Another year behind us, another year to celebrate the best Wild Turkey has to offer. And what a year it’s been! From exemplary core expressions to phenomenal single barrels, the options were far from limited. The Russells are at the top of their game. That’s a fact. Please don’t be fooled by those caught in the past. Yes, dusty pours are epic, but it’s easy to forget that today’s whiskeys are tomorrow’s legends. And if there’s a recent year to take note of, it’s 2019.
As with my previous “Best of” posts, the premise is the same: recognize Wild Turkey releases that aren’t just quality pours, but offer traits one could argue as unique or special. Ratings will factor into my selection process, though it’s important to remember they aren’t the sole determining factor.
My rules are simple (no changes from years prior). To be eligible for selection a release must be:
- Produced at Wild Turkey Distillery and bottled and/or initially available for sale within the same calendar year. That means no dusties or bottles from previous years.
- Private single barrels, independent bottlings, and Campari Whiskey Baron releases are all potential selections (so long as they’re confirmed as Wild Turkey produced).
- While some whiskeys are eligible for multiple categories, each category will have an exclusive winner. In other words, you won’t find a particular whiskey winning multiple categories.
With that said, I proudly present Rare Bird 101’s The Best of Wild Turkey 2019.
Best Design (2019) – Campari Whiskey Barons Bond & Lillard (Batch 2)
Campari Whiskey Barons aren’t strangers to these lists. Back in 2017, Bond & Lillard Batch 1, along with its co-release, Old Ripy, received my Best Design award. Outside of a new batch number, there were no apparent changes in Bond & Lillard’s design for batch 2. There was also no change in how stellar I think it looks. Countless bottles attempt to recreate or reimagine pre-Prohibition and medicinal whiskey styles, but very few achieve it with sheer classic elegance. Once again, bravissimo Campari design team!
Best Core Expression (2019) – Russell’s Reserve Ten Year Old Bourbon
This may ruffle some Turkey feathers, but Russell’s Reserve Ten-Year has moved from one of my least favorite Wild Turkey expressions to one of my most frequently purchased. Why is that? I honestly don’t know. But when I’m looking for an easy-sipping whiskey in the 90-proof range, I prefer it to showcase a nice oak presence regardless of ABV. Russell’s Reserve Ten-Year does that remarkably well. It also adds character to cocktails and blends and doesn’t cost a fortune.
There’s not many ten-year Kentucky straight bourbons priced in the $30 range (even fewer that can be found with ease) and only one that’s brought to you by a team of master distillers with over 101 years of industry experience … Russell’s Reserve Ten Year Old Bourbon.
Best Straight Bourbon (2019) – Wild Turkey 101
What can be said about Wild Turkey 101 that hasn’t been said already? Those seeking a flavorful, well-crafted and versatile bourbon without breaking the bank need only look for Wild Turkey 101. It’s as simple as that.
This year’s Wild Turkey 101 batches have been exceptional – not only living up to the surprisingly high bar set in 2018, but exceeding it as well. What makes recent releases so impressive? Well, there’s a lot of theories and rumors out there. What speaks loudest to me is the fact that the youngest bourbon in 2018-2019’s batches comes from the new distillery that opened in 2011. Not that Wild Turkey 101 incorporates youthful whiskey – to the contrary – I believe master distiller Eddie Russell has stated six to seven years as the current floor in terms of batch maturity. The ceiling, on the other hand, can cross the ten-year mark. All of this in a 101-proof bourbon that retails for a no-fuss $25 or less – a ridiculously delicious bourbon at that. Needless to say, 2019’s Best Straight Bourbon is a no-brainer.
Best Straight Rye (2019) – Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Cornerstone
2019 was a landmark year for Wild Turkey as it released its first limited edition straight rye whiskey, Master’s Keep Cornerstone. Boasting a selection of choice rye barrels ranging in age from nine to eleven years and bottled NCF at 109 proof, Cornerstone carried the specs longtime Turkey rye lovers had been waiting for. It more than delivered.
With notably complex layers of sweet and spicy texture, as well as a long peppery finish that’s uniquely “Camp Nelson,” Master’s Keep Cornerstone sets an impeccable tone for a new generation of Wild Turkey rye releases. Sure, its $175 price is a little hefty, and factoring that alongside the high quality of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye one could make a damn good argument for hesitation. Though, from my experience, judging a whiskey by its price is a slippery slope. The Russells aren’t thinking about prices when they’re producing whiskey, they’re thinking about the quality of the whiskey itself. Bearing that in mind, I can only say this – if Master’s Keep Cornerstone is the foundation of Wild Turkey’s revitalized rye program, we’ve got a hell of a lot to look forward to in the years ahead.
Best Single Barrel (2019) – Single Cask Nation Wild Turkey Barrel #17-759
This was by far the award category I struggled with most. There were so many excellent single barrels this year: Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, and of course, Single Cask Nation. And as badly as I wanted to put Moonshine Grill’s “Cheesy Gold” in this spot, in a side-by-side tasting, Single Cask Nation’s barrel #17-759 couldn’t be beat – not even by a 12.5-year rarity. (Side note: if there were an honorable mention it would go to Moonshine Grill.)
