The life and legacy of Kentucky’s top bourbon Master Distillers
By Elizabeth Scinta
With more than 20 distilleries in the state, Kentucky produces some of the top branded bourbons in the world, and behind every great bourbon is a Master Distiller. Get to know six of them below.
Chris Morris began his career at Brown-Forman in 1976 as a trainee. In 2004, he took over the reins of Master Distiller from Lincoln Henderson, becoming the second Master Distiller at the Woodford Reserve Distillery. Morris now oversees both Old Forester and Woodford Reserve at Brown-Forman. His parents worked at Brown-Forman in the 1940s, so bourbon has been a part of his life since the beginning. “I didn’t know I wanted to be a Master Distiller, I just wanted to have a nice job and a nice career, and I was fortunate that circumstances brought me to where I am today,” said Morris.
Since becoming Master Distiller, Morris has seen the bourbon industry drastically change with hundreds of new bourbon brands and an increase of women in the industry.“Thank goodness we have the Kentucky Bourbon Trail as a great tourist attraction for the state, including a good 70 plus distilleries and 400 new bourbon brands since I became Master Distiller. We’ve also certainly seen the increasing involvement of women in the industry. My protégée and future Master Distiller is Elizabeth McCall,” said Morris.
A typical day can vary for Morris, but he particularly loves getting to interact with the consumers. For Morris, the most challenging part of the job is innovating new bourbons. “Innovation is a challenge because the bottom line is people have to like it. It has to taste good. It has to make sense. That challenge makes you be creative,” said Morris. Morris’s favorite bourbon cocktail is a Manhattan, but his everyday drink is a bourbon on the rocks.
Fred Noe III
The Jim Beam brand dates back to 1740, but the distillery we know wasn’t established until 1935. In 2004, Fred Noe became the seventh generation of Beam family Master Distillers after being taught by his father, Frederick Booker Noe II. “Growing up, my dad always wanted it to be my decision. He didn’t want me to feel like being the only child meant I had to follow in his footsteps. He did everything he could to push me away and he wanted me to go to college first. I tried other things, but I got drawn back because of my childhood and following my dad around the distillery,” said Noe.
Working for one of the top-known bourbon brands in the world could be overwhelming for many people, but for Noe, it’s part of his legacy. “I’m the seventh generation of the Beams to be a part of it. It’s part of my legacy to carry on the tradition and to make high-quality bourbon and products that I would be proud to give to my friends and family. And to prepare my son, Freddy, for his part in the company,” said Noe.
Asking a Master Distiller what their favorite bourbon is is like asking a mother who their favorite child is, but after some thinking, Noe had an answer. “That’s the hardest question you’ve asked. I think it’s one my father created, Booker’s Bourbon,” Noe said. Noe’s father released Booker’s Bourbon in 1987 as the first small batch of bourbon from Jim Beam. Noe’s favorite bourbon cocktail is a bourbon sour or Manhattan, but only if the bartender is using fresh ingredients.
Willett Distillery is one of the newer distilleries in Kentucky, founded in 1936 by Thompson Willett in Bardstown, KY. Drew Kulsveen has been a part of the distillery since 2003, bouncing around from blending and bottling, to sales, to wherever else he was needed. Willett was rebuilding their distillery until 2012, so when it was completed, Kulsveen became the new Master Distiller. Willett Distillery is a family business, and Kulsveen marks the fifth generation of Kentucky distillers in his family. “Having the ability to create the whiskey, watch it mature and age, and experiment with different things is a lot of fun for me. It’s not monotonous,” said Kulsveen.
Keeping the brand’s legacy alive while also creating new bourbon is something every Master Distiller has to conquer. Innovation is vital to keep the brand moving forward, but staying true to its roots is equally important. “Patience is key. Don’t rush a project. We’ve got some [projects] we were working on for many years that could’ve been finished in a few months if we rushed it, but we’re really patient,” said Kulsveen.
In a standard job, a person would run through the motions of a typical day, but one could argue being the Master Distiller of a top known bourbon brand is not a normal job. “I don’t have a typical day,” Kulsveen laughed. “It’s a different challenge every day, but it’s nothing that we can’t get through. I’m all over the place from the distillery to the bottling house to the warehouses. I bounce around quite a bit, so I’m not stuck in one spot which is nice,” said Kulsveen. Kulsveen’s favorite bourbon from Willett Distillery is Rowan’s Creek. His favorite bourbon cocktail is an Old Fashioned.
