What makes a great private barrel selection?  Obviously, there has to be excellent whiskey going into the bottle, but is that it?  Purists might say so – at one time I might’ve said so – but not now.  Not after experiencing how Woodland Wine Merchant in Nashville, Tennessee selects and markets Wild Turkey barrels.

It is my sincere hope that today’s post reaches far beyond the wonderful folks of Nashville – folks that at least had a chance at what I consider (spoiler) two fantastic Russell’s Reserve Single Barrels (one of which was simply incredible).  It’s not that I want whiskey enthusiasts to see what they’ve missed (as sadly, these bottles are long gone) – I want enthusiasts to see what they could have with the right bottle shop.  It’s a step above picking great whiskey.  It’s about confidence, pride, and communicating with your customers.

For starters, a proper barrel selection requires experienced tasters.  The good news with selecting on-site at Wild Turkey is that Eddie Russell pre-selects several barrels and guides participants through them.  After all, Eddie and Jimmy’s names are on every bottle, so they maintain the right of preserving product integrity.  And think about it – Wild Turkey just can’t afford (with time, money, or safety) to have everyone running around their rickhouses picking whatever barrels they want.  Ain’t happening.

After Eddie has made his pre-selections, there’s still much work to be done.  This is where the dice begin to roll and it’s best to have experienced bourbon tasters standing in the rickhouse.  I have no idea how Woodland Wine decided who was going to be participating (as it was a group), but they were wise to bring Ryan Oberleitner of signdedrinks.  Oberleitner is about as conservative as it gets when it comes to reviewing whiskey.  I’d argue a little too conservative at times, but at least I have a source to ground my excitement when I need it. 😉

If Woodland Wine called on Ryan, I’m guessing the other folks chosen as tasters were held to the same or similar standard.  And while it sounds like fun sipping bourbon straight from barrel after barrel, the process is quick and intense.  There’s little time for storytelling, absorbing the details of each barrel, or doing nerdy “whiskey math.”  Eddie has a job to do and so do the tasters.  Without confidence – be it in the vendor him/herself, or with the group they’ve chosen – a one-of-a-kind barrel may very well slip away.

Once the barrels are decided upon and everyone’s back from Lawrenceburg, the vendor still has work left to do.  After all, they’ve paid for one or more barrels of whiskey and now have to make their money back – hopefully with a profit.  Vendors like Woodland Wine Merchant take this step with pride.

While all Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel selections sport a fancy tag that hangs from the bottle neck (tags that disclose barrel and rickhouse info), Woodland places a supplementary custom-designed label on each bottle.  These labels not only have visual appeal (ex. M-5, ex. K-5), they disclose every single detail a bourbon nerd would ever need.  They display the pride of the store and anchor it permanently to each bottle.  I’ve always disliked that Russell’s Reserve private selection tags can easily be removed (fix this Wild Turkey, please).  Woodland Wine not only solves that dilemma, but does so by showing they genuinely care about what they’re selling.

One last thing that sets Woodland Wine selections apart from countless other Russell’s Reserve selections is the way they communicate their releases to loyal customers.  While many vendors set up a nice in-store display (often with the actual barrel/s), many ignore social media and electronic notifications altogether.  There are, however, some vendors that post their private selections to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram – typically with a comment or two and a picture showing bottles in stock and ready for purchase.  Woodland, on the other hand, sends a narrative and descriptive email (see excerpt) direct to loyal customers providing them a limited chance to reserve a bottle prior to release.  It’s much more than an announcement – it’s a special invitation.

At this point it should be obvious that Woodland Wine takes their barrel selections seriously.  So now the real question is – do these whiskeys measure up to their efforts?  Luckily, I was able to purchase a bottle of selection #16-369 for review.  As for barrel #16-490 (which had a total yield of only 42 bottles), I wasn’t so lucky. But thanks to Ryan at signdedrinks, I was able to obtain a very generous sample. I have high hopes for these remarkably low-yield Russell’s Reserve Single Barrels (fingers crossed that the bottle I have is best). It’s time for a tasting!

Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon (barrel #16-490, rickhouse M, floor 5) – selected by Woodland Wine Merchant of Nashville, TN – 110 proof, non-chill filtered KSBW – aged at least 9 years & 9 months (per vendor) – distilled and bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY – bottle 16 of 42

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color:  deep rosy copper

Nose:  (complex w/ hints of dusty WT) molasses, vanilla bean, maple, musty charred oak, heavily-steeped herbal tea, clove, cinnamon, blood orange, pipe tobacco

Taste:  (thick & robust) “woody” vanilla, caramel, hearty charred oak, honey-maple, herbal spice, cinnamon, clove, leather, hints of dark chocolate

Finish:  long, pleasantly warm – chewy caramel, vanilla, rich oak, cinnamon, sweet herbs, ripe citrus, leather

Overall:  This is arguably the best Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel I’ve had to date.  It has everything I love about Davidson’s RRSiB #2394 and more.  It’s robust, intense, and showcases traits often found in Wild Turkey from decades past.  I can only imagine how impressive this bourbon must’ve been straight from the barrel.  I’d wager it would’ve rivaled the 2016 Whisky Jewbilee – possibly even certain Wild Turkey Kentucky Legend (Donut) releases.  As-is, it has enough going for it to make my Top 10; more importantly, it’s a true testament of the quality whiskey coming from Wild Turkey here in 2017.

Rating:  4.5/5 🦃

Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon (barrel #16-369, rickhouse K, floor 5) – selected by Woodland Wine Merchant of Nashville, TN – 110 proof, non-chill filtered KSBW – aged at least 9 years & 8 months (per vendor) – distilled and bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY – bottle 60 of 90

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color:  deep rosy copper

Nose:  (layered spice & fruit) rich vanilla, caramel apple, charred oak, maple, fruity herbal tea, orange peel, cinnamon, nutmeg, leather, hints of cedar

Taste:  (rich & balanced) maple, vanilla, brown sugar, sweet charred oak, cinnamon, caramel, citrus, hints of leather

Finish:  long, pleasantly warm – spicy vanilla, sweet oak, caramel, maple, cinnamon, leather, herbal spice

Overall:  If I had to describe this Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel in one word it would be “layered.”  There’s a whole lot going on here, yet it maintains complete harmony throughout each phase (nose, taste, and finish).  Classic Wild Turkey notes?  Check.  Bold spice?  Yep.  Balance and maturity?  You got it.  All of these elements are present, yet this whiskey never comes across too sweet nor spice forward.  Relatively (and comparatively) speaking, I’d place this selection somewhere between Lincoln Road #136 (G-6) and AWS #16-358 (K-5) in flavor.  What’s not to love in that profile sandwich?

Rating:  4/5 🦃

Wrapping things up here – I think it’s safe to say that Woodland Wine Merchant knocked their 2017 Russell’s Reserve selections out of the park – way out of the park.  Each of these whiskeys are hands-down excellent (the types of barrels enthusiasts dream of).  But I’ll have to be honest – barrel #16-490 is an absolute monster of single barrel KSBW.  If I were Eddie, I would’ve had a insanely hard time letting it go.  Which gets me thinking … if Eddie let barrel #16-490 go, just imagine the barrels he’s setting aside.

It’s thoughts like that which bolster my belief that the best of Wild Turkey is yet to come.  Sure, dusty Turkey is phenomenal – dare I say life-changing at times?  But – I challenge you to look ahead.  Sip what’s around you – from what’s on the shelves to private barrel selections – and contemplate the future.  If you honestly believe Wild Turkey has seen its prime, you’re living in the Matrix.

Wake up, Neo.  It’s time to take the red pill.