One thing I’ve yet to do on this blog is revisit a whiskey I’ve reviewed in the past. Sure, there’s multiple reviews of Wild Turkey 101, Russell’s Reserve 10-year, Rare Breed, etc., but those are iterations of core expressions from various years. I’ve also reviewed Master’s Keep Decades twice, but those were reviews of different batches. What I’m talking about specifically is re-reviewing a single batch of a one-off expression. I guess there’s a first time (for a second time) for everything.
If there’s one year in the past half decade that Wild Turkey flew over the heads of whiskey enthusiasts, it was likely 2015. The year that should’ve arrived with a thunder fizzled with more of a whisper. But before I dive into 2015, let’s take a look at the time between then and now.
2016 was a year without Wild Turkey limited editions or new releases – but – it welcomed Matthew McConaughey as its creative director. For all the fanfare that 2014’s Diamond Anniversary received, 2016 saw ten times that with a single, powerful announcement. Like it or not, overnight, Wild Turkey was officially A-list.
What followed was a year of product refocus in 2017 – not just for Wild Turkey, but for its parent company, Campari. The artfully blended Master’s Keep Decades marked Eddie’s 35th anniversary; Master’s Keep 1894, a tribute to Tyrone’s rickhouse A, debuted exclusively for the Australian market; and Campari kicked off the Whiskey Barons collection with Old Ripy and Bond & Lillard. 2017 also proved a year of incredible single barrel releases, with some of my favorite selections of all time: Whisky Jewbilee #3426, Motor Supply Company #17-118, and last but certainly not least, Woodland Wine Merchant #16-490. Hands down the best year for Wild Turkey single barrels to date.
By 2018, Wild Turkey was on a roll … Longbranch, Master’s Keep Revival, and the highly anticipated Russell’s Reserve 2002. While Longbranch garnered significant mainstream media attention (thanks to Mr. McConaughey), both Master’s Keep Revival and Russell’s Reserve 2002 witnessed overwhelmingly warm responses from critics and diehard whiskey enthusiasts. The 2018 single barrel program was no slouch either, with plenty of top-quality rickhouse B, D, and K selections, as well as the formal introduction of Camp Nelson A and F.
Finally (depending on one’s profile preferences), 2019 may have been the year that topped them all. For rye whiskey fans, there was Master’s Keep Cornerstone – the first and only Wild Turkey limited edition rye release. The Campari Whiskey Barons were back in town – this time under the guidance of Eddie Russell. Bond & Lillard’s second batch was a notable improvement over the first, and then, the dark horse that no one saw coming … W. B. Saffell. Composed of bourbon aged six to twelve years and bottled at 107 proof, Saffell was in some ways a return to the old sub-110-proof Rare Breed profile (I also like to think of it as “Russell’s Reserve 2002 Junior.”) Finally, core expressions like Wild Turkey 101, 101 Rye, and Rare Breed kicked ass and took names later – mopping the floor in blind tastings that included powerhouses like Pappy Van Winkle and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.
And here we are in 2020 patiently waiting on Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond, Russell’s Reserve 2003, and possibly the most exciting Wild Turkey release of the last twenty years … Rare Breed Rye. (drops mic) Man, this is going to be a great y– … oh yeah …… Rona. (sigh)
Alright, alright, alright. Let’s wander back to a brighter time – long before someone thought it would be a great idea to eat an undercooked bat – back before Wooderson joined Team Turkey. I’m talking about 2015, the year that whiskey enthusiasts let Wild Turkey completely pass them by.
2015 was an important year for me in my whiskey journey. It was the first year I published a review. (It wasn’t a Wild Turkey whiskey.) And while I was diving into the basics of what Wild Turkey had to offer, it wasn’t on my “must-have” radar – not yet. The whiskey circles I was involved in revolved around Buffalo Trace offerings and Four Roses private selections, primarily. When Master’s Keep 17 was released, it failed to capture my attention. The same could be said of the majority of enthusiasts I associated with. And Russell’s Reserve 1998? Who the hell would pay $250 for modern Wild Turkey? (Yes, I was inexperienced and ignorant. Okay, dumb.) But truth be told, I wasn’t the only one that let Russell’s Reserve 1998 slip away. Let’s just say there’s a support group out there waiting to be formed.
