Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit and Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel are at present the only single-barrel bourbons in standard production at Wild Turkey Distilling Co. Recently, there has been some debate in whiskey enthusiast circles as to which is the better of the two. On paper they share some similarities. They’re both non-age-stated, single-barrel Kentucky straight bourbon whiskeys. Both are classified as “super-premium” bourbons, typically priced in the $45-$55 range (more often than not Russell’s Reserve is a few dollars higher than Kentucky Spirit). And finally, both are eligible for private selections by distributors and retailers.
The primary differences, however, are proof, filtration, and labeling. Kentucky Spirit is bottled at the classic 101 proof, while Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel is non-chill filtered and bottled at 110 proof. As for labeling, Kentucky Spirit discloses a specific bottling date, barrel number, and rick, while Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel fails to disclose any barrel/location information (save for private selections).
But which is better?
I’m going to (hopefully) answer this debate once and for all. And while Kentucky Spirit and Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel are each single-barrel bourbons (inherently having the chance of being anything from “off profile”/unusual to uniquely amazing), I’m focusing specifically on the general profile differences between the two expressions. Ready for the answer? It all comes down to two major (and relative) factors: barrel-entry proof and dilution.
According to a recent interview with Eddie Russell, Jimmy Russell employed an entry proof of 107 until 2004. Some barrels proofed up as they aged, and many more proofed down (or drifted very little from 107). This resulted in minimal dilution to bottle a 101-proof product. In 2004, barrel-entry proof was raised to 110, and later 115 proof. While still low for the industry, this dramatically changed the classic Wild Turkey flavor profile.
So, what does this mean when comparing Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit to Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel?
Kentucky Spirit distilled prior to 2005 should have been barreled at a lower entry proof and will probably suffer from less dilution and taste closer to the classic Wild Turkey profile. Kentucky Spirit is reportedly eight years of age, so any bottle filled prior to 2013 is more likely to have those lovely dusty Turkey notes. (Typically, the further back you go, the more accurate that assertion.)
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel (which was initially released in 2013) is likely composed of barrels from the newer, increased entry proof of 110 or 115. Essentially, very little (if any) dilution should’ve been required so long as aging kept barrels around 110 proof (evidence of this is found in the newer Rare Breed, which is barrel proof at 112.8). I believe this is why Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, while not the beloved classic Wild Turkey profile from decades ago, tastes excellent in its own way.
To summarize and wrap-up the debate: If you think the classic Wild Turkey profile is better than the modern Wild Turkey profile, then generally speaking a 2012 or earlier bottle of Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit should be preferable over a 2013 or later bottle of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel. Conversely, any 2013 or later Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel will likely taste better than a 2013 or later Kentucky Spirit. Of course, you must never forget that single-barrel whiskeys always carry variance, including the rare chance of off-profile notes.
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit – KSBW at 101 proof – no age stated (reportedly at least eight years) – bottled 2/7/2007 from barrel #10, warehouse E, rick #13 – distilled by the Austin, Nichols Distilling Company, Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: dark copper (notably darker than recent releases)
Nose: brown sugar, thick vanilla, maple, antique oak, clove, “rickhouse funk,” herbal/floral notes
Taste: vanilla, cinnamon, honey, caramel, tobacco, leather, musty oak, herbal/floral spice, light citrus
Finish: medium-long – sticky vanilla, musty oak, hints of clove & citrus
Overall: And there we have it … the legendary classic Wild Turkey profile. As with other Kentucky Spirit bottles around the same time, this 2007 bottle reminds me in many ways of late-1980’s/early-1990’s Wild Turkey 101 8-year – rich vanilla, musty oak, and plenty of herbal spice to savor (as well as some bonus tobacco and leather on the palate).
I absolutely love this 2007 Kentucky Spirit. It’s considerably better than the 2009 bottle I recently reviewed. I just wish I had more than a sample for myself. Cheers!
Rating: 4.5/5 🦃