I had my first malt."

The Tour

The distillery itself is beautiful, grey stone buildings dominate the courtyard, and Dennis is clearly enjoying showing off his distillery, discussing the rebirth of a single malt that is quite rightly getting a share of the spotlight that its larger Speyside neighbours quite clearly take for granted.

Much like Glen Grant (which was purchased in 2004), Wild Turkey was purchased by Campari in 2009 - one of the drinks giant's largest acquisitions - and it seems both have flourished under its ownership, and it's obvious Eddie is clearly enjoying what is his first visit to a Scottish distillery, pointing out the similarities and reinforcing Dennis' points with comparisons of his own.

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"Though there are differences in the grains we use and the way we distill, and things like that, I think there are zero differences in what Dennis stands for and what we stand for and that is making the best quality product we can make and being consistent making it year after year," he explains as he and Dennis chat next to Glen Grant's impressive copper stills.

It's the differences that intrigue him though, both the major ones - such as their differing stills and distillation methods - and the smaller ones, a perfect example of which comes when he explains his surprise that Dennis isn't swamped by the visitors in the centre like he and his father Jimmy would be at Wild Turkey.

"We just wouldn't be able to get out, without having to sign hundreds of bottles."

Wild Turkey's preference for using stainless wash backs as opposed to wooden ones, is another bone of contention, whereas Dennis is content to accept the risk of certain types of bacteria growing in the wood, bacteria that he believes may add to the profile of whisky, Eddie sees it as as something he wishes to do without.

"There are differences, there's some things that Dennis thinks about, like the wooden fermenters and those hidden bacterias, I think the stainless steel is better for me, because I don't want those, the taste they give mine are not so good."

Perhaps the biggest contrast Eddie explains, is the sheer amount of neighbours the Speyside distillery has.

"The surprising part was just how many distilleries there are here, there was basically eight in Kentucky and you come here and there's just so many."

Eddie and Dennis pose with an ex Wild Turky cask. Picture: Alex Mitchell
Eddie and Dennis pose with an ex Wild Turky cask. Picture: Alex Mitchell

But it's the similarities between Dennis and his father Jimmy, that seem to strike Eddie the most.

"He sounds just like Jimmy," he exclaims smiling, "My dad's accent is a little bit different but a lot of what Dennis says is the same as what my dad has been saying for the last 35 years 'We are making it this way because it's been made that way since the beginning and it's always been a good product'. It's all about the quality, it's about doing it the right way."

Eddie echoes Dennis' about the digitisation of production and the move away from manual control  with both agreeing that though it might not have made the liquid better - Eddie points out that Jimmy would definitely agree that he made better whisky before digitisation - the modernisation of the process definitely helps keep the product consistent. Something both believe is absolutely paramount to making a great whisky.

"What we are here for is consistent quality, this is what the guys who came before us did and we want to be offering that same quality now and 20, 30 or 40 years in the future."

Eddie nods in agreement.

One of the strangest contrasts between operations at the two distilleries comes when we reach the Glen Grant warehouse and  the conversation turns to insurance costs and threats to the stock kept there.

Fire seems to be the biggest concern (indeed Wild Turkey suffered badly from a blaze that broke out in 2000) or flooding, but it seems Eddie and has team have something bigger to fret about. "Tornadoes are a big worry for us."

To which Dennis hits out with one of his trademark replies: "Our weather is bad but it's not that bad."

The tour then extends out from the distillery passed the bottling plants and disused casks, into the beautiful gardens surrounding it.

Eddie takes in the scenery as Dennis explains how it came to be rebuilt and returned to its original state, before treating the group to a dram from a safe in the whisky cave, complete with water drawn from the burn using a copper dog. It's a great moment and as the two share a quiet joke and a sip of a dram it's a fitting end to the tour.

