1. an important quality or feature on which a particular thing depends or is based.
When most people hear the words, “Wild Turkey,” they think bourbon. And rightfully so, as Jimmy Russell’s incomparable Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey has been filling glasses and satisfying souls for scores. Yet from the very beginning – even going back before the Russell era – Wild Turkey rye whiskey stocked retail shelves.
I’ve discussed the history of Wild Turkey rye before – most recently in my review of a 2018 81-proof Wild Turkey Straight Rye. Essentially, Wild Turkey 101 Rye, just like the bourbon, began with sourced whiskey. It wasn’t until the 1970s, after the purchase of what’s now the Wild Turkey Distilling Co. by Austin, Nichols & Co. that rye whiskey distillation began under Jimmy Russell’s supervision in Lawrenceburg, KY.
But here’s the kicker – Jimmy Russell isn’t a rye whiskey fan. Sure, he knows how to craft it, but you won’t find him sipping it in his leisure time. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You like what you like. At the same time Jimmy’s preference for bourbon (and lack of consumer rye demand for decades) is likely why we’ve never seen a special edition Wild Turkey rye whiskey. That is, until 2019.
Whiskey enthusiasts have known about Master’s Keep Cornerstone since late 2018. Immediately, the energy was high for this release. Wild Turkey’s first limited edition straight rye whiskey – its longest aged and highest proof – would soon be in the hands of fans. With an official release date set for August 2019, it came as a surprise when bottles popped up in several states a month early. And then the mania hit. With only 16,000 bottles available domestically (6,000 internationally), and considering the attention limited whiskey releases get nowadays (Google: “whiskey tater”), the chances of acquiring Cornerstone seemed slimmer by the day.
But hold up. We are talking about Wild Turkey rye, right? Not Sazerac 18, not Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, not some insanely priced, pewter-top WhistlePig luxury bottle, no. Wild Turkey rye – the same Wild Turkey rye we’ve known for years now – is finally getting the attention it deserves. How about that?!
So who’s to thank for this endeavor? Well, that would be Master Distiller Eddie Russell and his son, Global Brand Ambassador Bruce Russell. Though as much as Cornerstone bears Eddie’s name, the unsung hero of this special release is undoubtedly Bruce.
Bruce Russell is in every way the modern steward of Wild Turkey rye. Without Bruce, Master’s Keep Cornerstone probably wouldn’t exist. I think both Jimmy and Eddie Russell would agree with that statement. It takes passion to make something truly extraordinary. While Jimmy has always produced excellent rye whiskey, he’s never put it forth as a special limited expression. To do so might appear disingenuous, and that sure as hell ain’t Jimmy Russell. But as Bruce came of age, he shared his passion for rye whiskey with his father, Eddie, and Eddie took note.
Much like Jimmy, Eddie went for years with minimal appreciation for rye. Bruce, through his focus and zeal, changed Eddie’s perspective. Rye whiskey became more than a supplementary product – it became a showpiece for the Russell’s Reserve brand, as evidenced by its launch of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye in 2015. But little did we know that Eddie and Bruce were just getting started.
Master’s Keep Cornerstone is exactly what its name implies: an important basis cemented in the past and present – the start of a new foundation with limitless potential. I have a lot to say about Cornerstone, though I’m struggling to do so in my usual format. So today I’ll be doing something different – changing things up a bit. I’ll start with the specs, as I always do, but instead of simply listing notes for each phase of the tasting, I’ll also provide my thoughts in detail with a rating from phase to phase. I’m not certain it’ll be a format I continue on future posts, but it’s certainly warranted for this occasion. So with that, let’s pour!
