Every once in a while, a memorable bourbon comes your way. It doesn’t have to be rare. It doesn’t have to be sought after. It’s just one of those little discoveries that bring you complete satisfaction. Such is the subject of today’s post, but more on that to come.

I’ve met some truly incredible folks along my bourbon journey – kind, caring, generous – people genuinely interested in sharing their passion. Sure, there’s many hobbies one could argue a similar facet, but with whiskey enthusiasm – true whiskey enthusiasm – politics, religion, and egos are checked at the door. As noted in a recent Patreon post, we all “gather around the hearth” to share our whiskey and whiskey stories. We teach; we learn. We council; we acknowledge. We sip; we contemplate. And while there’s always healthy debate (sometimes disagreement), those with cool and level heads understand that in this particular hobby, all opinions are valued and respected.

A couple of months ago, a friend provided me a series of blind samples (big thanks, Bryant). My task was simple – put them in order from least to most favorite. I knew they were all Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon private selections, but that was all. No other details were provided.

Of the three, two really stood out. While each were exemplary on the nose (in their own ways), by the time I compared tastes and finishes, it was obvious one had something remarkably unique over the other – something not typically found in modern Wild Turkey. Dare I say the old, classic Turkey profile? Yes. It was so.

And then the reveal. Of the top two, one was the 2018 Master Distiller Selection – possibly my favorite Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon of last year. But the best of the bunch? A 2015 “strip-label” private selection by Total Wine & More of South Carolina – handwritten tag and all. Surely this was a freshly opened bunker bottle, right? Nope. It was found on a shelf in Columbia, SC … in 2019. And there were others … cases of others.

Surprised? I sure was. But I’ll talk more on that later. For now, the good news is that I have a bottle of my own to sip, share, and review. And that’s exactly what I plan on doing. Let’s pour!

Russell's Reserve Single Barrel 2015

Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon (2015) selected by Total Wine of South Carolina (barrel #2342, rickhouse H, floor 3) – NAS KSBW at 110 proof (non-chill filtered) – distilled by Austin, Nichols Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color: deep copper

Nose: (complex modern WT meets undeniably classic WT) dense maple, caramel, toasted vanilla, creme brulee, sweet musty oak, brown sugar, nutmeg, herbal spice, citrus, clove, faint mineral notes

Taste: (rich, creamy mouthfeel) thick honey-maple, vanilla bean, brown sugar, caramel, sweet & spicy charred oak, cola, nutmeg, hints of cream cheese icing

Finish: long & flavorful – herbal & floral spice, cinnamon, clove, licorice, oak char, vanilla extract, caramel chews, sassafras, leather & tobacco

Overall: I’m stunned. You mean to tell me that this private selection sat on shelves at Total Wine in Columbia, SC – priced at standard retail – from 2015 until 2019? Talk about a surprise! There’s so many fantastic things to say about this Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel selection. I’ll do my best to sum it up briefly (considering what’s to follow).

First, it’s saturated in classic Wild Turkey notes. While I wouldn’t call it entirely classic/bordering dusty (a la 2005 Russell’s Reserve 10/90), I wouldn’t call it entirely modern either. I’d say it’s quite reminiscent of Russell’s Reserve 10/101 (a solid classic profile with hints of modern traits). I’m also reminded of mid-2000’s Wild Turkey 101 and similar-era Kentucky Spirit bottles: complex and layered, yet well-balanced all the same. It sips under proof and notably above its retail price tier. It’s a damn fine Russell’s Reserve – one I’m more than grateful to have in my cabinet.  Thanks again, Bryant!

Rating: 4.5/5 🦃

Looking back, maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised that a 2015 bottle sat almost four years. It’s only recently that Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel private selections started receiving the attention that’s long been due. Several old-school bourbon clubs were well “in the know” years ago, as were some smaller, enthusiast-oriented retailers. (After tasting this stellar barrel, maybe I should add Total Wine to the “early on it” list, at least Total Wine of South Carolina.) Were it not for these vendors and clubs, I’m not sure Wild Turkey’s private barrel program would be nearly as successful as it is today.

This topic has been discussed before – most recently on Bourbon Pursuit. The analogy frequently employed is that these early clubs and retailers brought Wild Turkey (and other distilleries) “to the dance.” Now that private selection programs are insanely popular, some of these very same groups (not Total Wine) feel they’re being pushed out by larger vendors selling considerable volumes of whiskey (probably Total Wine). I’m not saying respected bourbon clubs and independent retailers single-handedly made little-known single-barrel programs popular, but they certainly waved the flag, opened eyes, and gave their unfaltering support for distilleries like Wild Turkey when countless folks only cared about Pappy and the latest wheated bourbon.

Have the spirits conglomerates forgotten about their brand’s early champions? Maybe. Maybe not. Chances are it’s much simpler than that. It’s numbers. It’s math and money. When a big-name vendor boosts your bottom line, they should be rewarded, right? Also, what role do the distributors play? Maybe it’s not the parent companies who’ve left these groups sitting on the bench, but their state distributors. These are areas I admittedly have no expertise in, but I can say one thing for sure – long-standing, reputable, brand-loyal groups (clubs and retailers regardless of size) shouldn’t be left out or forgotten. When bourbon’s popularity fades, who’ll be left? The genuine fans. The enthusiasts and groups that existed before the stickers, premiums, and hype.

So what’s the solution? I’m not sure about other states, but in South Carolina distributors and large retailers like Total Wine have actually assisted private bourbon groups by facilitating and sponsoring barrel picks. There’s a potential synergy if done correctly. Stores can benefit from the popularity and reputations of local bourbon groups both directly and indirectly. If a group’s private selection lines the store’s shelves, foot traffic is generated.

But what about private clubs that only offer bottles to members? I’d argue there’s a potential indirect benefit (outside of the traditional guaranteed sold barrel) and it involves reciprocal appreciation and sharing the spotlight. Private groups should encourage their members (folks that often spend their hard-earned money on whiskey year-round) to show their thanks through store loyalty. They should also promote their sponsoring stores among bourbon friends, and perhaps more importantly, to the whiskey scene on social media.

And what about the smaller stores that have difficulty working into specific private selection rosters? My armchair advice – work with barrel programs that are easier to get into and pick good barrels. Build a reputation, both locally and online (this is important). Find established and respected groups with a history of quality picks and offer to sponsor a barrel of something you can get. Get those barrel selections talked about on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube. Become more than a brick & mortar store. Become a hashtag. Get involved with the modern bourbon community and share your old-school knowledge (and whiskey). Become the new trusted source. Maybe then the folks dealing the cards will take notice.

The bottom line is this … Regardless of right or wrong, regardless of how many times you’ve been to the dance and who you’ve taken in the past, the times, moves and melodies have changed. What was valued years ago, apparently (and unfortunately) isn’t as valued today. Realize what is. Make yourself valuable again. And when you do, turn the tables and remind the bourbon world that you have something greater to offer – something I fear we may lose sight of: a genuine love of the spirit, passion without ego, and a celebration through fellowship.