That’s bourbon royalty you’re looking at there, y’all. You might recognize Jimmy Russell, longtime master distiller at Wild Turkey. You might not know his wife, Joretta. She tends to stay in the background when he is holding forth at a bourbon event. But if it hadn’t been for her encouragement, Jimmy might never have ended up at the distillery. You see, she actually worked at Wild Turkey before he did.
“I’ve been in the bourbon business for years – even longer than Jimmy!” she said Thursday night at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, drawing delighted laughter and applause from the more than 100 women gathered for “Women and Kentucky Bourbon – A History,” an event sponsored by the Bourbon Women Association. Other panelists included whiskey writer Fred Minnick; Bourbon Women founder Peggy Noe Stevens; Albert Schmid, author of “The Old Fashioned”; bartender Joy Perrine; and bourbon historian Michael Veach.
For his part, Jimmy noted that women are playing an increasing role in the bourbon business, both as marketers and as consumers. Women have “made the labels look better,” he said. “We men, we knew where the brand we liked was located on the shelf. We’d pick it up, pay for it and take it home. If they had moved it, why, we’d get home with the wrong thing.”
Fredshared some fascinating tidbits from his forthcoming book, “Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey.” Women in Sumaria actually invented distilling, he said. In the 1800s, women helped increase demand for whiskey, both as medicine for their children and, at the other end of the spectrum, as refreshment for their customers in brothels. Women sparked Prohibition – but they also championed Repeal. And today, more and more of them are landing high-ranking jobs in the distilling industry.
Can the first female master distiller be far behind? Joretta Russell says her granddaughter, a high school sophomore, has called dibs on that distinction. And why not? After all, she comes from bourbon royalty.