The Wild Turkey Distillery sits serenely on Lawrenceburg’s Wild Turkey Hill—the inspiration for the brand name—overlooking the west bank of the Kentucky River. It’s only 5 miles from the boyhood home of 82-year-old Master Distiller Jimmy Russell. He grew up in Lawrenceburg, a close-knit central Kentucky community that has been boosted by the bourbon industry for well over a century.
In the first half of the 20th century, the rolling hills of Kentucky terrain were peppered with the rickhouses of more than 150 distilleries—operations that sustained many towns and families throughout the state. One of those families was the Russells. In 1954, Jimmy had been married for a year and found himself needing work to support his budding family. His wife, Joretta, had been working at what was then the JTS Brown Distillery, which happened to be the same distillery where Jimmy’s father and grandfather had worked years before.
Jimmy started working at the distillery Sept. 10, 1954. On that same date—about six hours southwest of Lawrenceburg in Memphis, Tennessee—Elvis Presley began his second, career-defining recording session at Sun Studios with music producer Sam Phillips. Which means that on the same day in history, the fate of two of America’s most cherished traditions—bourbon and music—was altered forever.
Jimmy excelled at the distillery. His heart pumped equal parts blood and bourbon, and as their young family grew, Joretta eventually left her distillery job. Jimmy’s grandson, Bruce Russell, relates this turn of events with a chuckle: “I guess what happened there was that you can’t have a master distiller that isn’t the boss. And [my grandmother] is definitely the boss.”
Jimmy doesn’t seem to be a nostalgic man. He does, however, seem to hold tradition to be of the highest importance—a tradition that his father and grandfather passed on to him, and a tradition that he has passed on to his son, Eddie, and grandson Bruce. When you ask Jimmy if this rich family history, his place in the 2001 inaugural class of the Bourbon Hall of Fame, and his current role of master distiller were all part of the plan when he came in on that late summer morning in 1954 asking for a job rolling barrels, he smiles the smile of that long ago 20-year-old, not the patriarch of the brand that he is now. “I don’t know,” he says. “You can never know things like that.” But he knows intuitively when he will retire from his regular six- to seven-day work weeks at Wild Turkey: “I’ll retire the first day this feels like work.”
By the early 1980s, Kentucky was desperately trying to keep the bourbon tradition alive, but as an industry, it had bottomed out. Of the numerous distilleries that were thriving across Kentucky when Jimmy entered the workplace in the mid-1950s, only eight remained by the time Eddie came to work at the distillery. Eddie’s job decision wasn’t made lightly, considering he never wanted to follow his father into the bourbon business.
“For me, you grew up in a small town like Lawrenceburg and never left the state of Kentucky because Jimmy worked seven days a week and never took a vacation,” Eddie recalls of his childhood in the shadow of the distillery. “So I thought, ‘I’m going to get my college degree and get the heck out of here.’ I came here for a summer job, thinking I’d do this for a while and then move on. But after a few weeks, I just realized this place was just home to me.”
That was more than 30 years ago. And much like his father before him, Eddie began at Wild Turkey rolling barrels, dumping bottles and stacking cases. “I knew where every line, every valve, every electrical socket was in the place,” he says. Now, he’s the associate distiller under Jimmy.
“People are often surprised with this industry and how it gets passed down from generation to generation, whether it’s us, the Noes or the Beams,” Eddie says. “But it makes sense because it was families who started this industry so long ago.”
In carrying on another family tradition, Jimmy Russell got to induct Eddie into the Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2010. “It was amazing to have an honor like that bestowed on me,” Eddie says. “Because no matter what you do in life, they’re recognizing you as one of the top in the business.”
Jimmy’s side of Eddie’s induction ceremony was a little bit different. “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Jimmy remembers. “It’s easy to induct your friend, but your own son? I was a nervous wreck.”
But tradition only goes so far, and Eddie has no plans to work into his 80s like his father. “No. I was trying to think of a more diplomatic way of saying it, but I have more hobbies than Jimmy does. Jimmy’s hobby is work,” he says.
And yet he seems to deeply respect his father’s dedication to the craft. In the early 2000s as Jimmy’s 50th anniversary (and presumed retirement) loomed over the distillery, Eddie decided to pay tribute to his father’s devotion to traditional distilling and launched what would later become one of Wild Turkey’s biggest sellers, Russell’s Reserve. A simple gesture has created a monster for Eddie. “This is bourbon. It takes a long time to make, and you can’t plan for something to blow up the way bourbon has in the last decade. Russell’s Reserve grew 60 percent in the last two years. Ten years ago they told me the growth rate would be 5 percent, so I’m trying to put back what I can now to prevent a shortage later,” Eddie says.
