A Chat with Jimmy and Eddie Russell, Wild Turkey’s father/son distilling team

Do you like bourbon? Sure, we all do!

Okay, maybe we don’t all like it. But if you are a bourbon aficionado, then you’re no doubt familiar with the work of the father and son team of Jimmy and Eddie Russell, even if you may not know it. Jimmy’s a master distiller at the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, and Eddie’s an associate distiller; together, the two of them created a tasty treat known as Russell’s Reserve, which was awarded a Gold Medal at the 2007 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Russell’s Reserve is described on the Wild Turkey website as having “a nose that is rich in vanilla, oak, toffee, and a touch of old leather,” a huge body, and a palate that is “very spicy, with notes of chili peppers, tamarind, almonds, and cumin.” How would I describe it? Hey, I’m no connoisseur, but I can at least confirm that it goes down smoooooooth.

With Father’s Day on the horizon, I decided it would be the perfect time to take the Russells up on their kind offer to chat about their work with Wild Turkey, the wonder that is Russell’s Reserve, and – to be holiday-specific – what it’s like for a dad to work with his kid every single day.

Jimmy Russell: Hello, Will! How are you?

Bullz-Eye: I’m good! How are you?

JR: Doin’ fine, thanks!

BE: Is Eddie there as well?

Eddie Russell: Yeah, Eddie’s here, too! (Laughs) How are you doing?

BE: Pretty good. Good to talk to you both…and I’ll tell you up front that I’m very much enjoying the bottle that was sent my way. (Laughs)

JR: Thank you! That’s what it for: to enjoy! (Laughs)

BE: Well, I know this is a multi-generational affair, but how did the Russell family first find its way into the bourbon business?

JR: I was born and raised in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, which was a small community when I was growing up, but there were four bourbon distilleries here, and you had families working all the distilleries. You wanted to get in the business. My grandfather and my father, me, and now my son, we’ve all been in the business.

ER: For me, it was a summer job 29 years ago, out of college. So it’s been a long summer for me. (Laughs)

BE: Growing up, did you both immediately have a taste for bourbon, or was it something you had to acquire?

ER: Well, for me, it was something that I basically always drank. I never was much of a beer drinker or anything like that. It was mostly bourbon.

JR: I’ve always been a bourbon drinker. I don’t care for beer or wine. It’s always been bourbon.

BE: I guess what I’m asking, really, if it was love at first sip or if you had any hesitancy.

JR: We can’t tell that! (Laughs)

ER: I don’t know if it was love at first taste, but it was definitely something I preferred over other alcoholic beverages.

BE: So what goes into the process of making Russell’s Reserve? Clearly, it’s a long one.

JR: Well, it’s one of those where, you know, we have to comply with federal government regulations about bourbon, which you probably already know: it has to be distilled, it has to be made with 51% corn, it has to be distilled under 160 proof, and it must be put in a new charred oak barrel at 125 proof or less. Here at the Wild Turkey distillery, we distill at low proofs and put it in the barrel and low proofs, because the higher you distill anything, the less flavor you have in it. With the Russell’s Reserve, it’s something that’s 10 years old, and…I’ll Eddie continue this. (Laughs)

ER: Russell’s is…we only have one recipe for our bourbon, so when it comes off the still, it could be the 101, Kentucky Spirit, Rare Breed. The difference between the Rare Breed and the Russell’s is that they’re hand-selected barrels, small batch. Where I’m normally dumping 50,000 gallons into a tank for the 101, we’re taking out 100 to 150 hand-selected barrels for the Russell’s Reserve. The 10 Year is just, for me, the top of the line as far as the number of years for it to age. You get all the good flavors, all the good taste, but it’s just such a mellow finish.

BE: Jimmy, I saw on the Wild Turkey website that they describe you as a goodwill ambassador for Kentucky’s most famous export.

JR: Yes, Eddie and I both do…well, we don’t do a whole lot of traveling, because we’ve got a job here at the plant every day, too, but we do travel all over the United States and all over the world promoting bourbon, but especially Wild Turkey Bourbon. You know, we’re known as the premium bourbon of the world. We’re huge in Australia and Japan.

BE: I take it that you’ve been able to travel to both of those countries, then?

JR: Yes, I have.

BE: What’s it like taking an American product over there? I have to figure that there’s a certain amount of national pride for their own beverages. Are they open to other countries’ wares?

JR: Well, in Japan, Wild Turkey is considered a prestige bourbon. It’s a bourbon that everybody wants, and a lot of the top executives own their own bottles in bars, with their name on a nametag hanging on the bottle. When you’re over visiting Japan, come and go have a drink out of my bottle! (Laughs) They consider it their own personal bottle, whether it’s 101 or Rare Breed or Russell’s Reserve. In Australia…well, they just love their bourbon, so they drink a lot of Wild Turkey! (Laughs)

BE: Have you met any celebrities over the course of your time with Wild Turkey who’ve told you what fans they are of your work?

JR: Oh, yeah, we’ve had a lot of ‘em over the years. A lot of the country music stars, we’ve met a lot of those. People from all over the world love it. We’ve just met a lot of celebrities from everywhere.

BE: Any favorites that stand out?

JR: They’re all nice people. We’ve been well treated wherever we’ve been at, and they’ve been nice to us, so it’d be hard to speak out on just one. But they’re all great people to work with. I’ve done a lot of benefits over the years for different things, and some of the baseball players that I’ve worked with were excellent. One of them that comes to mind is George Foster, who played for the Reds and for New York. He was an excellent fellow to work with. So was Tug McGraw. A lot of those people were great people to work with.

BE: Eddie, do you have any favorites?

