What was the first Russell’s Reserve brand expression?  Many would say 101-proof Russell’s Reserve 10-year.  But that’s technically incorrect.  Russell’s Reserve 10/101 was a release under the Wild Turkey brand name.  The first expression to introduce Russell’s Reserve as a brand itself (as well as the signature wide bottle that’s still used today) was 90-proof Russell’s Reserve 10-year.  It might help to think of RR 10/101 as a miniseries, while RR 10/90 the start of an ongoing series.

Now, you can disagree with me all you want about which Russell’s Reserve is the true initial release but you’d be foolish to assume that Russell’s Reserve 10/101 is the vastly superior bourbon.  With RR 10/101 valued at hundreds of dollars on the secondary – it must be the best, right?  Well, I’d have to say that’s not necessarily accurate.  And if you stay vigilant on the hunt you can find another “best” Russell’s Reserve 10-year at good ol’ retail price.  That’s right. $40 (or less) and you’ve got something truly special on your hands. Allow me to explain.

Sometime in the early 2000’s Wild Turkey realized they had a problem.  Too many mature barrels were losing ABV.  Some of you might already be familiar with this, as it’s the reported reason for the mid-2000’s barrel entry-proof changes (from 107 to 110 in 2004, and 110 to 115 in 2006).  Many producers wouldn’t consider this a critical problem, as they’d likely be bottling anywhere from 80-90 proof.  But for Wild Turkey, the 101-proof distillery, mature low-proof barrels weren’t ideal (nor particularly useful) for premium products.  So what does one do with a lot of lower-proof barrels originally intended for export Wild Turkey 101 12-year bottles?  You turn them into Russell’s Reserve 10-year and bottle at 90 proof.

Now, I’ll admit that some of this is honest speculation, though I’m not the first to toss around this theory.  In fact, it’s been assumed factual on Reddit’s r/bourbon for some time now – bolstered by the Russells 2017 AMA.  When asked if 2005-2006 Russell’s Reserve 10-year was simply underproofed 101 12-year, the Russells answered with, “Possibly.”  They elaborated citing reasons for the aforementioned barrel entry proof changes.  But theories and wordplay aren’t hard facts – they’re never a sure thing.  So what is?  Profile.  After all, tasting is believing.

For the record, this isn’t my first experience reviewing early Russell’s Reserve 10-year.  Back in February 2017 I reviewed a 2006 Russell’s Reserve 10/90.  It was genuinely a surprise at the time.  But since then, I’ve met more Turkey fans and picked up new readers – some unfamiliar with my older posts.  I think it’s time to once again discuss the big secret many dusty Turkey hunters have kept quiet … 2005-2006 Russell’s Reserve 10/90 is phenomenal.  And quite frankly, it’s as close as you’re going to get to 101/12 domestically without the price tag (should you get lucky).

So what should you be looking for besides the bottle/label pictured above?  This is the important part, as Russell’s Reserve 10-year changed in 2006 to a bourbon more similar in profile to what we have now.  Not bad, but not at all dusty or classic. If you want to find a Russell’s Reserve 10-year that tastes like Wild Turkey 101 12-year, you’ll need to look for two major identifiers.  The first and most obvious is a bottle that lacks an embossed “Jimmy Russell” on the glass.  The second is a black ink bottle code on the back label (as pictured). These bottles were filled at the Pernod facility in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.  When bottling moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas in 2006 (a move I’ve heard Jimmy wasn’t a fan of), the bottles (and profile) changed.  The glass became embossed and bottle codes were lasered directly onto the glass (a common coding method now).  The label, however, remained the same.

2005 Russell's Reserve 10

I’ll note that a 2006 bottle doesn’t guarantee a Wild Turkey 101/12 profile.  While a 2005 Russell’s Reserve 10/90 find is surefire gold, a 2006 bottle, being a transition year, can be either or.  Always look for the two primary identifiers: lack of embossing and a black ink bottle code.

Now that I’ve covered the ins and outs of 2005-2006 Russell’s Reserve 10/90, it’s proper time to dive into the details of its profile.  I think it goes without saying that I’m a huge fan of this expression.  But just because I’ve enjoyed this bourbon numerous times before doesn’t mean I can’t continue tasting it critically.  Yep, I’ve stared at this empty glass long enough.  Let’s pour!

Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old Bourbon (2005 “brown label”) – 90-proof KSBW – aged at least 10 years – 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% barley (rumored mash bill) – distilled by the Austin, Nichols Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color:  deep rosy copper

Nose:  (complex classic & dusty WT) honey-maple, cherry-vanilla, caramel, funky/musty oak, nutmeg, brown sugar, herbal & floral spice, orange peel, clove tobacco, leather, hints of lemon zest

Taste:  (creamy classic WT) cherry-vanilla, honey-maple, fruity & funky oak, caramel-nougat, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, leather, sweet herbal spice, orange/lemon peel

Finish:  long, pleasantly warm & flavorful – caramel, vanilla, molasses, sweet musty oak, cherry/orange, rich herbal tea, hints of cinnamon, nutmeg & clove (spice drops)

Overall:  Classic. Wild. Turkey.  There’s even a top-quality dusty vibe to it as well.  Each time I open a bottle of 2005 Russell’s Reserve 10-year I’m consistently impressed.  I think that says something considering all export Wild Turkey 101/12’s from the 2000’s aren’t considered equal.  But that’s another post for another time.  To me there’s a handful of expressions that exemplify the best of 2000’s Wild Turkey and this release (at least for this year) is most definitely on that list.  It has fruit.  It has funk.  It has rich sweets and fragrant spice.  It has damn near everything you’d want in a bourbon and it does it all at 90 proof.  As much as I get the argument for the current Russell’s Reserve 10-year to be 101 proof (since entry proof was raised over 10 years ago), it has no relevance whatsoever to this 2005 release.

Before I close up you might be asking, what’s going on here?  Why does 2005’s Russell’s Reserve 10/90 taste so much different than later releases of RR 10/90?  The honest truth is: I don’t know.

I can say that 2005-2006 Indiana-bottled Russell’s Reserve 10-year bottles say “distilled by,” so that should dispel any assertion of sourced bourbon.  But there’s something else to consider – barrels aged at Stone Castle.  Remember, there were over 80,000 Wild Turkey barrels in storage at Stone Castle over a 14-year period.  As we’ve learned from Master’s Keep 17-year, whiskey aged in brick/stone rickhouses is quite different from whiskey aged in on-site traditional wood rickhouses.  Maybe some of the Stone Castle barrels were in use by late 2006?  The math lines up, as Wild Turkey began using Stone Castle for maturation in 1996 (exactly ten years by 2006).

In closing, it’s very hard to definitively say why 2000’s era Wild Turkey expressions are so variant, though you have my promise I’ll keep researching.  As for this bottle of Russell’s Reserve 10-year … fan-Turkey-tastic.  I never get tired of this expression and probably never will.  Very high marks from me, of course!

Rating:  4.5/5 🦃