A drink with… Eddie Russell, Wild Turkey
Wild Turkey master distiller Eddie Russell on sharing his role with his father and working with a Hollywood star.
*This feature was originally published in the July 2018 issue of The Spirits Business
What has it been like working with your father, Jimmy?
Working for your family is not the easiest thing you can ever do. Our industry is about staying true to your convictions. And he was the man that did that. Of course, I came in, like ‘let’s change this, let’s do this’, and then I realised I’ll never change what he did, but I can do different things to bring out different tastes. The Wild Turkey 81 and the Russell’s Reserve are a little more my style. The rye whiskey, he doesn’t think we should make too much of that. I make a lot of it because I know that’s what bartenders want.
What are you working on now?
I just released Longbranch, a collaboration with Matthew McConaughey. So it’s different – it’s lighter, it’s fruiter, it’s citrusy, and it’s got a great package. I’ve got some small-batch stuff coming out, limited offerings. I’ve got one called Revival. It’s a 12- to 15-year-old finished in oloroso Sherry casks. I’m constantly working on something new. Some of them are like the Revival: 40,000 bottles and you’ll never see it again – for a while, at least. I’m constantly looking for things like that. I’m working on the wood because for us, we’ve always used the same type of barrel. I’m looking at what happens if I don’t char so much and I toast it more, and what flavours I can get. Our whole industry needs to figure out how we can expand when we’ve really only got one product.
What was it like working with Matthew McConaughey?
Matthew has been fun. It’s been different because it’s always been just me. I like him, he’s a big family man but he’s artistic, he’s different. We came up with Longbranch, which was more his taste profile, and I never had to really work with somebody else like that. It was more just me, and then figuring out what his emails meant. His emails always start with ‘McConaughey here’ and he talks a lot about music. So I send him samples, I say ‘taste this, give me your thoughts’. First email I got: ‘McConaughey here: the treble hit my tongue and the bass ran through the back of my throat’, and I’m like: ‘What the hell is he talking about?’ So you know, it was sort of figuring out what he meant by all that stuff. He relates a lot of stuff to music, I’m not musical at all. We’ve had late night phone calls when he’s out having a good time and I’m trying to sleep. It’s not been easy but it’s been fun.
What’s the reaction been to Longbranch?
It’s gone crazy. It’s already double what we thought we’d sell in the whole year. The package and the liquid are fantastic. I always say, though, Matthew’s name might sell the first bottle but I don’t care about that first bottle. I’m caring about the 15th or 20th bottle down the road. We’ll probably release it in the UK next year.
What have you found challenging in your role?
Challenging is working for your own family. Right now, the biggest challenge to our industry is stock because it takes so long to age it. We’re in good shape with our Bourbon. But I’m making 60% more rye this year than I did last year. What happens if people quit drinking that rye? I can’t think about today, I have to think about six, eight, 10 years down the road. There’s always a point when it slows down. So you have to think about all that.
What’s been your biggest achievement to date?
The most proud moment in my life, in this industry, is when I was inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame and my father was the one who inducted me into it. I probably hadn’t seen my father cry more than twice in my life and he stood on the stage just bawling. So that was really cool. I mean the Russell’s Reserve line is the product I made that I’m most proud of, especially my single barrels. But that one moment of him crying – to this day even when he talks about it he still gets a little misty-eyed.