What do you consider the criteria for an exemplary barrel of whiskey? Complexity? Maturity? Balance? Uniqueness? Rarity? Or, perhaps it’s something harder to nail down – a sipping experience that confounds or stirs emotion.
Ultimately, one must decide what they’re looking for as a whiskey enthusiast. If rarity is an important aspect of a single-barrel whiskey, then the rest of this post likely won’t appeal to you. That being said, single-barrel releases are inherently uncommon in terms of bottle count. Take Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel private selections for example. I’ve seen bottle counts as low as 42 and as high as 180. One might call that rare – incredibly rare when focusing on a particular low-yield barrel. But then, with 600-800 (or more) barrels in the distillery’s barrel program year after year, and given vast subjectivity when it comes to the interpretation of profile variance, rarity starts looking more and more … common. And let’s not forget, thousands of barrels are aging gracefully at Wild Turkey as I type.
So we’re left with quality – quality defined by transparency, flavor profile, and the overall sipping experience. We’re talking about the whiskey itself – not the fancy bottle, box, label, tag, sticker, wax, fishnet, “gotta catch ‘em all” alpha/letter, or hokey story about grandpa’s recipe or colonial generals.
Who made the whiskey? How did they make it? How does it taste? How does it make you feel?
The answers to these questions are key.
Bold. Genuine. True.
There are numerous distilleries in Kentucky alone – even more when you include Indiana, Tennessee, and others. I can’t speak for all of them, but I can say that when it comes to Wild Turkey one can easily discover barrels of the highest quality with memorable profiles. Complexity, maturity, balance, uniqueness, all found with minimal effort. And perhaps most importantly, they’re brought to you by the longest-tenured distilling team in the world. There’s no mystique, tall tales, or smoke and mirrors. Distilled, barreled, aged, bottled, and approved by the Russells … that’s it.
Whether you’re considering an everyday bottle of Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit or Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, take comfort that what you’re purchasing is reflective of Jimmy and Eddie Russell’s dedication to craft. As for private selection bottles, know that the Russells – primarily Eddie – oversee each barrel in the program. That isn’t to say that Eddie gives vendors a short leash. To the contrary – he wants individuals and groups to find barrels that speak to them. He appreciates profile variance and the thrill of the hunt just as much as a seasoned enthusiast (arguably more). Hell, it’s his job.
Considering this post is a primer, I’ll cut to the chase and touch on each of Wild Turkey’s current single-barrel offerings. (I won’t be covering vintage single-barrel releases like Kentucky Legend or Heritage.) Veteran bourbon fans, particularly ones who’ve read my book, American Spirit, might find some of this information repetitive. But hey, stick around. You never know what’s around the corner!
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit
Though not as popular as it has been in year’s past, Kentucky Spirit was Wild Turkey’s first single-barrel expression. Introduced in 1994 and bottled at the brand’s signature 101 proof, Kentucky Spirit began as a means for master distiller Jimmy Russell to showcase his finest barrels at a familiar ABV. Through the years the bottle design has changed, as has the bourbon contained within, though it remains an important representation of Jimmy’s cherished spirit.
Age: No age stated (reportedly eight to ten years)
Chill Filtration: Yes
Price: About $65
General Profile Tasting Notes: (barrel dependent) vanilla, toffee, sweet oak, baked goods, hints of citrus & herbal/floral spice
Recommendation: Those who favor Wild Turkey 101 are sure to find common ground with Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit. But then, that may be Kentucky Spirit’s greatest weakness. With a notable price disparity between the two expressions, it warrants a truly special barrel to justify Kentucky Spirit’s overall expense. For me, it’s well worth a gamble. And while I can’t say that every Kentucky Spirit has impressed me, when an exemplary bottle is found, it’s quite the irreplaceable treasure.
If you’re looking for a Wild Turkey barrel rooted in the 101 profile, though typically more refined and finessed, Kentucky Spirit is your first stop.
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon
In 2013, then associate master distiller Eddie Russell found himself cultivating a new single-barrel expression. Of course, it had to meet Jimmy Russell’s approval, but I’m willing to bet that wasn’t too difficult a task. After all, we’re talking about one of the most impressive expressions ever released by Wild Turkey, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon. To this day Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel remains a favorite among diehard bourbon enthusiasts. For the price, its high-quality variance and consistent excellence isn’t easily matched.
Age: No age stated* (reportedly eight to ten years)
Chill Filtration: No
Price: About $60
General Profile Tasting Notes: (barrel dependent) caramel, toasted vanilla, brown sugar, honey-maple, charred oak, rich baking spice, dark fruit, leather
*Private selection bottlings state the date distilled, dumped, and bottled as of mid 2019.
Recommendation: Those seeking a full-flavored, more “true to the barrel” sipping experience should find a lifelong companion with Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon. While not full-barrel proof (What’s up with that, Campari?), it’s bottled only five points away from barrel-entry proof (from 115 to 110). It’s also non-chill filtered. I’ll spare you the science of chill filtration (Google is your friend), but essentially it’s a cosmetic process producers employ to beautify whiskey. The downside is a thinner mouthfeel, and many argue thinner flavor as well. Fortunately, with Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel you don’t have to worry about that.
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye
Building on the success of 2013’s Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, and Eddie Russell’s new fascination with rye whiskey (thanks largely to his son Bruce Russell), 2015 welcomed another rye expression to the lineup – Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye. Whereas Wild Turkey 101 Rye became a bartender’s secret weapon, and Russell’s Reserve Six-Year Rye an everyman’s balanced easy sipper, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye targets the savvy rye whiskey consumer looking for a unique experience from each fresh cork pop.
Age: No age stated (reportedly six to eight years)
Chill Filtration: No
Price: About $70
General Profile Tasting Notes: (barrel dependent) vanilla frosting, caramel drizzle, honey, sweet charred oak, lemon peel, light baking spice & floral notes
Recommendation: Enthusiasts who appreciate a flavorful and complex rye whiskey with plenty of Kentucky character should give Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye a whirl. At roughly $70, it punches above its price in consideration of several popular rye whiskeys of similar age and proof. Personally, I find it stands its ground remarkably well against popular limited editions like Thomas H. Handy and Kentucky Owl Rye (and easier to find too). In fact, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye is my favorite Wild Turkey rye expression – that includes Master’s Keep Cornerstone and Rare Breed Rye.
As for Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye private selections, you probably won’t find them anytime soon (the latest I’ve seen is 2017). First, Wild Turkey rye stocks number considerably less than bourbon stocks. And while production has ramped up over the years, there’s still a ways to go. Second, there’s been no TTB COLA registration for a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye private selection label similar to the bourbon label approved in 2019. Until we see a label filing, I doubt you’ll find new rye private selections sporting the old neck tag and retail label combo (though one never knows). But, don’t let that get you down. Consider this: The same barrels a group would select from are likely (almost surely) the very same barrels Eddie earmarks for retail Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel bottlings. No stickers. No hype. No FOMO.
There’s a sea of single-barrel whiskeys out there to choose from. Few, however, are backed by a level of expertise and legacy comparable to the Russells. That doesn’t mean other distilleries can’t produce exemplary barrels of whiskey (be it bourbon or rye). They damn well do. There’s just something satisfying about a single-barrel expression that’s relatively easy to find, relatively easy to afford, and relatively easy to find comfort in its innate unknown. Each barrel carries with it a chance – a roll of the dice. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you win big. But in House Russell, there’s seldom any losers.
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