Eddie and Dennis share a dram. Picture: Alex Mitchell

The Tasting

Glen Grant

It's clear that both Eddie and Dennis get along very well and when it comes to arriving at the tasting room - via the archive and yet more hilarious stories from Dennis about the distillery's past and its ghost (disembodied feet apparently) - both distillers are feeding off each other and bouncing quips back and forth like an old double act.

Eddie listens in as Dennis talks about his whisky. Picture: Alex Mitchell
Eddie listens in as Dennis talks about his whisky. Picture: Alex Mitchell

When it comes to the tasting though the two offer their own contrasting styles; the Scotsman is more polished, offering flavour notes and discussions about the production, and in some cases the re-introduction of certain ages.

"I'm extremely proud of this one," says a smiling Dennis, as he picks up the first of our offerings - the Glen Grant 10 year old.

And judging by the plaudits heaped upon it recently it seems he has a right to be pleased, the Glen Grant 10 year old is one of the major reasons the distillery's revival is gathering pace.

It is a genuinely good - and, up until recently, unheralded - single malt, and with its notes of citrus fruit and its light feel on the mouth, it's a shining example of that traditional Speyside style (one that's become a bit lost with the recent fad for peat and sherry casks in the region) that Michael Jackson was a huge fan of all those years ago.

The recently released 12 year old soon follows. Dennis describes it as having more of that fruity DNA due to the use of additional sherry casks and having nuttier notes than the ten. It has a fuller character than the 10 but still carries that delightfully refreshing fruitiness.

When the 18 year old is brought out, Eddie declares it to be his favourite, and it's not hard to guess why.

The whisky, Dennis explains, is all bourbon casks and it carries that creamy vanilla flavour and thickness that the American distiller is more accustomed to.

"In Bourbon years that's about a seven or eight year old for me, I just love that mouth feel," Eddie says, before going back to take another sip.

Wild Turkey

When Eddie begins his own tasting, his style is more relaxed and emotive, beginning with him telling stories of growing up in Bourbon country and what it was like to be part of whiskey royalty in America.

Eddie gives his own tasting notes. Picture: Alex Mitchell
Eddie gives his own tasting notes. Picture: Alex Mitchell

He laughs as he recalls debating with his father over the 101 and the newer 81 - or simply bourbon, as it is now called - and the success of their Rye expression, particularly with younger people and the on trade, and the arguments between his father Jimmy and his son over the validity of Rye.

"Every generation is going to have different things they like, my generation is more sweetness, while my son's generation they grew up eating spicy foods, Mexican, Indian, so they like Ryes.

"I think it's so neat, I love that my dad was the guy that stood up and said I'm not changing I make a good product and eventually people that like good whisky are going to figure that, but then I'm in the middle going 'I agree one hundred per cent but we've got to do some things to get more people', then you've got my son holding the Rye saying, 'This is what we want, you've got to make more of it!' So you've got this great mixture of three different generations."

All of which helps Eddie he explains, as he gets to see both angles, from the older and more established - in this case his father - to the younger and more modern - his son.

For the whiskey, the first for the group to try is the Wild Turkey Bourbon, (the 81) which is all Eddie's work and reflects the quiet confidence the man clearly has in his knowledge of the on-trade and younger generations, something his father clearly doesn't care about, but there's a twinkle in Eddie's eye as he talks about the man he clearly looks up to, and the story of how Jimmy reacted when Eddie first introduced the Wild Turkey Bourbon.

"Jimmy is the higher proof guy, he thinks everything else is a fad.

"I was trying to explain to him about the 81 and how it was mixable, his reply was simply 'we don't mix our Bourbon'.

"For him, it was like he finally got to the point where he felt like I wasn't going to screw things up too much but then this was the first thing I brought out he was like 'I don't know about this'."

Eddie's laugh is infectious and he soon has the rest of the room joining in as he continues: "You know Matthew McConaughey (the brand's new creative director) was having a tasting with us in the warehouse and Jimmy and my son were there and Matthew asked, 'How does it feel now that your dad's turned over the reigns to you?'

