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Bruce Russell, Wild Turkey: ‘Jimmy won’t retire’

The third generation of the Russell family reveals all about working with his dad, changes on the horizon and why his granddad will never quit the brand.

Bruce Russell Wild Turkey
Bruce Russell was named Wild Turkey’s associate blender in 2022

What’s it like working with your family? Is there a lot of pressure to meet their expectations, or do you try to do things completely differently?

Working with my family is pretty nice. For a lot of people who work with their family – whether it’s in the bar industry, the liquor store industry, or who make alcohol – it’s tough. But it’s not that way for me. It might have been for my dad and granddad, but I’m the grandkid, so I’m kind of spoiled.

I get along really well with my dad and granddad. They’re the reason why I’m in the industry. They’re both really quiet at home. They’re pretty tough, stern guys. The best part of this job is that it’s allowed me to get to know them in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

As far as pressure, I think I put more pressure on myself than they do on me. Growing up, they told me not to do this. It’s almost like they pushed me away – and I came back. It was meant to be, and they’re very supportive.

A thing that they’ve both instilled in me is: don’t do something unless you truly believe in it. Don’t let them put your name on a bottle unless you would drink the product yourself. They want me to be myself and put stuff out that I’m proud of – as long as it’s still got that core Wild Turkey DNA.

Did you ever consider doing something else?

Oh, yeah, definitely. Until I was in my twenties, I didn’t want to be in whiskey. I didn’t want to do what my dad did. I wanted to be a robotics engineer. I started working at Wild Turkey when I turned 21. It was a summer job while I was out of school. About three months in, my dad took me on a tour and talked to me for four hours – which was three and a half hours more than he’d talked to me his whole life. I came home and I told my mom: “I don’t think I can leave, I met Dad for the first time. And he’s way cooler than I thought he was!” After that, I never left.

How does your role differ from what your dad and your granddad are doing?

It differs a lot now because Granddad’s job is basically just hanging out. He’s 89 years old. He started when he was 18. The only thing he’s done longer than this is being married to my grandma, and they got married maybe six months before he started working at the distillery. This is all he knows. He comes to work every day and he’s just having a good time.

Dad’s doing a lot of big-picture stuff, like blending and signing off on things, whereas I’m doing more of the day-to-day stuff. I’m at the distillery almost every day, whether I’m selling individual barrels to our customers, working in the lab, helping out the distillery team in any way I can, or giving tours to people. I’m the jack of all trades now, and that’s important. You need to learn every little aspect before you can be considered a master like Dad and Granddad are.

Do you think Jimmy will ever retire?

He won’t retire. He wants to work until the day he passes away. He truly does. I think he loves my grandmother more than Wild Turkey, but I’m not sure if he loves anybody else more. It’s like his child.

He talks a lot about how family is really important to him, but if you know Jimmy, he means the distillery when he says his family. This will be his 70th year, and there are union workers who have been there for 50ish years. He’s known these people their whole lives. He’s seen them grow up. At the distillery, the people who work there and the whiskey, they’re all his kids. I don’t think he’ll ever retire. If anything, my dad and I will retire before Jimmy, for sure.

You released Generations last year. Can you tell me about it?

Generations will probably always be the most special thing that I’ve done. I think it’s the first time that three generations have ever worked on a project together, because – as my granny would say – most people have enough sense to retire.

We found some really good whiskey in this place called Camp Nelson – it’s an offsite ageing location we have that just seems to be incredible at the moment. Dad and I found some stuff that we really liked, and I convinced Dad to do something with Jimmy as well. Independently from each other, we all picked whiskey that we liked and then we blended it together.

It’s so special to get to work with both of them. I’ve worked with Dad now for a few years, but to blend whiskey with Jimmy – who’s a hero of mine, both in the whiskey world and in life – and to see the way that he tastes and talks about whiskey is really special.

Let me tell you – Dad and I are pretty easy to please. We like a lot of whiskey. But Jimmy doesn’t like anything. He’s the tough one. He tried a bunch of stuff until he finally signed off on the whiskey that he liked. And it’s really special.

Do you think you’ll do more things like that in the future?

I would love to get to work with both of them. You will start to see more stuff with mine and Dad’s names on. We just have to find the right thing for Jimmy to be a part of it. Dad and Jimmy like drastically different whiskies – which I think makes our portfolio better overall. Dad likes older stuff, more experimental stuff, and secondary maturations. He’s aged whiskey in Sherry and rum; he’s aged Bourbon in rye barrels and blended Bourbon and rye together. While Jimmy likes six to 12-year-old Bourbon. We’ve got to find something that they’ll agree on, but I hope to do something like that again.

What is your style of whiskey then?

If Dad is more experimental and Jimmy’s more old school, I’m somewhere in between. I like my Bourbon and rye a little older than Jimmy does. I tend to like rye whiskey more than both of them. When it comes to my flavour profile, it is more in line with what Jimmy likes, which is big, bold, in-your-face whiskey. I would probably stay away from finishes more than Dad has. And I like more higher-proof whiskey than Dad does, which has been trending in the US for a while.

Tell me about your new distillery.

It’ll be finished sometime in 2025. I’m hoping it will allow us to make some fun, inventive products. I think we’re currently doing around nine million proof gallons.

Will the focus be on increasing production of established lines or introducing new products?

Hopefully a little bit of both. We have this funny saying at the distillery: “don’t tell Jimmy”. We say it any time we do something different. Maybe there’ll be some fun “don’t tell Jimmy” stuff that we can do with the new distillery – we’ll just have to wait and see.

We definitely want to increase our total volume. There’s been a Bourbon boom in the US for a while now, but we’re starting to see a huge increase in demand in international markets.

What do you think the future of Wild Turkey is?

Hopefully great! My goal is to use the building blocks and foundations that Jimmy has built for us.

I’m very aware of my lot – I’m riding somebody’s coattails. But Jimmy’s coattails are so long that I feel pretty safe, because I’ve fallen a couple of times and I’m still on the coattails. He’s built this huge foundation for us and I hope to continue making those great old-school whiskies, like Wild Turkey 101 and Rare Breed.

I also want to give something new to our customers, especially to our newer, younger generation of consumers, but using that same style – whether that’s rye whiskey or higher-proof stuff or stuff for cocktails. There’s a huge on-premise bar scene now, as far as American whiskey is concerned. So I want to give them something a little bit different, but still in that Wild Turkey style. I don’t want to get too far away from the original style, because Jimmy will haunt me.

What do you think are some key trends in the American whiskey category at the moment?

I think higher proof and extra age. You see it in a lot of industries that boom – first, everybody just wants it. Then, once everybody has it, they want something better. So we’re starting to see more age-statement, higher-end and higher-proof products.

Rye whiskey is the fastest growing American whiskey category. So we’ll hopefully see more rye whiskey, especially internationally. There’s a huge demand for it.

The next thing is to find out what our customers want. The trend for a while has been cask finishes – but now we’re hearing from our consumers that they’ve had enough of cask finishes. Now they want more old school, big, bold Bourbon.

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