Backbars across Ohio — and the U.S., and the world for that matter — are filled with bottles that have stories to tell. There are love stories and success stories. There are stories of hardship and perseverance. And stories of good times and good friends.
Regardless of the story held within each individual bottle, they all began with a single author: the master distiller.
Part artist and part scientist, with a little bit of entrepreneur and carnival barker thrown in, the master distiller is responsible for every step of a spirit’s story, from the formulation of a recipe and the careful selection of ingredients to the mashing, distilling and aging processes. Then there are the rigors of quality control (i.e. “Let’s see how this tastes!”) and the endless meet and greets to help convince those with backbars and home bars to make room for one more brand.
Some are born into it, like the Russells at Wild Turkey. For others, like Tito Beveridge, it is a career decision. And still others find it the destination on a path that started somewhere else.
While the stories of the master distillers featured here may have their differences, they also have a commonality. To a person, the love of creating something that is loved and enjoyed by others is what beckons them to the job. And, to a person, they will tell you it really isn’t a job at all if you look forward to it every day.
Here’s a look at the men behind some of the biggest brands on the market today:
Jimmy and Eddie Russell, Wild Turkey
Jimmy and Eddie Russell, the second and third generation Russells to work at the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ky., have an unmatched pedigree in the bourbon industry.
For more than 60 years, Jimmy Russell has been making Wild Turkey whiskey and is the longest-tenured active master distiller in North America.
Starting in 1954 sweeping floors at the distillery, Jimmy reached the apex of his career as master distiller in the 1960s. Over the past 60 years, he has been responsible for the launches of a number of new Wild Turkey brands and expressions, such as Tradition, Tribute, 17-year-old Wild Turkey for Japan, Rare Breed, American Spirit, Kentucky Spirit and Russell’s Reserve, which he co-created with his son and distilling partner, Eddie.
With more than 30 years of experience, Eddie Russell began his career at the distillery as a relief operator, eventually becoming a supervisor of new production and then a warehouse supervisor. After two decades in the business, he assumed the position of manager of barrel maturation and warehousing. In this role, he collaborated with his father to create Russell’s Reserve 10-Year-Old, as well as Wild Turkey 81, Wild Turkey Spiced and Wild Turkey Forgiven.
Both Russells are members of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. Additionally, Jimmy Russell was the recipient of the Hall’s Parker Beam Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.
Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace
Born in Mount Sterling, Ky., in 1969, Harlen Wheatley has spent almost all of his life in the Bluegrass State. He attended Northern Kentucky University, attaining his degree in chemistry, then migrated to work full time at a chemical company in central Kentucky while completing a chemical engineering degree at the University of Kentucky, gaining formal training in distillation and separation techniques.
Wheatley joined Buffalo Trace as a supervisor in 1995. Not long after, the distillery was rechristened and the flagship Buffalo Trace bourbon was introduced. Wheatley continued to make his mark as he was promoted to distillery manager in 2000, then master distiller in 2005, becoming Buffalo Trace’s sixth master distiller since the Civil War.
Wheatley is a four-time James Beard Award nominee in Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional category.
Tito Beveridge, Tito’s Handmade Vodka
A native Texan and entrepreneur, Bert “Tito” Beveridge, founder and master distiller of Tito’s Handmade vodka, is a true pioneer in the world of microdistilling — in fact, it’s a world he helped create.
In the early 1990s, Beveridge enjoyed infusing flavored vodka in his spare time, creating much-loved (and much-requested) batches for friends. Beveridge watched as microbreweries and boutique wineries began cropping up throughout the country, and astutely predicted that the next step would be to incorporate the same handcrafted principles to the spirits industry.
In 1997, Beveridge fought to create the permit process in Texas to establish his legal right to open the state’s first distillery. Without investors or any formal training, and on a tiny budget, he relied on credit cards — in the end, running up a total of 19, and it took the company more than eight years to turn a profit.
Today, Tito’s Handmade vodka is one of the fastest-selling and fastest-growing microdistillery brands on the market.
Jeff Arnett, Jack Daniel’s
Named master distiller of the Jack Daniel Distillery in 2008, Jeff Arnett took his first job at the distillery in quality control and overseeing Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel in 2001. Since then, his work in a variety of capacities throughout the distillery, including warehousing, maturation, distillation, charcoal mellowing management, barrel quality and bottling, as well as being a member of the Master Tasters’ panel, have primed him to spearhead the entire operation.
When not in Lynchburg, Arnett travels the world as an ambassador for Jack Daniel’s, sharing the brand’s stories with everyone he meets.
Arnett was honored by Whisky Magazine as “Master Distiller of the Year” in 2017.
Brent Elliott, Four Roses
Being master distiller is something Brent Elliott says is hard to call a job because, to him, “it’s a privilege and a passion to be a part of Four Roses.”
A native of Owensboro, Ky., Elliott became master distiller at Four Roses Bourbon in September 2015 after serving a decade as the distillery’s director of quality, working closely with former master distiller Jim Rutledge.
Elliott’s experience with Four Roses includes everything from applying his chemistry degree to evaluate bourbons in the tasting lab, to taking part in the selection of barrels for special single barrel bottlings and limited edition products.
— CHRIS BAILEY, Ohio Tavern News