ER: Not really. I know there have been a few Presidents who liked Wild Turkey, but we sort of had to send bottles secretly to them. (Laughs) There’ve been a lot of people that we’ve met over the years, like Jimmy talked about. We did a thing where we went to ballparks around a few places, and a lot of older baseball players came around. That was real interesting. And like he said, a lot of country music stars, but I couldn’t tell you one in particular that I think was better than any of the others.

BE: As far as the Presidents, can you speak to the partisanship of the bourbon drinkers?

JR: We’re non-political when it comes to selling our bourbon. (Laughs) We’ll see it to Democrats, Tea Party, whoever. If they like our product, they’re one of our friends right off the bat!

BE: In your opinion, what’s the best way to drink Wild Turkey?

JR: Well, for me, I like mine neat or over the rocks. But I’ve always said, “Drink it any way you like it.” That’s my opinion. If you like it mixed, that’s fine. But as for me, I’ll drink mine neat or over the rocks.

ER: Yeah, I definitely want to add a little ice to mine, because I think it’s just that much better when the ice melts a little bit. The Rare Breed, though, that’s one I tend not to even add ice to. It’s just such a pure form of bourbon and such a great taste, you don’t really need to. But, you know, I have friends who drink 101 and Coke, and that’s fine if that’s what they like. With a good bourbon, the flavor should come through no matter what you mix it with.

JR: Personally, I don’t like to mix, but if I was mixing, if you like ginger ale, the Wild Turkey or Russell’s Reserve or Rare Breed…all of ‘em…for some reason, good bourbon and ginger ale mixes well together. It brings out the flavor of the caramel and vanilla, the sweetness of it all. If I was a mixer, I’d probably do it that way.

BE: Wow. I’ll have to try that. It never occurred to me.

JR: If you like ginger ale, it’s an excellent drink.

BE: I’ll give it a try! Now, I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the tours you do of the distillery.

JR: Well, we have tours on Monday through Saturday. We have the Bourbon Trail here in Kentucky as part of the KDA, the Kentucky Distillers Association, which is a real old organization, and you travel around to all of the bourbon distilleries. You have a passport, and it’s like traveling from one country to another. (Laughs) You get them stamped at each distillery, you get a t-shirt and some other things from the KDA, and it’s been a big success. We’re probably averaging 25 to 30 thousand visitors right now, and we just continuously send them through. Eddie’s saying it’s more than that. (Laughs) Both of us…we’ve got a job to do, and sometimes we can’t, but we try to say “hello” to all of the visitors, make them welcome here, and show them exactly what we do.

ER: Yeah, I think Wild Turkey’s tour is one of the better ones. We actually take you into the working parts of the distillery and show you the working parts of what we do. A lot of them sort of show you a video, but even with our new expansion, it’s set up so that you can actually see what’s going on, see the fermenters and different things. Like Jimmy said, he gets to spend some time in the visitors’ center, where he can say “hello” to the people, and it really means a lot to them. I try to get over there as often as I can myself. I haven’t been on any other tours, but I’ve been through several distilleries on what I guess you’d call private tours, and what I think we do here is a really great tour, and everybody seems to love it. They get to see the people working, they get to see what’s happening, they get to see what’s going on.

JR: And we get a lot of repeat visitors, too. They’ll come by this year on vacation with their families, bring friends with ‘em, and the next year, you might see ‘em again. They love to come here, so that’s something we’re proud of: that they want to come back after they’ve been here. But we do have a lot of repeat visitors, and we have visitors from all over the world. This morning, we had some folks here from Spain.

BE: I’m sure people who haven’t been yet will want this question answered for them: do they get samples?

JR: I was just going to tell you. (Laughs) After the tour, we’re allowed to offer samples now. This is something new that we hadn’t been able to do, but there’s a new law now that we can give you two tastes of any one of our products. You get to pick the product you want to taste, and we give you a sample of two of them when you visit the tour on your visit.

BE: And just to wrap up, I’ve got a Father’s Day question for you two: what’s the experience like of working together as father and son? Do you ever get tired of each other? (Laughs)

JR: Oh, no. I don’t. It’s a privilege for me. When your son’s been with you for 29 years and you get to work together every day…sometimes we might not agree, but we always get along good together, and both of us give us our input on what we’re doing. That’s the reason I asked him to talk a little bit about the Russell’s Reserve. The 10 Year Old, that’s his idea. But it’s a privilege to get to work with your son every day at the plant, you’re here every day together, and we do some traveling together. Most of the time, though, we go as individuals, so I’ll be on one trip and Eddie will be on another, but when you get to travel together, that’s definitely another privilege.

ER: It’s always worked out well. Like Jimmy said, sometimes we didn’t always agree on everything. When you’re young, you’re sort of hard-headed, but then you figure out the wisdom that you gain just by being here over the years…and it’s a lot. (Laughs) But we’ve always been able to go home, let my mother cook a good Southern meal, and not even think about what happened at work. That’s the main thing for me: we never carry it away from here. I mean, we’re around each other not only at work but at night a lot of times. For years, I only lived a couple of blocks away. So we’re a pretty close-knit family. We still do a family breakfast every Saturday morning, where Jimmy, my mom, my brother, and sometimes our kids, if we can get ‘em up out of bed to go with us. We still do that every Saturday morning. So, yeah, we’re pretty close, so it wasn’t a huge deal to work together. It’s not the easiest thing to work for your family, but it’s definitely been a very rewarding 29 years.

BE: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you guys…and a pleasure drinking your bourbon! (Laughs)

ER: Thanks, Will!

JR: Thank you for calling us, Will, and you’re always welcome here at the Wild Turkey Distillery. If you’re ever in Kentucky, look us up. We’ll be glad to show you around…and give you a little taste when we’re done! (Laughs)


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