Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last five years, you’ve almost certainly noticed a surge in American straight rye popularity. To my knowledge, nearly every major American distillery has at least one rye whiskey in the marketplace, and there are countless NDP’s (non-distiller producers) offering new releases on what often seems like a daily basis. Interestingly, the grand majority of these NDP’s, and even some larger distilleries, source their rye from MGP in Indiana or Alberta Distillers in Canada, not Kentucky.
To be completely fair, there’s nothing inherently wrong with sourced whiskey. Where things start to get fuzzy is when it comes to labels and marketing. For example, if a Kentucky-based NDP’s rye whiskey label states “North American Straight Rye” and touts all sorts of American patriotic imagery, one might think it’s produced in the United States. To learn that it’s likely produced in Canada – that’s right, North America – well, it starts to lose its patriotic sheen pretty quickly. The whiskey itself is fine (as is Canada 🙂 ), but the sales pitch is questionable. This is just one minor example and thank gobble it’s not Wild Turkey.
Speaking of gobble, let’s talk Wild Turkey rye whiskey. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, Wild Turkey began as a brand under Austin, Nichols & Co., a New York grocer, wholesaler, and NDP. Based on my research (thank you, Chuck Cowdery and John & Linda Lipman), the original Wild Turkey 101 Rye dates back to the early 1950’s (possibly the 1940’s) and was first distilled in Maryland. It was later distilled and bottled in Pennsylvania by Pennco/Michter’s up until the 1970’s. Sometime after AN purchased the Lawrenceburg Ripy/Boulevard distillery in 1972, rye production moved to Kentucky (where it remains today). To AN’s credit, WT Rye labels always noted the states from which their whiskeys were sourced.
Fast forward to 2017 and Wild Turkey’s rye footprint has grown substantially. The once NDP brand has grown from a single sourced rye expression to a major distillery producing four core KSRW expressions annually. Those whiskeys are as follows: Wild Turkey Rye, WT 101 Rye, Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Rye, and RR Single Barrel Rye.
Today I’ll be reviewing a Russell’s Reserve 6-year from 2007 (special thanks to a fellow whiskey enthusiast for the heads-up). While the bottle shape is similar to recent releases, it has a distinct brown label and glass embossed with script reading “Jimmy Russell” (instead of the current “Russell’s Family Reserve”). Other than that, the whiskey in the bottle looks the same as modern RR6 Rye (i.e., no notable difference in color). So how does it compare to the RR 6-year you’ll find today at your local bottle shop? Well, let’s have a pour and find out!
Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Rye (2007) – 90-proof KY straight rye whiskey – aged at least 6 years – rumored mash bill of 52% rye, 36% corn, 12% barley – distilled by Austin, Nichols Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Nose: (slight dusty vibe) vanilla wafers, musty oak, light caramel, honey, lemon squares, sweet herbs, orange peel, oven-roasted coconut, cake frosting
Taste: silky vanilla, musty/funky oak, caramel drizzle, glazed pears, honey-lemon, sweet ginger, light herbal & floral spice
Finish: medium in length – vanilla, light musty oak, confectioner’s sugar, citrus, sweet ginger, faint mint, peppery spice
Overall: This 2007 Russell’s Reserve 6-year is yet another solid example of Wild Turkey’s signature KY straight rye profile, though it does have a nice mustiness not found in current RR/WT rye expressions. I’m not exactly sure how to explain it other than it has a pinch of dusty character that really steps forward if compared side-by-side with more recent RR6 releases (I compared to a 2016). This ‘07 is also notably “mellow” (for lack of a better word) in taste and finish, with less of the mint and tangy fruit more commonly found in modern RR/WT rye.
All in all, the differences between 2007 Russell’s Reserve 6-year Rye and modern RR6 Rye are arguably minor – revealing themselves in comparison, but less so when enjoyed on their own. So why the differences at all? [edit as of 8/21/2017 – thank you, Eddie] Per Master Distiller, Eddie Russell, barrel entry-proof for Wild Turkey rye changed from 107 to 110 in 2004, and from 110 to 115 in 2006. This reflects the entry-proof changes for WT bourbon. While I’ve found the entry-proof changes to be quite notable with WT bourbon expressions, they’re arguably less pronounced in the rye expressions. The changes do, however, help to explain some of the dusty vibe found in older rye releases, such as this ‘07 RR6.
Another factor of note is where Russell’s Reserve/Wild Turkey rye barrels are aged. While there are no specific rickhouses dedicated to rye maturation, Eddie remarked that he avoids aging rye barrels on the bottom and top floors (less extremes). If you take this into consideration, along with the fact that WT produces considerably less rye than bourbon (smaller batches), then we have at least a partial explanation as to why RR/WT rye expressions seem more consistent from year to year.
And finally, it’s worth mentioning (at least for the future) that the new Wild Turkey distillery fired up in 2011. This means that 2017 (and onward) Russell’s Reserve 6-year Rye may taste significantly different from previous releases. I compared a 2007 to a 2016, so the new distillery isn’t a factor in this review.
As for my closing thoughts on 2007 Russell’s Reserve 6-year Rye, I’d say it’s an excellent find at retail price. As I’ve mentioned in past reviews, I tend to prefer Wild Turkey 101 Rye and Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye over RR6. Not that RR6 is sub-par, it just sits in the middle between profiles. Were it a higher proof or aged even longer, I might reach for it more often. On the other hand, this ‘07 RR6 is a slightly more interesting whiskey than the last few years of RR6 releases. Nothing to invest too many resources into tracking down, but certainly a worthy purchase if found on a dusty Turkey hunt.
Rating: 3.5/5 🦃