The family connection recently came full circle when Eddie’s son, Bruce, came to work for the company as a brand ambassador, proudly carrying on the legacy of the Russell name at the company with which it has become synonymous.
“Growing up, my dad and grandfather were pretty open about what they did, and it wasn’t unusual,” Bruce remembers. His childhood, much like his father’s, took place among the rickhouses and silos of the distillery. “Everybody’s family worked in bourbon where I’m from, so I thought Dad and Jimmy just did what everyone else is doing. There wasn’t a lot to do in my hometown. My mom was an accountant, so her work was terrible.
“But I knew if I went to work with Dad, there were like 60 guys that would let me tag along with them because they were the dads of the kids I went to school with. Or played softball with my dad. Or went to church with Jimmy. These were guys I knew, so I wanted to be hanging out there. It always seemed a lot more fun than everyone else’s work.
“It did take me a while to realize that what Jimmy did was different than what anyone else in the business did. I just knew that Jimmy was Dad’s boss because he had an office, and Dad just had a computer in a closet.”
Like his father before him, Bruce came to Wild Turkey temporarily. “I was 21 and needed a summer job, so I told Grandma to make Jimmy give me a job,” Bruce remembers. He began working as a tour guide at the distillery and soon saw a different side of the industry he had grown up in, as well as different sides of Jimmy and Eddie, men he thought he already knew so well. “They’re typical patriarchs. At home, they’re introverted and quiet. But to see them out laughing and telling stories about something they take so much pride in, I knew this was something special, something that would be a part of the rest of my life.”
“He worked for us and then he left for a little while,” Eddie says of his son’s journey. “Of course, I’m the only one who understands why it is he left. You’re seeing your grandfather in his 70s and 80s working six or seven days a week, you think, ‘I’m not working that job.’ ”
Regardless of how these three men found their way into the family business and after a decade of unprecedented growth of the bourbon industry as a whole, one thing is certain: Eddie’s and Bruce’s eyes are set on the future. “Jimmy still thinks it might be a fad,” Bruce says. “When you’ve worked someplace for 60 years, a decade isn’t a big deal.”
Jimmy admits there are some pretty significant changes that have come with this recent bourbon boom. “It used to be that those of us in production were never in the field,” he says. “That was all sales and marketing. But now people are so educated that we’ve become part of the marketing as well.”
“Jimmy used to look at the mash and say, ‘Ya know, in eight years or so this is going to be a bottle of Wild Turkey. I hope I’m here to taste it,’ ” Eddie says. “I used to laugh at it. Now I’m starting to look at it and think, ‘I really hope I’m here, too.’ ”
Without a doubt, Bruce is the future of Wild Turkey. That may be one of the few things they all agree on when they look at where the bourbon industry is headed from here. “They’re getting away from the flavored stuff,” Bruce says of the next generation. “They’re asking for older whiskey, higher proof whiskey, which is exactly what Jimmy knows how to do.
“So my ultimate goal is to continue what my dad has done and to continue what my grandfather has done. I want to make [bourbon] one day. I have ideas, but really, I think Jimmy and I are just waiting for my dad to retire so we can run the place.”
The Hollywood Touch
Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey has signed on as the new face of Wild Turkey … and them some. The distillery named the A-list star creative director of the brand in August. Not only will McConaughey be the man in front of the camera, but he’ll also be behind it.
“Wild Turkey has the history and qualities of a brand that depicts the dedication of someone to do something their own way—even if that way isn’t always the most popular,”
McConaughey said. “I want to help share their unique story, starting with a new ad campaign that I feel really captures the special essence of this brand while introducing itself like never before.”
McConaughey will lend his creative vision to both television and print ads.
“After spending time with Matthew at the distillery, I was impressed by how much he knew about Wild Turkey and how interested he was in telling the world more about us,” said legendary Master Distiller Jimmy Russell. “It is incredible to think that an Oscar winner would want to help tell Wild Turkey’s story, but like an extra scoop of ice cream on pecan pie, I will certainly take it.”
To view a video on McConaughey and his relationship with the Russell family, as well as his passion for Wild Turkey, visit youtube.com/wildturkeybourbon.