What is perfection? I suppose there’s a myriad of ways to answer that question. In terms of whiskey, some might say it can only be found in bottles of yore. Others may claim it exists in expressions priced well over the average American paycheck. To each of those, I call bullshit. Perfection is wholly subjective. But stick with me for a few paragraphs. If you don’t like what I have to say, fair enough. Though I’ll wager you’ll appreciate it – possibly agree with it even. We’ll see.
In 2015, Wild Turkey introduced its first Master’s Keep expression. Simply titled “Wild Turkey Master’s Keep,” the release was a seventeen-year, 86.8-proof bourbon aged in both traditional wood/clad rickhouses and offsite stone rickhouses. It was at the time, and arguably remains, Wild Turkey’s most unique bourbon ever bottled.
But Master’s Keep 17 wasn’t for everyone. Some, including myself initially, felt the proof was too low. As it turns out, it fell within two points from batch proof, and therefore, legally “barrel proof” (at least, according to the ATF). Regardless, its profile stands on its own as is, like it or not. Personally, I’ve grown to appreciate Master’s Keep 17’s uniqueness, and others I’ve talked with share similar feelings. But that doesn’t mean that things couldn’t improve.
After a year without limited releases from the distillery, 2017 welcomed Master’s Keep Decades, a harmonious blend of ten- to twenty-year bourbons showcasing characteristics of both Jimmy and Eddie Russell’s profile preferences. It was followed by Master’s Keep Revival in 2018, and that’s when the perfection factor I mentioned earlier comes into play.
There are a rare few Wild Turkey expressions I’ve rated 5/5 on my Turkey scale. Revival is one of them. Every now and again I take a little heat for it. Why? Because someone disagrees. That’s completely acceptable. Some folks just don’t like finished whiskeys (or my opinion for that matter). Others just don’t like Wild Turkey. Whatever the reason, they’re entitled to their take. But for me, Revival is perfection. It checks all the boxes I’m looking for in a genuinely special whiskey – complexity, intrigue. comfort, elusiveness, and pure unrestrained satisfaction – all the result of Eddie Russell’s hard work and time-tested talent. (And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)
After a homerun like Revival, one might expect Wild Turkey to take a break, or at least play it safe and release a bourbon of familiar composition. Nope. Eddie once again took a gamble, releasing Master’s Keep Cornerstone in 2019. Never before had Wild Turkey ventured into limited edition rye whiskey. And for a brand that’s seldom associated with rye, a $175 expression seemed a bold and risky move. It paid off. While not quite the caliber of Master’s Keep Revival, it was high quality nonetheless, garnering positive reviews and praise from critics and enthusiasts alike.
And here we are … 2020. In a year full of seemingly non-stop intensity, one has to wonder what role whiskey might play. For me, it’s become both an escape and an excuse. So much so, I took a break from whiskey last week (well, a few days) just because. I don’t think it got me anywhere new or different. My perspective is pretty much the same. My belly is a little lighter, my liver a little confused, but my mind … as it was. Thankfully, I received a call that sparked a fire – Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond had arrived in my state.
I’ve been looking forward to Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond since I first learned of it last year. Not so much for the “bottled in bond” designation (I think we’re well beyond 1897 at this point) but seventeen years – from Camp Nelson, no less – well that’s sure to taste interesting. And if you think about it, we already have an idea. 2018’s Russell’s Reserve 2002 is composed of sixteen-year barrels aged at Camp Nelson. But even with its impressive age statement and desirable location, it remains an imperfect release. (Bear with me.)
While Russell’s Reserve 2002 features loads of complexity and seasoned depth, there’s a slight bitterness and touch of astringency that keeps it from rising to the level of its predecessor, Russell’s Reserve 1998. Maybe that appeals to some enthusiasts (probably does), but not to me. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate a nice oak backbone with varying degrees of earthiness, but such notes must be offset with equivalent sweeter notes if ideal balance is to be achieved. As excellent as Russell’s Reserve 2002 may be, “balanced” isn’t a descriptor you’ll find me using.
Now, the big questions … Will Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond measure up to past Master’s Keep releases? Will it deliver the seventeen-year profile (now at 100 proof) that many enthusiasts were hoping for back in 2015? Will it prove comparable to Wild Turkey’s only other bottled-in-bond expression, American Spirit? And finally, will Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond exhibit the balance Russell’s Reserve 2002 lacked without sacrificing complexity from dilution? I think it’s about time we answer those questions. Let’s pour!
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond (2020, batch #0001) – 100 proof, 17-year Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey – bottled by DSP-KY-67: Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Nose: (notably mature, fragrant & complex) vanilla extract, burnt cherry, toasted caramel, dense “perfumey” oak char, leather, pipe tobacco, heady herbs, blood orange, fig, hints of licorice, clove & smoked nuts
Taste: (oak-laced w/ earthy sweetness) vanilla spice, burnt caramel, savory charred oak, antique leather, sassafras, clove chewing gum, ginger snaps, cinnamon, licorice, citrus zest, faint apple peel & cedar
Finish: medium-long w/ a sweet/savory balance – herbal/peppery oak, toasted vanilla, molasses, leather, old-fashioned caramel chews, flame-roasted marshmallow, cinnamon, black pepper, traces of sweet chillies
Overall: Many veterans of the bourbon industry, including Jimmy Russell himself, will tell you that bourbon reaches its peak between eight to ten years. They’re not wrong. As soon as bourbon progresses to its teens, you’d better rotate barrels, taste frequently, or cross your fingers. Hell, it might be best to do all three of those things. But every once in a while you happen upon a selection of special barrels – untouched and matured ever so carefully, well beyond conventional prime. This is Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond.
I’m not privy to exactly how the barrels for 2020’s Master’s Keep were chosen. Whether known and planned well beforehand (like Russell’s Reserve 1998), or casually discovered on routine inventory checks, I have no clue. I’m aware that Wild Turkey has a surplus of well-aged barrels at the moment. Of course, not all of those would be worthy of inclusion in a special release. Haphazardly batching random seventeen-year barrels is foolhardy at best, downright irresponsible at worst (one might even call it sabotage). The chances of Eddie Russell attempting something like that are basically none to none.
What we have with Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond is remarkable: a seventeen-year, bottled-in-bond Kentucky bourbon with an overall bottle count of 14,400. That’s impressive on paper alone. But what’s most impressive is its taste. No, it’s not American Spirit. That’s Jimmy’s classic profile. It’s not 2015’s Master’s Keep 17 either. While the two seventeen-year whiskeys share certain similarities on the nose, the palate and finish are an entirely different experience with 2020’s bottled-in-bond iteration. It truly is its own spirit – enchanting oak, toasted dark fruits, sweet and savory spice, antique leather – notably complex, distinctively mature, and yes, undoubtedly balanced. This is exactly what I was hoping for with 2018’s Russell’s Reserve 2002. Quite frankly, Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond does it better.
Agree or disagree, I’m calling this perfection. It arrives courtesy of Eddie Russell – a true master distiller, who graciously and respectfully stands in the shadow of his legendary father – a testament to time, legacy, and craft. This is Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond, and I think you’ll love it.
Rating: 5/5 🦃
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