What Joshua Hatton and Jason Johnstone-Yellin do for the whiskey community cannot be overstated. These guys are serious about whiskey, yet seriously fun all the same. They’re also forthright, generous, and have two of the most well-versed palates in the industry. When they commit to a barrel (or “cask” in the case of non-American spirits) they devote themselves to the essence of that spirit – its origin, brand, and nature of purpose. It’s not about gimmicks or stickers. It’s not about finding “the best.” It’s about finding barrels/casks that exemplify the range of a producer, from unmistakably “on profile” to undeniably unique.
Wild Turkey is no exception. This year’s Single Cask Nation Wild Turkey releases were in many ways a juxtaposition of profiles. Barrel #18-428, which matured in Camp Nelson’s rickhouse A, featured intense modern Wild Turkey notes with pepper-laden candy-esque sweetness. Barrel #17-759, which aged in Tyrone’s rickhouse D, showcased classic Turkey attributes, loaded with buttery bakery notes and herbal/floral spice. A dream of a barrel to say the least, and therefore, my choice for 2019’s Best Single Barrel.
It should be noted that bottling at barrel strength offers a slight advantage over Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, though it shouldn’t discredit Joshua or Jason’s talent. Everyone selects Wild Turkey barrels at barrel proof; it’s the bottling proof that separates Single Cask Nation selections from Russell’s Reserve. There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with sipping undiluted single-barrel bourbon from your own glass, from your own bottle, at your own convenience (something Wild Turkey hasn’t offered since the late 1990s). I propose that if Campari were to make that an option, the competition for this category would be overwhelming. And I’m totally fine with that. So Campari, if you’re reading this, let’s make single-barrel, barrel-proof selections happen. Please.
Patrons’ Choice (2019) – Campari Whiskey Barons W. B. Saffel (Batch 1)
For those unaware I have a Patreon website where I post regularly (almost every day). There’s news, reviews, video livestreams, tastings, and occasional polls. My patrons play a critical role in what I do. They not only support my blog and its relative projects financially, they engage and communicate – not just with me, but each other – daily. They challenge and encourage me. It’s a wonderful community and I’m incredibly grateful and lucky to have it.
This year I tried something new. Considering my patrons are some of the most dedicated Wild Turkey fans in the world, it only seemed appropriate for a “Patrons’ Choice” award. Out of all of this year’s releases (excluding private barrel selections), there was an indisputable favorite … Campari Whiskey Barons W. B. Saffell Batch 1.
I couldn’t agree more. Crafted under the guidance of master distiller Eddie Russell, W. B. Saffell is a testament to his decades of blending experience. Composed of bourbon aged six, eight, ten, and twelve years, Saffell has much more to offer than many enthusiasts assume. It’s not Rare Breed; it’s not Wild Turkey 101. Saffell is a masterful batch of full-bodied bourbon with notable complexity and balance. I like to call it “2002 Junior,” as it displays some of my favorite notes from the highly sought-after Russell’s Reserve 2002.
Special thanks to my patrons for participating in this year’s Patrons’ Choice poll. You nailed it!
Best Whiskey Overall (2019) – Wild Turkey Rare Breed (Batch 116.8)
If you had asked me about Wild Turkey Rare Breed several years ago, I would’ve told you you’re better off finding another expression. In my opinion, Rare Breed Batch 112.8 was a significant step down in quality from it’s former batch, 03RB (2004-2013). Oh, how things have changed! Not only has batch 116.8 turned the ship around, it’s done so with near-unanimous fanfare from whiskey critics and enthusiasts alike. Hell, it beat the entirety of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection bourbon line in author Fred Minnick’s Instagram blind-tasting livestream weeks ago. (I think some folks are still jaded about that one.)
But it doesn’t take Fred Minnick, or me, or anyone else to show you how awesome Rare Breed is. One only needs to visit their favorite bar or bottle shop and try it for themselves. Unlike William Larue Weller or George T. Stagg, you’ll actually find Rare Breed. And that’s precisely what makes it 2019’s “Best Overall.” In this time of overpriced and excessively celebrated high-end whiskeys, Rare Breed remains a full-proof, zero-hype quality whiskey at an affordable price. It’s Wild Turkey at its everyman’s finest – Jimmy Russell’s gift to the world – and for many enthusiasts, the closest they’ll get to sipping Wild Turkey straight from a barrel. Thank goodness we can all have that experience at our leisure.
What a great year to be a Turkey fan! So many reliable expressions, so many noteworthy single barrels … Could it get any better? Yes, I believe it can (and will). There’s several things to look forward to already: Rare Breed Rye, Master’s Keep Bottled In Bond, and an all-new range of rickhouses slated for the 2020 private barrel program. At this point the sky’s the limit, but for now, we’ll enjoy the breadth of what we have, relish in its excellence, and raise a glass to Jimmy and Eddie for the fruits of their labor. Cheers!