“I grew up in Kentucky and knew the history around the [bourbon] production in Kentucky. After getting my Chemical Engineering degree from UK, I knew that I could apply myself to the industry, and once I started at Buffalo Trace, I figured out my career path,” said Harlen Wheatley, Master Distiller of Buffalo Trace Distillery. Buffalo Trace Distillery is most known for the production of its Buffalo Trace brand and Pappy Van Winkle.
Wheatley became the sixth Master Distiller since the Civil War in 2005. Before becoming Master Distiller, he spent time as a supervisor of the distillery and distillery manager. Since being in the bourbon industry, he has seen it do “a complete 180.” “I started at a time when the production side was a little slow and now, we are at an all-time peak,” Wheatley said.
When distilling new, and old, bourbons, Wheatley says their main focus is to have a good variety of bourbon for consumers to choose from. Their primary focus is on their legendary brands, but they also know how to manage the creation of new bourbons.
For Wheatley, picking a favorite bourbon and bourbon cocktail was challenging. Ultimately, he settled on the Buffalo Trace Straight Bourbon Whiskey and a Manhattan. “I don’t really have just one favorite because I appreciate all the bourbons. I do like our Buffalo Trace Straight Bourbon Whiskey being that it is our flagship bourbon. We try to put the very best overall bourbon into that bottle. It is very versatile, easy to drink and the quality shows through, whether it is tasted straight or in a nice cocktail,” said Wheatley.
Brent Elliott, a lifetime Kentuckian, has been an admirer of bourbon from a young age; however, he never thought he would be a part of the business, especially in the role of Master Distiller. After he took a tour of a distillery in 2005, he felt certain that the bourbon industry could use his background in chemistry in some way, so he applied for a job. “I wanted to be a part of producing something that was more than just a product, but an iconic product, especially in Kentucky. It seemed too good to be true. I applied for the job and within six weeks I was working for Four Roses,” said Elliott.
In 2015, Elliott became Master Distiller of Four Roses. Throughout his 15 years of working in the bourbon business, he’s seen a lot change. “I would say all of the changes have been directly related to the increase in popularity of the bourbon business. Those changes, from the number of bourbons we make, to the variety of bourbons, to the growth of the bourbon trail, has made us adapt,” said Elliott.
Elliott recently won Master Distiller of the Year at the 2020 Icons of Whiskey America Award Ceremony. “I was totally surprised and super happy and excited to be recognized for myself and my brand. It was validation that we know what we’re making here is fantastic, but to be honored with an award like that, it really speaks to what we’re doing here as a team and a brand,” said Elliott. Elliott’s favorite bourbon cocktail is the classic Old Fashioned and his go-to Four Roses Bourbon at the moment is the Small Batch Select.
Jimmy Russell is referred to as the “Buddha of Bourbon,” the “Master Distiller’s Master Distiller” and a legend – there truly is no other way to define him. Russell became the third Master Distiller of Wild Turkey Distillery in 1966, following in the steps of Bill Hughes. Russell is the longest-tenured active Master Distiller in the Kentucky bourbon industry. In 2015, Russell’s son, Eddie, became Master Distiller alongside his father, making them the only active father-son duo of bourbon Master Distillers in the world. “It’s wonderful working with your family. There’s generations and generations of families in the bourbon business and they stay in the business,” said Jimmy Russell.
Over Jimmy Russell’s long career as Master Distiller, he has seen the industry change, but to him, the most significant change has been all the new products. “The biggest thing would be having different products coming out, such as flavored bourbon, single barreled and double barreled. Everybody has really changed for the better and it’s really helped the bourbon business,” said Jimmy Russell.
For Jimmy Russell, being a Master Distiller has never been a job. Being able to come into work every day and connect with the people is something he enjoys. “The best part? I get to drink all day! I’m kidding, seeing people enjoy your product and enjoy what you’re doing is the best part,” Jimmy Russell said. Jimmy Russell prefers Rare Breed Wild Turkey Bourbon on the rocks, whereas Eddie Russell prefers a Boulevardier or a Manhattan.