But 2015 wasn’t just about Wild Turkey bourbon. Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye was introduced. Unfortunately, it didn’t receive near as much attention as it probably should’ve (still doesn’t). And who made that happen? Eddie Russell, who was officially named master distiller that same year alongside his legendary father, Jimmy. I’d argue that didn’t receive appropriate attention either (thankfully, it appears to have now).
What got me thinking about all of this? Well, I got lucky. About two weeks ago I made a run for some “essentials,” and what do you know? Master’s Keep 17 was sitting on the store’s shelf. Of course it was full retail price at $150, but I wasn’t complaining. Whatever bitching I did about its price in 2015, that was long behind me. Arguably, the specs alone make this expression worthy of a purchase: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, aged seventeen years in new American charred oak, straight from the Russells at Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg. No “orphan barrel” flim-flam, no mysterious non-distiller-producer label, no PR marketing bullshit. (Yes, it has an interesting story, but at least it’s true.)
Speaking of Master’s Keep 17’s story, don’t ever ask Jimmy about it. He never liked Wild Turkey using the stone rickhouses of the former Old Taylor Distillery (now Castle & Key). I think Eddie still takes heat for that one. 🙂
Considering I have a brand new bottle in my cabinet, I decided it best to finish off the Master’s Keep 17 I currently have open. It’s not the same bottle I reviewed back in 2016, but it’s served me just as well. So without further ado, let’s take one last look at Wild Turkey’s oft-overlooked seventeen-year treasure.
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep (2015) – 86.8-proof KSBW – aged seventeen years – bottled by Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY – batch #0001, bottle #33799
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: rosy amber
Nose: (finessed, complex) fragrant oak, leather, vanilla bean, toasted caramel, cedar, spiced citrus, honey-maple, herbal tea, hints of nutmeg & clove
Taste: (uniquely herbal, delicate earth) sweet & savory oak, antique leather, peppery vanilla, pipe tobacco, herbal & floral spice, citrus, faint rose & sandalwood
Finish: medium w/ diminishing dry herbs – vanilla spice, cedar, seasoned oak, citrus zest, nutmeg, sassafras, clove, hints of cinnamon & sweet basil
Overall: This isn’t your typical Wild Turkey. Not at all. When Eddie Russell says that Master’s Keep 17 is the most unique bourbon they’ve ever produced, he’s right. This is about as unique as Turkey gets (and then some).
First, let’s address the ABV. No, it’s not 101 proof. But here’s the kicker – in consideration of ATF ruling 79-9, it’s technically barrel proof (I believe the actual batch proof for Master’s Keep 17 was 88.4). In other words, very little water was added to this whiskey (and it shows). Personally, I don’t have an issue with the lower ABV at all and actually appreciate the wood complexity sans heat. It’s somewhat reminiscent of a well-aged Scotch, at least in that respect. Besides, if I want a higher-proof Wild Turkey, today’s Rare Breed can easily scratch that itch for under $50.
Second, there’s profile. If you’re looking for a bourbon with a distinctive oak presence, yet not too heavy on the char, Master’s Keep 17 more than delivers. With each nose and sip you’ll find perfume-like traits – almost incense-esque. While core bourbon notes like vanilla and caramel are present, they’re not at all your run-of-the-mill sweeter variety (quite the opposite, really). The vanilla is darker, more true to vanilla bean, and the caramel has a toasted, almost smoky aspect. As for the supportive notes like citrus and herbal spice, they’re not entirely sweet either, but they offer enough contrast to set them apart from the heady, woodier notes.
Finally, let’s talk about how this one ranks in consideration of my former review from 2016. I’ll have to admit, I appreciate Master’s Keep 17 … well, about the same. It’s a special whiskey, no doubt. In fact, if you’re looking for a bourbon that you can spend well over an hour simply nosing, this is the one. I’m getting more complexity in terms of pulling out notes now, but that’s probably just me. A lot can happen in the span of four or five years (case in point). Yet all said and done, I wouldn’t rate Master’s Keep 17 any higher or lower. It’s an excellent expression, and as such, I’m glad it’s the first limited edition bearing Eddie Russell’s name. A profound whiskey from an equally profound master distiller. Cheers!
Rating: 4/5 🦃
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