Jimmy and Eddie Russell have been bonding over bourbon for more than 30 years—and it’s not just because they like drinking whiskey. The Russells are the industry’s only father-son Master Distilling team, responsible for crafting Wild Turkey Bourbon and its many variants—including the eponymous Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old Bourbon. Jimmy, who, at 80, is the oldest Master Distiller in the industry, took Eddie under his wing in 1981. Since then, the bourbon barons have turned Wild Turkey into a worldwide phenomenon. DuJour spoke to the Russells about what they’ve learned from each other along the way.
So what made you decide to go into business together?
Eddie Russell: Growing up, I never thought that I wanted to work at Wild Turkey. I live in a really small town and I wanted to get out into a bigger city. But I went to work [at Wild Turkey] for the summer during college and it felt like home. That was 34 years ago. I didn’t realize it growing up, but when I just started working there, I knew it’s where I wanted to be.
How have things changed over the years?
ER: When I started in 1981, Jimmy wasn’t traveling and people didn’t look at us as much. We were just people making whiskey. Then Jimmy became one of the first Masters to go out in the public, shake people’s hands and do seminars. He turned into one of the rock stars of our industry.
What’s your work ethic like?
Jimmy Russell: I guess I’m one of those workaholics. Eddie would probably tell you the same. I’m here six to seven days a week. I like to be here to check the distilling and everything. When I started out, that’s the way you did everything. You were here every day. To me, it’s still the same way today.
What advice would you give to people going into business with family?
JR: You should never force your children into anything. They’re the ones that have to decide what they want to go into. If you force your children into something and they don’t like it, it makes it hard on everyone.
ER: It’s not easy working for your family. Jimmy’s considered the main guy of bourbon—it’s not easy to follow in those footsteps. We don’t agree on everything every day or on every project. But when it comes down to it, we’re doing everything to benefit our brand because that’s what we love doing. There are times that we disagree, but he trumps me with 61 years in the business.
JR: Not all the time!
What have you learned about each other from working together?
ER: That Jimmy is very hardheaded. [Laughs] He wasn’t a very talkative man growing up. But the first time I went with him to a marketing event, he told stories and had people laughing. It was a different side of him. If you ever see him out in public doing a seminar, it’s pretty amazing. I think learning about different sides of him was pretty neat.
JR: When Eddie tells you something, it’s true. If he doesn’t like it, he will tell you! A lot of times we travel together. It’s fun being on the road, talking to people and hearing what they have to say. That’s one of the things I really enjoy about working together.
Can you both describe what makes working with one another so special?
ER: When I started in the business, I really got to see what the industry thought about him. I saw how much knowledge he had. He probably knows as much chemistry as a chemist. I tell people all the time, he didn’t read any of that stuff out of books or go to college to learn it. He just learned it from going to work every day. And it’s been pretty neat learning from somebody who is considered at the top of his profession.
JR: One of the proudest moments of my life was when Eddie got into the Bourbon Hall of Fame. Other people in the business nominate you to be elected into it and Eddie was selected several years ago. You’re so proud when you see your own family member, especially your own son, following in your footsteps. He’s doing a tremendous job.