Jimmy Russell grew up along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, so it was a foregone conclusion that he would one day go to work for a distillery, just like his father had. This September, he’ll celebrate his 60th year of service at Wild Turkey, making him the longest-tenured distiller anywhere in North America. His son, Eddie, is also a distiller, a member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame going on 33 years with Wild Turkey. Together, the two have created a namesake blend, Russell’s Reserve. Equally important, they’ve learned how to blend business with family.
“It’s never easy to work for your family,” says Eddie, who saw a new side of his dad on the job. “That doesn’t mean they’re bad; they’re just different out in public.” The first major adjustment for Eddie was to address Jimmy by his first name. “It’s hard to call him dad at the office,” he says. When they leave the factory, “the work is done,” says Jimmy. “At home, it’s all about the family.” If they ever have a heated argument that threatens their relationship, “I would leave the business,” says Eddie. “You’ve got to put family first.”
“In this day and age, you see companies handed down through families, and quite often, there is a failure at one of those levels,” says plant director Ric Robinson. “Traditionally, it is because the discipline hasn’t been enforced.” Not at Wild Turkey. “When Eddie started, he rolled barrels, cut grass, and dunked bottles,” says Jimmy. “Because I was the master distiller, he thought he should have easier jobs.” Instead, Eddie found himself working twice as hard to prove to his co-workers that he could succeed on his own. When Eddie finally did get promoted to distiller, his peers knew it wasn’t because of paternal favoritism. “Over time, Eddie earned the right to be respected as a distiller, and that gives him credibility,” says Robinson.
Getting through to Jimmy was difficult for Eddie at first, until he realized that his father still had the old school idea of who their customer ought to be. To Jimmy, their customer was a 40-plus-year-old male who drank his bourbon on the rocks. But Eddie wanted to appeal to a younger demographic. When he developed a nutmeg-and-cinnamon spiced bourbon, for example, Jimmy told him it tasted fine, but that he wasn’t going to drink it. “I told him that was good, because I wasn’t making it for those traditional drinkers,” says Eddie. Eddie explained to his dad that he wasn’t trying to change the brand’s DNA, he was just trying to get more people to drink Wild Turkey. After hearing that, Jimmy finally came around–with reservations. “His experiments are good for our day and time,” says Jimmy.
Wild Turkey recently completed a $50 million technological renovation of the distillery, including computer sequences that make the mashes and run the stills. Jimmy, who has been using the same yeast starter for the past 59 years, was initially skeptical about computers. This time around, Eddie pitched the system in his father’s terms. “I explained to him that with our new computer sequences there wouldn’t be any human error,” says Eddie. “That made it easier for him to see that we both have the same goal, but we are just using different ways to reach it.”
Eddie fell into this career during one summer break in college when his mom told Jimmy to put Eddie to work; two weeks in, Eddie tasted a sip of bourbon straight from a barrel and knew he’d found his calling. But don’t ever push your children into the family business, Eddie cautions. “If you push them into it and they don’t like it, it’s hard on the whole family,” he says. “The child has to make the decision himself.” He now has two sons, one of whom works as a tour guide at Wild Turkey and one who hasn’t shown any interest in the bourbon business. As for Jimmy, he was supposed to retire at 65, then 70, then 80. “I know he’ll never retire,” says Eddie. Based on that understanding, they’ve been able to divvy up responsibilities: Eddie now handles the day-to-day operations, while Jimmy is there to spread the good word of Wild Turkey to visitors and also offer his wisdom on major bourbon decisions. He remains the voice of authority before a new product goes to market. “He has 60 years of knowledge that is so valuable,” says Eddie. “If I have a question, he usually has the answer.”