Brew a pot of coffee, or better yet, pour yourself a generous dram of your favorite Wild Turkey because today I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a story about bourbon – a story with all the typical trappings: nineteenth-century history, a beautiful rural Kentucky landscape, coming of age, new discoveries, and a life-changing experience. And, unlike a lot of bourbon stories (far too many to name), I believe this one to be true. It’s a story folks can relate to, especially those (like myself) who, in their youth, struggled with what their future might be in the family business. Yet, as wonderful as the story may be, in the end it’s about that very business. It’s about selling bourbon.
This summer, Wild Turkey debuted the third release in the Master’s Keep series, at least the third release for Australians. That’s right. Master’s Keep 1894 is a limited edition Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey exclusive to the blokes and sheila’s in the land down under. As Saturday Night Live’s Kenan Thompson might ask, “What up with that?”
I’ll get into the how’s and why’s later (or at least my best guess at them), but in the meantime let’s focus on the backstory. I’ll refrain from paraphrasing and let the liner notes from 1894’s elegant box tell the tale:
Master’s Keep 1894, the third expression in Master Distiller Eddie Russell’s limited series of rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskies, honours the sacred place where he first fell in love with bourbon.
In 1894, Rickhouse A was the first structure built on top of Wild Turkey Hill, overlooking the mighty Kentucky River, and for over a century has reliably produced some of the world’s finest whiskies. The strength of Rickhouse A lies in its elevation and exposure to the elements, which enable the bourbon to breathe and move freely through the barrel with the seasons.
In the summer of 1981, a distillery worker led a young Eddie Russell up the rickety stairs of Wild Turkey’s oldest rickhouse to give him his first taste of whiskey straight from the barrel. It was then Eddie decided to dedicate his life to Wild Turkey.
Bottling that life-changing moment, Master Distiller Eddie Russell introduces an extraordinary bourbon made from his private selection of barrels in Rickhouse A. The marriage of these precious barrels laid to rest in the last 13 years results in a spectacular experience.
Layers of toffee and honey give way to fruity notes of candied pear, stewed apples, spice, subtle oak and vanilla, before delivering a long, lingering and caramel finish. To Eddie Russell, Master’s Keep 1894 is perfection in a bottle – an ode to that dream-like summer day in historic Rickhouse A.
I’ve heard Eddie Russell share this recollection on more than one occasion. As I mentioned previously, it’s a wonderful story and I enjoy hearing it every time it’s told. Naturally, a story of such importance should have a whiskey to carry its emotional weight, shouldn’t it? I’m going to pause right there and move forward with the tasting. I have a lot to say about Master’s Keep 1894, but I think it’s best we gain perspective on the bourbon itself before continuing the discussion.
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep 1894 (2017) – KSBW at 90 proof – reportedly a blend of bourbons aged six, eleven, and thirteen years – bottled by Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY – batch #0001, bottle #05006
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Nose: vanilla, toffee, honey, orange zest, light oak, graham crackers, pastry dough, hints of roasted nuts
Taste: mild vanilla, toffee, slightly musty oak, golden delicious apples, faint baking spice
Finish: medium-short – vanilla, toffee, light caramel, faint oak, brief peppery spice
Overall: Well, that’s disappointing. I’m sorry. I honestly don’t like saying it’s disappointing, but it’s true. While Master’s Keep 1894 isn’t bad bourbon, it’s not impressive bourbon either. The nose is light, the flavor is light, and the finish is light. It’s Wild Turkey light. If there’s thirteen-year bourbon in here, it’s either from the lowest floors or significantly diluted. According to the The Whisky Ledger (which asked Eddie directly), it’s a blend of six-, eleven-, and thirteen-year bourbon from rickhouse A. Sounds like a rickhouse-limited Rare Breed diluted to 90 proof, and it very much tastes that way. Not at all what I was expecting for an exclusive release. I mean, I knew it was a lower-proof expression going into the tasting, but so are Diamond Anniversary and Master’s Keep Seventeen-Year. Each of those limited editions are more complex and flavorful.
Rating: 2.5/5 🦃
So, what’s going on? How did this come to be? Why Australia only? And why the hefty price tag ($199 AUS)? I’ll start by saying I don’t have definitive answers. I want to make that crystal clear. I’ll give you my best guesses and develop from there. I’d ask Eddie directly, but I feel bad enough even typing this review (awful, actually). Wild Turkey is my passion. As much as I’d like to give nothing but glowing reviews and offer spin-positive criticism, I just can’t. There are plenty of whiskey blogs and reviewers out there doing that already. I’m focused on one thing and that’s Wild Turkey. While my loyalty is with the brand, that loyalty is trusted by my readers. If I’m dishonest with a review, this site is essentially worthless. I sincerely hope that Eddie and the folks at Wild Turkey and Campari understand this. Tough love is still love.
