As much as I appreciate staples like Wild Turkey 101 and Rare Breed, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon is undoubtedly my most purchased Wild Turkey expression. A grand majority of the time I’m acquiring private barrel selections, though I do find myself picking up standard retail bottles on occasion.

Why so many? Unlike single-barrel selections from other brands, such as Buffalo Trace or Elijah Craig, you find more quality variation with Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel. I attribute this contrast primarily to proof. Whereas Buffalo Trace and Elijah Craig are bottled at 90 and 94 proof (respectively), Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel is bottled at 110 proof (non-chill filtered). But it’s not just bottling proof making a difference. It’s barrel-entry proof as well. Buffalo Trace and Elijah Craig share a 125-point barrel-entry proof, while Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel stands at 115. Ultimately, the divide from entry to bottling proof is 35 points for Buffalo Trace, 31 points for Elijah Craig, and a mere 5 points for Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel.

So what does that mean exactly? Well, how much water do you like in your bourbon? I’m willing to bet that a majority of you reading would prefer none, at least when it comes to private barrel selections. Unfortunately, Wild Turkey doesn’t allow for barrel-strength private selections, nor does Buffalo Trace or Heaven Hill. Regardless, it doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out that Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel should be considerably close to barrel proof. This holds particularly true for barrels pulled from middle rickhouse floors where changes in proof are minimal.

At this point I’ve tooted the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel horn pretty loudly. It’s a tough truck as is, though in all fairness there are bigger rigs on the road. In fact, there’s one right down the street. Four Roses allows for barrel selections at full barrel strength – has for years. And how about Old Forester? Thanks to the efforts of master taster Jackie Zykan, Old Forester is amending their 2020 barrel selection program to allow for barrel-proof bottlings. One can only scratch their head as to why it’s taking Wild Turkey so long. We’re waist-deep in an American Whiskey renaissance. Now is the time to act.

Alas, I’ve shared my desire for barrel-proof, single-barrel Wild Turkey so many times now it’s sounding like an obliterated record. For those who’ve stood in rickhouse A as Jimmy, Eddie, or Bruce Russell filled your copita with whiskey thieved straight from a special barrel, you know what the world is missing out on. The last time it had a chance (outside of limited independent bottlings like Single Cask Nation) was Wild Turkey Kentucky Legend (c. 1998). Try finding one of those now. It ain’t easy and it sure as hell ain’t cheap! Which if anything should say something to Campari. There’s significant demand for barrel-proof, single-barrel expressions. Old Forester’s finally realized it. I think it’s time Turkey does as well.

Back to Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel …

Thanks to a keen bourbon friend that recognized my recent fascination with rickhouse M, I have this 2016 “Manny & Merle Hand Select” to dive into. (Thanks again, Matt.) I don’t know much about Manny & Merle (now Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen) other than it appears to be a respected Louisville, KY establishment. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing they’ve picked a barrel or two. Let’s pour!

Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon (2016, barrel #490, rickhouse M, floor 5) – selected by “Manny & Merle,” Louisville, KY – 110-proof, non-chill filtered KSBW – distilled and bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color: copper

Nose: (welcoming, complex) salted caramel, herbal tea, toasted vanilla, brown sugar, fragrant oak, nutmeg, maple, blood orange, tobacco, herbal spice, hints of licorice & baked apples

Taste: (oily mouthfeel) vanilla buttercream, caramel, sweet charred oak, honey-maple, brown sugar, molasses, clove, nutmeg, cherry/orange soda

Finish: medium-long w/ layered spice – burnt caramel, English toffee, black cherry, rich oak, cinnamon, clove, leather, herbal spice & faint citrus

Overall: I’ve been working on this Manny & Merle Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel for several weeks now. Each time I pour a glass, I’m almost certain of what lies ahead; each time I take a sip, I realize there’s always more to discover and love. It’s an excellent bourbon, showcasing some of the best traits Russell’s Reserve has to offer: an enticing bakery-esque nose, a dense, oily mouthfeel, and a layered finish that diminishes just long enough to draw you back. And much like other 5th-floor rickhouse M selections I’ve tasted, I’m getting hints of Wild Turkey from years gone by. If that’s not a sign of a damn fine whiskey, I honestly don’t know what is.

Rating: 4.25/5 🦃

The more I enjoy these Russell’s Reserve barrels from rickhouse M, the more I contemplate adding new bottles to my cabinet (especially 5th-floor barrels from 2016-2017). I never thought I’d say this, but M is rapidly moving towards my all-time favorite status. This year will be the measuring stick, however, as my longtime favorite rickhouses, Tyrone B and G, are in 2020’s private selection pool. If B and G fail to repeat their stellar 2017-2018 performance, M might just steal their thunder. But wait! There’s some new competition to consider, like Tyrone A and E. According to Eddie Russell, there’s never been a true Tyrone A barrel bottled as a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel release. As for E, I’ve had several rickhouse E Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye selections, but never a Russell’s Reserve bourbon (at least that I can recall). It’s highly possible that either of these rickhouses could “break the profile mold” that many often associate with Tyrone.

Yes, 2020 looks to be a year of discovery for Wild Turkey. New rickhouse variety, Rare Breed Rye (hello!), and the second bottled-in-bond whiskey ever released by the brand (17 years at that). It’s a helluva time to be a Turkey fan. If you’re still sitting on the fence or watching from the sidelines, you might want to jump in the game. We’re having a blast and it’s only the first quarter. Cheers!

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