In what appears to be an annual tradition, 2019 saw the return of the Master Distiller Selection. I’m not certain how far back the practice goes, but for at least the past several years, Jimmy and/or Eddie Russell have hand-selected choice Wild Turkey barrels to be bottled and sold exclusively at the Visitor Center in Lawrenceburg. Simply labeled “Master Distiller Select,” we as enthusiasts are left with little but the bourbon itself to draw conclusions from. There’s no fancy box or special verbiage – no funny stickers or cute nicknames to grab your attention. What you see is what you get: a Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit with a standard private selection hang tag, and a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon with the new private selection label. Perhaps that’s best, as it’s very “Russell” in presentation. No frills, no BS, just pure, unapologetic Wild Turkey bourbon.

I’m not sure about you, but anytime I see that a barrel was personally selected by Jimmy or Eddie Russell I get a bit excited. I mean, I am a Wild Turkey blogger. What do you expect? Unfortunately, South Carolina isn’t exactly “down the road” from the distillery. As it turns out, I’m blessed with more than my fair share of bourbon friends and I owe many thanks to a special one for securing both 2019 Master Distiller Selections. Cheers to good friends and fine bourbon!

Going into these tastings I admittedly have some expectations. Both the Kentucky Spirit and Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel were aged in the offsite rickhouses at Camp Nelson in nearby Jessamine County. The Kentucky Spirit matured in Camp Nelson rickhouse A, and the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel in Camp Nelson rickhouse F. After enjoying a considerable number of these barrels over the last year or two, I’d like to think I’m somewhat versed in eight- to nine-year Camp Nelson aged bourbon. Granted, I’m no expert – certainly no master distiller – but I’ve tasted enough to gather what’s likely coming my way. That’s not to say I can’t be surprised. As with any single-barrel whiskey, no barrel is identical. There’s always the chance of something unique – phenomenal even. Will that prove my experience today? There’s only one way to find out. Let’s pour!

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit (2019 Master Distiller Selection) – selected by Jimmy and/or Eddie Russell – 101-proof KSBW – no age stated (likely nine years) – bottled 5/22/2019 from barrel #19-1112, warehouse (CN)A, rick 37 – distilled and bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Company, Lawrenceburg, KY

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color: rich amber

Nose: vanilla, toffee, sliced apple, honey, fragrant oak, sugar cookies, waffle cone, pear, white grape juice, cotton candy, hints of floral spice

Taste: butter toffee, caramel drizzle, vanilla, dried fruit, “zesty” oak char, baked apples, bubblegum, cake frosting 

Finish: long & “prickly” – lightly toasted caramel, lemon-lime soda, apple butter, champagne, oak char, pepper, dry baking spice

Overall: My biggest concern when evaluating Kentucky Spirit releases is always: Will it taste better than Wild Turkey 101? The answer to that is almost always subjective. Hell, this entire hobby is subjective. It’s left to the individual to determine how much the two 101-proof bourbon expressions differ and if one exudes notable quality over the other. As for 2019’s Kentucky Spirit Master Distiller Select … well, I can’t say I’m blown away. Sure, there’s a lot to love here – and it is a different profile than standard Wild Turkey 101 – but I can’t say I’d go back for a second bottle.

Let’s start with the nose. There’s a lot of light fruitiness going on here – apples, pears, even white grape. I’m also finding sugar cookies and waffle cone, which I’d say immediately sets this whiskey apart from its batched 101 cousin. It’s lovely, though a bit tame (for lack of a better word).

Moving onto the palate the sweetness-forward trend continues, though there’s more oak and a slightly darker toffee vibe. Still, very much a white fruit, candy-esque bourbon with a nice cake frosting texture. Inoffensive and remarkably easy to sip, but nothing that stands out or makes me pause for thought.

The finish is possibly the most interesting part of this selection (and the primary factor keeping it above an on-par 3.5/5 rating). It’s long and zesty with waves of pepper, spices, and a unique lemon-lime soda character (seriously, you can practically feel a “fizz”). There’s also a nice dollop of “Camp Nelson Prickle” (at least more than I expected at 101 proof). The net result is essentially a champagne-like finish. Yes, you read that correctly … champagne. It may not be my preferred profile, but it definitely has its own thing going for it in the end.

Rating: 3.75/5 🦃

Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon (2019 Master Distiller Selection) – barrel #18-0567, rickhouse CNF, floor 6 – selected by Eddie Russell – 110-proof, non-chill filtered KSBW – aged nine years, nine months – distilled and bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color: copper

Nose: brown sugar, caramel, cherry cola, oak char, cinnamon, blood orange, herbal tea, hints of clove & licorice

Taste: (oily mouthfeel) fruity vanilla, caramel, sweet charred oak, black cherry soda, orange peel, maple syrup, lemon zest, spicy ginger

Finish: medium-long – vanilla candy, sweet oak, toasted caramel, pepper, clove, molasses, diminishing leather

Overall: Yep … unquestionably Camp Nelson F Russell’s Reserve. All the aspects you know and love – flavor, mouthfeel, finish – all representative of the many 6th-floor Camp Nelson barrels I’ve had the pleasure of tasting this past year.

While I appreciate this 2019 Russell’s Reserve Master Distiller Selection more than its Kentucky Spirit co-release, it lacks a strong unique character to set it apart from other CNF barrels out there. Interestingly, it reminds me of Russell’s Reserve 10-year in some ways. Sure, it’s NCF at 110 proof versus Russell’s 10’s chill-filtered 90 proof, but the oak – that unmistakable fragrant oak and leather – it’s here alright. Maybe that’s why Eddie was so fond of this barrel to begin with? It’s no secret that Russell’s Reserve 10-year is one of his favorite Wild Turkey expressions. Perhaps he found similarities in this whiskey as well.

All said and done, I’m pleased with this selection. Do I wish it were something a little more extraordinary? Sure. Is it as notable as 2018’s Russell’s Reserve Master Distiller Selection? Unfortunately not. That doesn’t mean it isn’t excellent bourbon, though. It damn sure is. Comparing Tyrone D to Camp Nelson F is in many ways apples to oranges. While I lean more towards Tyrone D, someone could easily lean more towards CNF. Again, it’s all subjective. Different strokes for different folks and all that jazz.

Rating: 4/5 🦃

In closing: This was a fun tasting, though truthfully, I was expecting a little more from these two releases. That’s not a knock at Jimmy or Eddie. Single-barrel bourbon is very much an individual thing (and honestly, the bar was set pretty high in 2018). What Jimmy or Eddie feels is an exemplary barrel may not prove the same for me or you.

If I could offer one suggestion to the Russells, it would be this: When it comes to future Master Distiller Selections, consider finding barrels that are way out there. Pull from rickhouses that fall outside of the year’s private barrel program; scour atypical floors and find a rare top-floor beast or maybe a hyper-aged, ground-floor wallflower – even better – pick an incredibly mature rye barrel! 🙂 Something different. Something that’ll have folks running to the Visitor Center like they do for Willett. Not that I want Wild Turkey to become the next epicenter of hype, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to give opinionated enthusiasts a wake up call. At least that’s my two cents. Cheers!

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