When it comes to bourbon families, not many are more storied than the Russells and Wild Turkey. Bourbon wasn’t always as popular as it is today and, for a time, almost went away. Jimmy Russell, who founded Wild Turkey, is one of the men responsible for making sure it didn’t. His son, Eddie, also helped drive those efforts, working by his father’s side for many years to keep the bourbon tradition alive. For the past seven years, third-generation Bruce Russell has been hard at work, following in both his father and grandfather’s footsteps. We sat down with Bruce to talk family, bourbon, and what it’s like to work for and with two major forces in the bourbon world.
What is your current role at Wild Turkey?
I am currently the national brand ambassador for Wild Turkey and Russell’s Reserve. I’ve been working for Wild Turkey for seven years, or since I was 21.
What’s your earliest memory of bourbon?
I remember smelling my Dad’s bourbon as a very young child and the talks we would have about the family business. The way he talked about the whiskey he made let me know it was something special.
Can you talk about what it’s like to grow up in a bourbon family? Did you always know you were going to work for the company or was it left up to you? If it was, did you always want to?
It was like growing up in any small town family. There was just a lot more whiskey around our house than most others I would guess. My dad just happened to make whiskey, but I definitely spent a lot of time at the distillery.
I didn’t always know I would be in the business, and it was always left up to me. Growing up, the bourbon industry was not doing as well as it is now. There was a time when I thought about doing something else, but after working at the distillery when I turned 21, I knew it’s where I wanted to be.
Working for your father is one thing, working for your father and grandfather is another. What has it been like to work for both? How are Jimmy and Eddie different to work for? Do you identify with a work style of one over the other? Why?
It’s honestly been amazing getting to work with both. I’m very close with both my father and grandfather, so it is nice to see another side of them at work. Jimmy is very old school and likes to do everything by taste, smell, and feel. He’s a lot more methodical in the way he approaches things. Dad is someone who likes to get things done and is much more of an experimental person than my grandfather. I’m very proud of some of the innovative, award-winning whiskies dad has put out in the past couple of years – like our limited-edition Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary, Reserve 1998, and Master’s Keep Decades.
I would say I identify a little with both. I am definitely someone who likes to experiment and tinker with the norm like Dad. However, I tend to like the same maturation style and methodical approach as my Grandfather. Jimmy and I have more similar palates than me and Dad.
Do you need to separate Eddie the father from Eddie the employer?
Absolutely not, and I don’t see how anyone could ever do that. Eddie is my father and that’s part of who he is to me at home or at work. It helps our work relationship a lot because I know he is always going to be honest with me. We are close enough that we will tell each other if we think an idea or a whiskey is great or terrible.
What’s the hardest thing about working for family? Does the fact that it is the Russell family—one so important to bourbon—make it any different?
I do think there are certain expectations or pressures that comes along with being in such an influential bourbon family. I think it’s different because I’m expected to be the same type of person as Dad or Granddad, to carry on our tradition. It’s a blessing in my eyes though. I take a lot of pride in what my family does. My personality is pretty close to Jimmy’s, and my ideas about whiskey are similar to Dad’s, so it works out pretty well.
What are some important lessons you’ve learned from each? How do you use these lessons in what you do?
From Jimmy, I learn to always be true to yourself and stick by your values. He continued to make pre-Prohibition style bourbon for decades when there was less demand than there is today and it’s helped the industry reach new heights. It’s been helpful in finding my own voice and staying true to our family’s core values, and not being someone who just reads off a script.
From Dad, I continue to learn that hard work and perseverance pays off. Like me, he started on the ground floor of the distillery and worked his way up to being a Master Distiller. It taught me that I should give maximum effort and bring news ideas, as long as we’re always paying respect to our time-honored traditions.
How has your relationship with your father and grandfather changed over time as you’ve worked for WT?
It’s changed a lot. I have become much closer with both during my time at Wild Turkey. At home, they are both quiet and stoic Southern men. But at work, and on the road, there’s a completely different side to them. It’s nice to be able to share that part of their lives, and we have a much stronger bond because of it. They are not only my father and grandfather, but are now also some of my best friends.
How do you plan to pass these lessons and values on to the next generations that will come after you at WT?
I plan to lead by example because that’s how I learned from my father and grandfather. They talk more about general life lessons than ‘work stuff’, or you might catch us all picking on each other when we are at the distillery. In any case, it’s always been about watching what they do and how they do it, and hopefully the next generation will continue to learn from the exemplary examples they’ve put forth.
Finally, what’s one fun story you have of working with your dad?
The most fun we have at work is when we hide out in Warehouse A. When work gets slow then we sometimes sneak away to the oldest warehouse on the property to drink out of some of our favorite barrels. It’s for quality control only; I promise. Besides that, the most fun we have is getting to hang out and shoot the breeze with the union guys/gals. These are people that Granddad, Dad, and I all grew up around so they know us as well as anyone.
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