Let’s start with how this whiskey came to be and why Australia only, as I believe they go hand-in-hand. Alcohol tax in Australia is ridiculous. If you think American taxes on spirits are bad, research what Aussie’s have to deal with (about $83 AUS per liter of pure alcohol). That’s the main reason why Wild Turkey 101 isn’t a staple down there (it’s actually considered super-premium). Instead, they have Wild Turkey 86.8-proof as a standard. The last time the U.S. saw 86.8 as a core expression was in the mid/late 1980s. I suppose the taxes on Master’s Keep Decades (104 proof) negatively affected net profit when factored into the $199 AUS (tax-inclusive) retail price. As a result, I believe Campari resolved to customize the next Master’s Keep to fit the Australian marketplace (and therefore, increase net profit). Enter Master’s Keep 1894 at 90 proof.
Do I really think Eddie Russell believes 1894 to be “perfection in a bottle?” Nah. I think that’s all marketing chatter typical of the bourbon industry. It’s my opinion that Eddie was working within a box. He had to come up with a low-proof bourbon special enough for an Australian limited edition. The unique barrels used for Master’s Keep Seventeen-Year were gone, so he worked with what was left (possibly a few select barrels from the lowest floors of rickhouse A). My guess is those weren’t enough to reach projected yield. How does one solve that problem? Find barrels from other floors – barrels you can dilute enough to stay within the confines of the metaphorical box. At least, that’s how I’m envisioning it.
And the story? The heartfelt biographical narrative helps to frame the release as worthy, and thereby justifies (or at least attempts to justify) the hefty $199 AUS price tag. While I hate even thinking that, it’s the best I’ve got. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the batch came first. Maybe Eddie came up with this lower-proof six-, eleven-, and thirteen-year blend out of the blue and decided it was destined for Australia. I just don’t see that. To me, Eddie’s profile is Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, and Master’s Keep 1894 is so very far from it (in profile and price).
What frustrates me most about Master’s Keep 1894 echoes back to my introduction. It’s an amazing story, but in the end it’s about business. It’s about selling bourbon with a story. And let’s be clear – it’s not my story, but it’s a damn good one and I can’t help but feel like it deserves a better whiskey. Just because the first straight-from-the-barrel sip came from rickhouse A doesn’t mean you have to use barrels from rickhouse A to tell that story. You don’t even have to create a batch that duplicates the profile (or the memory of the profile) of the same barrel. Accuracy and art don’t always go well together. Take, for example, Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp. While arguably the more historically accurate film in comparison to Kurt Russell’s Tombstone, Tombstone is a grand-slam entertainment masterpiece. I mean, how many Doc Holliday lines can you recite from Wyatt Earp? You’re a daisy if you think it’s more than one.
So, what’s going on? Where am I going with this? Well, Kilmer’s Doc Holliday would call it a reckoning. I call it taking account of the situation and setting things right. I noticed that some of the promotional materials for Master’s Keep 1894 state “the third release.” So either Australia’s 1894 will remain uniquely out of sequence from domestic Master’s Keep releases, or they’re going to get skipped at some point. Needless to say, Master’s Keep Revival is coming soon (per U.S. TTB filing). Revival is stated (or at least filed) as a twelve-year Wild Turkey bourbon finished in Oloroso Sherry casks and bottled at 101 proof. Sounds awesome, right? Well, I think it’s only just, considering the price/profile conflict with 1894, for Australia to see this release. In addition, I think it would be a prudent gesture to offer a mail-in rebate to Australian consumers that purchase (or have already purchased) 1894. Hell, it could even be a coupon for a future Wild Turkey purchase of any kind. Just something to help level the price/profile see-saw I just experienced.
As for giving Eddie’s story the proper whiskey (remember, we want Tombstone not Wyatt Earp), I have an idea (with all due respect and admiration towards Eddie). First off, let’s consider 1894 a tribute to rickhouse A and leave it at that. Next, I’d kindly ask Eddie to open a bottle of 1981 Wild Turkey 101 (remember, ’81 was the year he took that first straight-from-the-barrel sip). Study and savor it until that bottle is all you breathe and taste in your mind. Then, search every barrel of every floor of every rickhouse until you develop a batch that’s nearly comparable (I get that ‘81 is Glut Era whiskey, but work with me here). When you’re satisfied and confident this masterful batch is complete, name it Master’s Keep 1981 and let that be your true “perfection in a bottle.” I realize things have changed and the profile won’t be exactly the same, but I know for a fact it could get close. I’ve tasted some superb Russell’s Reserve barrels; Eddie, you’ve tasted a thousand times more. Master’s Keep 1981 … it’s your huckleberry.
I should probably begin to wrap things up now. To my readers, I thank you for your patience, as this review has been considerably lengthy (my longest review to date by far). To Eddie Russell and the folks at Wild Turkey/Campari, I sincerely appreciate your attention and hope that you at least understand my point of view. You don’t have to agree with it, I only ask that you take my words to heart. Master’s Keep 1894 is, at best, a mid-shelf bourbon in top-tier packaging. If Master’s Keep Seventeen-Year and Decades were no longer available in Australia, then I might recommend 1894 as a gift for the diehard Wild Turkey fan that appreciates a substantially lighter (proof and flavor) bourbon. Outside of that, you’re better off with a couple bottles of Wild Turkey 101. Simply put, the price/profile ratio is far too skewed to the left. While I’d love to give every Wild Turkey whiskey a solid gold 5/5, as Doc Holliday would say, my hypocrisy goes only so far.
Photo courtesy @rauy_aus (2017) – and a very special thank you for the sample!