When I reviewed Master’s Keep Cornerstone in August, I briefly touched on Wild Turkey’s rye distilling past and discussed its present course under the leadership of Eddie Russell and the support of his son, Bruce. If there’s one area of potential growth for Wild Turkey, it’s in the rye category. But more on that later. For now, let’s take a look at the quality of its modern-day premier rye expression.

If you’re searching for the best rye whiskey Wild Turkey has to offer, you don’t have to drop $175 on Cornerstone to get there. You need only visit a bottle shop with a diverse rye inventory. Chances are you’ll find Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye in its rustic dark green label. In comparison to other Wild Turkey and Russell’s Reserve expressions, you don’t hear quite as much about the single-barrel rye, though you should.

Ounce for ounce, dollar for dollar, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye is a powerhouse of classic Kentucky rye flavor. Non-chill filtered, bottled at 104 proof, and hand selected by a team of master distillers with over 101 years of combined industry experience, the list of comparable whiskeys is slim. And here we are in its fourth year of production and it only appears – at least from my experience – to get better and better.

Several weeks ago, while reflecting on my Cornerstone review, I decided to seek out another Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye bottle. I discovered a March 2017 release and just as I’ve found with other 2017s, it appeared a slight shade darker than the 2015s and 2016s that accompanied it on the shelf. One could simply chalk this up to single barrel nature, as each barrel is inherently unique, but I’m not sure that’s the only factor to consider. After all, of the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye bottles I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying, there seems to be a slight but distinctive profile shift from 2015-2016 to 2017 onward. And I’m not the only one who’s noticed. In fact, it’s been an interesting point of discussion among my enthusiast friends and patrons lately.

Jason B., who I’d like to thank for keeping my Patreon Community Forum active with weekly content, had this to say: “There seems to be two distinct profiles for [Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye] bottles. One is butter, cream, and a little more floral [2015-2016]. The other bottle I opened tonight [2018] is more in the direction of Cornerstone. Pepper, oak, some cherry. Much more oak influence.”

This reflects my personal observations and I don’t think I could state the differences more accurately. So, outside of the single barrel factor, what else could explain this apparent trend? 

First, and most obviously, there’s maturation. Wild Turkey fills relatively few Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye bottles, at least in comparison to the single-barrel bourbon expressions, so it only makes sense (besides being a known fact) that there are far less rye barrels aging at Wild Turkey. At the same time rye doesn’t get the same focus as their bourbon lineup, so it could very well be that a small number of those rye barrels sit longer. If 2015-2016 Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye bottles averaged six to seven years (my estimation), one could reasonably assume that some 2017-2018 rye barrels might be eight to nine years. That would certainly explain the profile differences, as oak influence doesn’t exist on a perfect linear slope, but rather a dramatically increasing curve as it pushes the ten-plus-year mark.

Second, there’s location. It’s hard to say exactly where these Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye whiskeys aged. All of the rye private selections I’ve seen or tasted state “rickhouse E” on their neck tags. But is that Tyrone E or Camp Nelson E? I’m honestly not sure. Thanks to Eddie Russell, we know that many (if not all) of the barrels used for Master’s Keep Cornerstone matured at Camp Nelson. Taking that into consideration, I’m curious if the 2015-2016 barrels pulled for the single-barrel rye expression aged in a different location than the 2017+ barrels. It’s just a hunch, but one that would certainly explain the “Camp Nelson prickle” I’m finding in recent single-barrel bottles.

Finally, one has to factor in the new distillery. (Special thanks to Scott F. for suggesting this on my Patreon Community Forum.) As you might recall, the new state-of-the-art Wild Turkey distillery launched in 2011. It replaced the old distillery, which had more or less been around since 1935. That means it’s possible that the whiskey found in 2017’s Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye (if aged six years) originated as distillate from the new facility. If that’s true, significant credit is due Jimmy and Eddie for fine-tuning the reboot, as well as Campari for the wise investment.

Alright, enough whiskey theory for one day. It’s time to give this 2017 Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye a proper tasting. Will it follow the increasing quality trend? Will it fall into Jason’s “two distinct profiles” assertion? There’s only one way to find out. Let’s pour!

Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye (2017) – 104-proof, non-chill filtered Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey – no age stated – distilled and bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color: deep amber/rust

Nose: (beautifully fragrant) apple cider, lemon-honey white tea, caramel drizzle, vanilla wafers, sweet & spicy oak, fresh-baked sourdough bread, tangerine peel, basil, leather

Taste: (creamy mouthfeel) vanilla-orange, honey butter, lemon squares, charred oak, ginger ale, herbal tea, licorice, pepper, hints of medicinal cherry

Finish: (long & zesty) vanilla candy, lemon zest, nutmeg, oak char, hot ginger, floral spice, sweet pepper, faint mint

Overall: Damn, this is tasty! Dare I say ridiculously tasty? It may not be Master’s Keep Cornerstone (not quite), but it’s sure as hell close enough for a fraction of the cost. This barrel in particular has me wholeheartedly satisfied and impressed with the flawless balance it showcases for a Kentucky rye. More often than not, Kentucky ryes are sweet – almost bourbon-like. While this particular barrel is relatively sweet, it has more than its fair share of herbal spice and zesty citrus to impart a full-throttle rye whiskey experience.

So if you’re looking for a high-quality straight rye whiskey with loads of Kentucky character (non-chill filtered and well over 100 proof to boot), look no further than Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye. Honestly, there’s very few Kentucky rye whiskeys that can compare at or near its price point – Knob Creek Rye, Pikesville, and possibly Col. E. H. Taylor Rye (if you can find it). But as excellent as those pours might be, they’ll never give you that signature Wild Turkey rye character. Nope. That only comes from a Russell.

Rating: 4/5 🦃

Earlier in this post I mentioned that rye whiskey is a potential area of growth for Wild Turkey. This may be an understatement. Based on the recent success of Master’s Keep Cornerstone, I’d argue it’s imperative the distillery take note and move forward with a long-term rye whiskey strategy. But what would that entail? Well, I think none other than Wild Turkey’s “Rye Guy” himself, Bruce Russell, has the right idea. If you’re familiar with the Dads Drinking Bourbon podcast, you’re surely aware of the episode Bruce recorded last year. If not, I highly recommend you give it a listen. It may be the best podcast ever recorded with a Russell (not kidding).

Anyhow, as you get about eighteen minutes into the episode Bruce starts discussing rye whiskey. And if you pay close attention, he says something rather noteworthy (at least noteworthy to me) – he talks about his desire to experiment with a second rye mash bill – a recipe similar to the Maryland and Pennsylvania whiskey formerly sourced for Wild Turkey 101 Rye in the 1940s to 1970s.

Brilliant idea, Bruce. After all, Wild Turkey only needs one bourbon mash bill – Jimmy’s recipe taught to him by his legendary mentor, Bill Hughes. But rye whiskey … well, that’s never been Jimmy’s thing. Adding a second rye whiskey mash bill would have no effect whatsoever on Jimmy’s legacy. In fact, I’d argue it’s the natural course for the Russell dynasty.

On that I’ll close with this. In July of this year, Jim Beam broke ground on a new “craft distillery” in Clermont, KY. The Fred B. Noe Distillery will be a small, but progressive operation dedicated to whiskey experimentation and discovery. Bravo to Beam-Suntory! What an excellent idea. Should Fred or Freddie come up with something amazing on a small scale, they can then transition that success into full-scale production at the main distillery.

Are we paying attention, Campari?

So here’s my two cents. Wild Turkey should break ground on its own “craft distillery.” And it’s first experiment? You guessed it … a new (throwback) rye whiskey. But more importantly, as with Beam’s endeavor it should be christened with an appropriate name – one that reflects opportunity and steadfastness. My recommendation? The Joretta Freeman Russell Distillery.

Think about it. Joretta Freeman was employed at Wild Turkey (then Anderson County Distilling Co.) before her soon-to-be husband, Jimmy Russell, signed on. In fact, it’s said that Joretta was the one who encouraged Jimmy to take the chance. Not only did she see Jimmy’s potential, years later she saw Eddie’s as well, encouraging her son to seek work at the distillery for a temporary summer job. That short-term summer gig turned into full-time employment. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Were it not for Joretta Freeman Russell, Wild Turkey as we know it today wouldn’t exist. That’s a fact. Honestly, she’s the heroine of the brand. In an industry saturated with names of countless men, it’s women like Joretta that often set things in motion. She knows the value of stepping up, giving things an honest shot, and doing so through insight and courage. The very traits of success, as there’s no reward without risk.

So think about it, Campari. As much as I appreciate the aspirations of the Noes, there’s absolutely no reason why the Russells can’t do the same (and do it better). 😉

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