The Russells

Of Kentucky’s distilling families, few have left a greater impression in such relatively little time as the Russells of Anderson County. Whereas names like Beam and Samuels stretch back into the 1800s, the Russell legacy began in earnest only in 1954.

James Russell

James Cassidy Russell never aspired to become a distiller. His father, Bob, worked odd jobs at various Anderson County distilleries, but it wasn’t a career Jimmy spent his days dreaming about: Like most boys coming of age in the mid-20th century, he longed to be a professional baseball player. In high school, he broke records and led Anderson County to victory in football, baseball, basketball, and track and field. Friends and teammates called him “Russell the Muscle,” and before too long, universities came calling.

But Jimmy’s time at college didn’t last long. His heart, along with the love of his life, Joretta Freeman, were in Lawrenceburg. Jimmy and Joretta married soon after returning home. Knowing Jimmy would need a full-time job, Joretta put in a good word for Jimmy at the Ripy Bros. Distillery, where she worked as a secretary. 

September 10, 1954 was Jimmy Russell’s first day at Ripy Bros., soon to be named Anderson County Distilling Co., and later, Austin Nichols Distilling Co. He started in quality control under the tutelage of master distiller Bill Hughes, whose experience with a still stretched back to before Prohibition. Jimmy learned the ropes, moving job to job at a rapid pace. For a brief period he worried the transitions were the result of unsatisfied supervisors. In reality, Jimmy was being groomed for a much greater position, and in 1967 he was named master distiller.

The years that followed saw a dramatic shift in bourbon’s popularity. As white spirits and lighter beverages captured a wider consumer audience, distilleries in Kentucky suffered. Many closed for good. Even so, Russell continued to do what he knew best – he kept making quality bourbon, and he kept talking about it. Along with his friend Booker Noe of Jim Beam, Russell  traveled the country preaching the gospel of bourbon to anyone willing to listen. He also invented the first bourbon liqueur, Wild Turkey Liqueur (now American Honey), to appeal to younger, more casual drinkers.

Edward Russell

Like his father, Edward Freeman Russell had no desire to work at a distillery. He’d grown up in the small town of Lawrenceburg, where everyone knew each other; most importantly, everyone knew his father, Jimmy. Eddie wanted to carve his own path, so after graduating high school he went to Western Kentucky University on a football scholarship. But after visiting home for summer break in 1981, he realized he couldn’t leave what was fast becoming the family business. His mother found Eddie a part-time job at the Austin Nichols Distillery. 

Things were never easy for Eddie Russell, despite, or maybe because of, his father. He started at the ground level, cleaning bottles, rolling barrels, painting, and landscaping. In time, Eddie was placed in charge of maturation, a position where he would eventually fine tune his talent and skill for crafting exceptional whiskey.

Eddie Russell was named associate master distiller in 2007. It was a hard-earned title. After decades of working tirelessly under Jimmy, Eddie was now playing a much larger role in the whiskey Wild Turkey was bringing to market – in particular, the development of an entirely new brand, Russell’s Reserve, which featured premium age-stated bourbon and rye whiskey expressions.

Eddie’s responsibilities increased significantly after Grupo Campari bought Wild Turkey from Pernod Ricard in 2009. In 2011, he introduced the 81-proof Wild Turkey Bourbon as a replacement for the former, often criticized 80-proof expression. Two years later, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon hit retail shelves, bringing newfound appreciation for Wild Turkey

Eddie was named master distiller alongside his legendary father in 2015. That same year saw the introduction of the acclaimed Master’s Keep series, as well as the first new Wild Turkey rye expression since 2007, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye.

Bruce Russell

When Bruce Cassidy Russell first joined Wild Turkey in 2010, times were much different, and brighter, than the eras when his grandfather and father started their tenures. 

Initially, Bruce Russell’s skills were put to use as a tour guide. Having spent his youth romping the distillery grounds, he knew the facility and its rickhouses like the back of his hand. In late 2014, he was promoted to a brand ambassador, moving to Austin, Texas, the following year. Whether by chance or strategy, it was a wise move. With two Russells based in Kentucky, the brand would only benefit from an authentic representative far away from the Bluegrass State. Bruce was the ideal choice. 

Bruce returned to Kentucky in 2018. The timing couldn’t have been better as Wild Turkey was preparing their first limited-edition rye whiskey, 2019’s Master’s Keep Cornerstone. A self-professed rye fan, Bruce worked with his father to dial in an expression that would not only garner critical acclaim but shine new light on Wild Turkey’s rye whiskey. The following year saw the introduction of Rare Breed Rye, Wild Turkey’s first barrel-proof rye offering, thanks again to Bruce’s assistance.

By 2021, Bruce was leading Wild Turkey’s private barrel program, providing him an opportunity to connect with distributors, retailers, and whiskey enthusiasts. The program, which started with a handful of barrels back in the early 2010s, had grown to well over 1,000 thanks to increased demand. In 2023, Bruce was named associate master blender.

Perhaps, in time, we’ll see a fourth generation of Russell play a part in shaping the future of Anderson County’s storied brand. Until then, the world is grateful to have Jimmy, Eddie, and Bruce making what many claim is Kentucky’s finest bourbon.