"And me and my son both immediately replied, 'He hasn't why do think he's still standing here?'"

On tasting the Bourbon is an easy drinking dram with a subtle caress of flavour that is all vanilla, perfect neat, but also like Eddie says, enjoyable as a mixer.

The 101, which Eddie says Buffalo Trace distilling icon Elmer T Lee describes as "pure Jimmy Russell", is a much meatier, full on whiskey, there's a real note of salted caramel to it.

When this is pointed out, Eddie nods. "We use a lot of malt compared to most people, which I think gives that flavour."

The Rare Breed, which consists of 6, 8 and 12 year old Bourbon, is the whiskey that most real Bourbon drinkers prefer according to Eddie.

To finish is the Rye, a whiskey that doesn't shy away, it's powerful toffee punch is backed up by a real earthy flavour and a spiceyness that's hard to ignore.

When asked about how Eddie will expand the brand going forward, he is clear that he wants to follow Jimmy's model but that he won't be afraid to experiment.

"Yeah, he (Jimmy) sees that I understand what he's built and I'm not gonna change that, but yeah I think I'm gonna have to do some different things, like the 81 and the Rye.

"I did things like the 17 year old while Jimmy believes after 12 years it's not good anymore, I think there's room to do these things but am I going to do apple or a cherry whiskey? No, I am not."

When asked about the brand's Honey whiskey in response to this statement, Eddie flashes that winning smile.

"That was Jimmy, he brought out the Honey and I love to rub that in."

The chat then turns to the subject of craft distilling and the challenge it poses for older more established distilleries, unsurprisingly the two distillers share a remarkably similar view on the matter, both pragmatic and typical of two older heads who've seen it all before.

"What I'd say to you is if you've got a beautiful convertible Rolls Royce would you put racing stripes down it?" asks Dennis, "No, you would not."

"I some time get concerned about the rise of these new craft distilleries here as well because they haven't got the money to fund themselves over the next five to ten years, so dozens of them are going to come out with three years and a day old whisky, or sell gin to make ends meet and there's a real possibility many of them will collapse and I don't think that's good for the industry.

"They have to be careful and we have to do our best to nurture them and help them."

Eddie's view is remarkably similar: "Lucky or us we've been in the industry for as long as we have, because when my father started working at Wild Turkey in 1954 there was 57 distilleries in Kentucky when I started in 1981 there was eight.

"So there's always going to be that correction in the market. Now there's more distilleries in Washington state than there is in Kentucky and there's six or seven being built in Kentucky right now.

"There's going to be a correction and there's going to be a few that stick around because they did it the right way but there's a lot of them are just going to be gone because they just jumped in to make money, and they cut corners, so there's always going to be that correction.

"I didn't always think that way, I came in there thinking my dad was just a hard headed old man, which he is, but he wasn't changing and everybody else was and as a young person you think, everybody is going and you're staying here, we're losing ground.

"But now everyone is coming back to Jimmy's way of thinking, which is older aged whiskey, higher proof and done a better way. When you are in it for four or five years you don't really get that but when you been it thirty five years like me you understand.

Eddie then thanks his host and the group for joining him on the trip and explains how he felt it went.

"It has been really amazing, I've been looking forward to this day to get the chance to see how things work here. We can't ever be exactly alike but understanding why he's doing what he's doing is just a real neat deal for me."

"Wild Turkey and Glen Grant they are rooted in consistent quality and you'll never go wrong, you can innovate and do the single casks and do the Rye but the consistent process of the quality is still the same, and that's reassuring to people.

"For me it's an honour to come here, and I've always wanted to come over because I know Dennis is a lot like my dad and you can't help but respect him. He says he's retired but what does that mean? He's busier than ever!"

As for the future, does Eddie fancy coming over and trying his hand as a guest distiller at Glen Grant?

"I think we've worked out a deal where I was going to come over and be the next distillery manager?"

Dennis and Eddie both laugh knowing Jimmy would never let that happen.

Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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