BARDSTOWN, Ky. (AP) — Jimmy Russell and Fred Noe aren't household names, but they're stars when it comes to fine sippin' spirits made in bourbon country.
Russell is in his 55th year at the Wild Turkey Distillery, where he has been the master distiller in charge of plant operations since the late 1960s. Noe is a great-grandson of Jim Beam himself.
Both travel the world promoting their Kentucky brands to fans who want bottles autographed or pictures taken with the bourbon barons during promotional events in bars, restaurants and liquor stores from Singapore to Sweden.
"Any place where alcohol is allowed, I've probably set my foot on it in the last four or five years," said Noe, who as brand ambassador spends at least half the year traveling on behalf of his ancestor's namesake whiskey.
Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world's bourbon. On the strength of premium and super-premium brands, production has risen by more than 75 percent since 1999.
Production went from 455,078 barrels that year to 794,091 barrels in 2008, according to the Kentucky Distillers' Association. Some 4.6 million barrels of bourbon are currently aging in the state — the biggest inventory since 1984.
Exports of Kentucky bourbon and other Kentucky whiskey totaled $194 million in 2008, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Domestic bourbon sales totaled 9.8 million cases in 2008, worth about $1.1 billion in sales to wholesalers, according to the council.
For decades, bourbon plant bosses rarely strayed far from the distilleries. Many even lived on the grounds. But much of the work once done by turning valves is now handled by computerized systems. While the distillers remain sticklers for quality and consistency, still relying on sight, smell and taste to decide when aged bourbon is ready for bottling, they have assistants who manage the plants when they're gone.
Russell once signed more than 700 bottles of Wild Turkey at a single promotional event in Australia. As smooth as his whiskey, he doesn't consider himself a celebrity.
"I'm just an old master distiller," he said.
Hubbub has become routine for the men responsible for other Kentucky brands as well — Four Roses, Evan Williams, Maker's Mark, Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace and 1792 Ridgemont Reserve.
When they're not at the plants, they offer fans insights into bourbon making and how to savor the whiskey.
"It's not all about throwing a shot back and chasing it with a beer," said Noe, a seventh-generation distiller. "You need to sip it."
To earn the name, bourbon must be made in the United States and contain at least 51 percent corn in the mash. It is aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years.
Jim Rutledge of Four Roses said the distillers love talking about bourbon — and their marketing teams realized that could "be a gold mine."
Rutledge also has signed hundreds of bottles at a single event. His scrawl was never more conspicuous than in a Japanese bar where he was asked to sign his name as big as he could across a wall.
"They said they would never paint over it," Rutledge said.
Chris Morris, master distiller of Woodford Reserve, spends about 100 days a year promoting the super-premium, small-batch bourbon. The popularity of promotional events, he said, reflects "a new connoisseur class of consumers" and bourbon's emergence as a spirit "equal to the great whiskeys of the world."
Still, the distillers seem amused by all the attention.
"I'm no different than I ever was," said Parker Beam, who has spent a half-century making bourbon at Heaven Hill Distilleries, with brands that include Evan Williams and Elijah Craig.
Parker Beam said his father, Earl, also a longtime master distiller at Heaven Hill, would likely frown on the public relations role of distillers today. "He'd say it's hard to run a distillery when they ask you to be gone so much."
Chuck Cowdery, an American whiskey writer and author of "Bourbon, Straight," said bourbon distillers project an authenticity — down to their Kentucky accents — that consumers crave.
"They are as foreign and almost exotic in New York, Chicago or San Francisco as they are in Tokyo or London," Cowdery said.
Bathed in loud music under tents at the recent Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, some star-struck fans were surprised at their easy access to the distillers of world-class spirits.
Marie Rossi, visiting with her husband, John, from Orange, Conn., said that where they are from, "We'd have to go to a special event and be dressed up and be on the A list. We wouldn't have this access."
Parker Beam, a grandnephew of Jim Beam, chuckled when recalling one of his strangest encounters with a whiskey fan who approached him at an event in San Francisco.
"He pointed his finger and said, 'You're Parker Beam,'" and I said, 'Yeah,'" Beam recalled. "He said, 'I thought you were some fictitious character the marketing people came up with. But you're a real person.'"
The real stars, the distillers insist, are the whiskeys.
"I don't think it has anything to do with who I am," said Kevin Smith, master distiller at Maker's Mark Distillery. "I'm just a lucky guy, and I happen to have the right title."