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Cornerstone (2019) – 109 proof – 9- to 11-year Kentucky straight rye whiskey (confirmed NCF) – bottled by Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY – batch #0001 (per box), (assumed) bottle no. (neck label reads “batch no.”) 22,752
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: rich copper
Nose: graham crackers, medicinal cherry, vanilla wafers, baked apples, musty oak, pepper, lemon squares, ginger, red grapefruit, herbal spice, brown sugar glaze, faint sweet dough
With the exception of some additional spice, oak, and red fruit, Cornerstone’s nose is very much in line with Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye. The medicinal cherry note – one that first struck me on my recent livestream with Jason C. of The Mash & Drum – is unique among the modern Wild Turkey rye expressions I’ve tasted. Outside of those attributes, you’ll find the typical vanilla, lemon squares, sweet herbs, and ginger often found in Wild Turkey rye whiskey. An enjoyable nose, though I wouldn’t consider it the highlight of this expression. 4/5
And the ride intensifies …
Taste: (notably spicy & textured) pepper, apples & cinnamon, clove, old-fashioned caramel chews, black tea, blood orange, “floral” honey, licorice, lemon-vanilla, oak char, hints of cherry
The pepper one first discovers upon nosing transitions into a full-force dominant note by the time this whiskey hits the palate. But pepper isn’t the only presence making itself known, there’s plenty of spice and sweetness juxtaposing – virtually sparring – on your tongue. You feel it as you taste it, but it’s only a tease of what’s to come with the finish. As for the mouthfeel, I wouldn’t necessarily call it thick in the creamy, buttery sense (that’s Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye), but more textured and tactile, endowed with the signature “Camp Nelson prickle.” 4.25/5
And now, the piece de resistance …
Finish: remarkably long & “peppery” – black pepper, sweet chiles, vanilla spice, dense charred oak, licorice, leather, Coca-Cola Classic, citrus zest, confectioners sugar, ginger beer, lingering cinnamon & clove
What an excellent finish. Waves of black pepper intertwine with charred oak and sweet cola in a seemingly never-ending medley of complexity and maturity. I’ve experienced lengthy finishes before, but never from a Wild Turkey rye expression – not like this. There’s a lot going on here and it’s not just earth and spice. There’s intense vanilla, zesty citrus, and a sly, sugary lace that weaves through layers of licorice and faint ginger beer. By far, the finish is the premier aspect of this whiskey – an aspect that sets it apart from numerous Kentucky straight rye whiskeys of practically every price tier. 4.5/5
Overall: What can I say? Master’s Keep Cornerstone is the best modern Wild Turkey rye whiskey expression I’ve had to date. It’s a high-quality pour – but – it’s not the end-all, be-all of Wild Turkey limited editions. Not even close. Don’t get me wrong. Cornerstone has a lot to offer the Wild Turkey and rye whiskey enthusiast. At the same time, it touts a fair share of commonalities with Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye – enough to make one weigh the $100-plus price difference between the two. They’re not the same, but they’re not entirely distant either.
My advice to anyone contemplating the $175 purchase – try before you buy. And if the opportunity presents itself, taste Cornerstone against Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye. Hell, throw in a pour of Wild Turkey 101 Rye and Russell’s Reserve 6-Year Rye for good measure. Go blind. You might just find your preference leans towards the younger, sweeter profiles of 101 and Russell’s Reserve 6. However, if you’re a fan of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye but want a little more ABV and significant peppery spice, you’ll likely appreciate the investment.
Rating: 4.25/5 🦃
Before signing off, I’d like to say to Eddie Russell, you did a damn fine job with this whiskey, sir. But your work is far from done. I expect even finer limited edition rye expressions down the road – expressions that will affirm exactly what Cornerstone’s name implies – a strong foundation.
And to my readers, note there’s something even greater here – a much deeper meaning in this whiskey’s name. If you think about it, when filled, the barrels comprising Cornerstone were originally destined for Wild Turkey’s standard rye offerings. If it weren’t for Bruce Russell, that’s all they might’ve been. Bruce found a level of passion for rye whiskey undiscovered by his father and grandfather. He saw something truly special – the promise of what could be.
Ladies and gentlemen, when it comes to the future of Wild Turkey rye, the cornerstone isn’t a bottle of whiskey, it’s Bruce Cassidy Russell.