How the 'Michael Jordan of Whiskey' Orders His Bourbon

A conversation with the father-son duo behind Wild Turkey

By Kirk Miller

 
Wild Turkey
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23 January 2018

Family and business don’t mix.

So says Freakonomics. And, more poetically, Biggie Smalls.

But don’t share that maxim with the father-son team behind Wild Turkey. The Russell family has presided over a remarkable run for the bourbon brand for six decades; in that time, WT has become the best-selling American whiskey, and both of WT’s Master Distillers, Jimmy and Eddie Russell, have been enshrined in the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.

Father Jimmy, a 60-year vet, owns the title of the world’s longest-tenured Master Distiller. His son Eddie’s been part of Wild Turkey since 1981, working as a relief operator, supervisor of new production, warehouse supervisor and manager of barrel maturation and warehousing before assuming the role of Co-Master Distiller in 2015. His son now works for the company as well.

Beyond mainstream success, Wild Turkey has also become a much-lauded choice in the spirits community without changing its basic formula — Whisky Advocate recently named Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Decades as the number three whiskey in the world.

While the resurgence of the cocktail scene (and, yes, Mad Men) certainly helped raise the profile of bourbon, Wild Turkey’s success truly plays off the dynamic between Jimmy and Eddie, a back-and-forth tussle between tradition and the need to experiment and expand. How the father and son navigate these arguments is how Wild Turkey succeeds, as we’ll see from our conversation below, which took place over a three-day visit to the Wild Turkey distillery. We shot skeet, tipped back cocktails (Eddie taught us to drink Wild Turkey 101 from bone marrow luges) and played party to a weekend of good-natured family needling.

Here's what we learned.

When family disagrees ...

Eddie: Jimmy’s been making bourbon for 63 years, he’s not changing nothing: if it was left up to him, we’d only have Wild Turkey 101. I remember we were doubling the size of the distillery, I was thinking we could make bigger mashes. Jimmy said no. Maybe put in a few new tubs ... nope. Everything stayed the same.

Jimmy: We fought about doing a Wild Turkey Rye. I thought Rye would never be as popular as Eddie thought it would be, but he spent time listening to the bartenders, who love it. You can credit those bartenders for making it popular again, and they’re the reason we’re making so much of it now.

Eddie: When I started here in 1981, things were not so great. Jimmy and Booker Noe [from Jim Beam] started going out in public, because nobody knew who they were. I teased Jimmy that his pitch was “Here’s my product, here’s what it tastes like, here’s how you drink it.” They felt like they made the best whiskey, so you didn’t have to do anything to it. Even adding water — they said, “Don’t put water in that, it’s perfect.”

How they order their bourbon ...

Eddie: I like a good Boulevardier. When I was 25 and if I walked into a nice bar, if I said, “Give me 101 on the rocks or neat,” they’d think I was some sort of roughneck who was gonna start a fight. Now my son at 28 orders a Boulevardier, or on the rocks, and he looks sophisticated. Now if my dad walks into a bar, every bartender knows him, and wants to make him a special drink. He looks at me and says, “Tell them to pour the whiskey in a glass.”

Jimmy: I like my bourbon neat, no ice.

On how to get into bourbon-making ...

Jimmy: Be patient and make something people want to drink. There are many things that go into making a good whiskey. Good grain, yeast, cooking, fermentation, distillation and aging are all important. If I had to pick one part of the process that's the most important, I'd say maturation. The way a charred white oak barrel changes bourbon is extraordinary. If aged correctly, you can take a good bourbon distillate and make it a great aged whiskey.

Eddie: Patience. I used to be the young guy in the industry. When Jimmy retires I’ll be one of the oldest, with the most years as a distiller.

On working with family ...

Jimmy: Try to not bring work home with you. And always put family first.  

On family nicknames ...

Eddie: Jimmy is the Michael Jordan of our industry.

Jimmy: I always joke Eddie is the “new guy.”

On what makes it a family business ...

Jimmy: Bourbon was born here in Kentucky, and it’s been an important industry in our home of Anderson County for generations. We take great pride in what we do, and I think that’s why we have so many employees whose sons and daughters have followed in their parents’ footsteps. You also have the biggest concentration of distilleries in the country here in Kentucky, so folks grow up here with bourbon as part of their lives. Everybody knows somebody who’s making bourbon.

Eddie: My dad’s a great storyteller. That’s what I’m trying to keep alive, and my son’s doing the same thing. We all grew up in this industry — we’re now on our fourth generation working here. Even the workers, there are second and third generations employees at the distillery.

On their actual recipe for success ...

Eddie: Jimmy does not tell our recipe. I don’t know why, but I need a job, so I don’t either.

Bonus: Below is the best Wild Turkey cocktail we had on the trip. It's nigh impossible for a home bartender to replicate, but enjoy!

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