Recently, one question has been asked of me more than any other: “How do I know if my Wild Turkey single-barrel whiskey is from Tyrone or Camp Nelson?” I try to answer as best I can, based on the limited knowledge I have (I’m not a Wild Turkey employee, after all). Unfortunately, my responses are never guaranteed to be 100% accurate. Regardless of which rickhouses are in season annually (or applicable to a specific year’s single barrel program), in theory any barrel could be pulled from any rickhouse from any campus: Tyrone, Camp Nelson, or McBrayer. Also, barrels are occasionally moved from one campus to another, such is the case with many rickhouse Q-, S-, and T-labeled single-barrel bottlings (potentially others as well).
Before we dive into this subject, I should first stress why it’s important. Provenance. It’s a whiskey enthusiast’s rock. Knowing what you’re sipping – who made it and where it came from – matters. And for Wild Turkey, it matters more than most Kentucky distilleries. Whereas many producers rely on multiple mash bills and yeasts to achieve unique profiles, Wild Turkey has only a single bourbon and rye recipe, each sharing the same yeast. When you exclude the barrel-entry proof changes from the mid 2000s and the new distillery launched into service in 2011, the only factor contributing to profile variance is maturation. Sure, different distillation runs might equate to some subtleties in new make. But with computerized automation in place, the range of that variance is arguably minimal.
Going back to the start of Wild Turkey’s first single-barrel product in 1994, Kentucky Spirit’s label provided consumers with two pieces of information relative to each bottling’s aging location: rickhouse (labeled as “warehouse”) and rack (labeled as “rick”). Sparse disclosure continued on through the 1990s and 2000s with Kentucky Legend and Wild Turkey Heritage, both of which were duty-free, single-barrel releases. In that time, Wild Turkey had acquired Camp Nelson and its six rickhouses. It was also leasing space in the stone rickhouses of the former Old Taylor Distillery (now Castle & Key). As for McBrayer, which was acquired in 1976 from Four Roses, space was growing limited due to deterioration and safety concerns. Still, consumers had only a rickhouse letter and a rack to go by.
In 2013, a new Wild Turkey single-barrel expression hit retail shelves: Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon. Sadly, no maturation information was stated on its label – no barrel number, no rickhouse, no floor, no rack, no age, no dates. Nada. Believe it or not, it’s still that way (thank goodness we at least have bottle codes). It was followed by Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye in 2015, but unfortunately, still no maturation details. There was one exception, however: barrels bottled for the private selection program.
By 2014, distributors and retailers were given the opportunity to select their own unique Wild Turkey barrels, which could then be bottled as Kentucky Spirit (bourbon) or Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel (bourbon or rye). These selections included tags situated around the neck of the bottle. At first the tags were filled out by hand (c. 2015), but were later printed as the program progressed (c. 2016). These tags provided a barrel number, rickhouse, floor, and the name of the party or company which participated in the selection. In 2017, the rack and row/position information was included with the floor number, though dates and campus remained omitted.
Then came 2018, and a curious new set of letters found their way onto private selection tags: “CN.” Ah, Camp Nelson. Virtually unknown to a majority of whiskey enthusiasts at the time (including Wild Turkey geeks like myself), it didn’t take long for Camp Nelson to garner significant buzz. Why? Because the flavor profiles fans were experiencing stood out from years prior – particularly in relation to Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon. Almost overnight, location meant more than ever. It was an exciting time for fans of Wild Turkey, the momentum carrying on through 2019, which I often refer to as “The Year of Camp Nelson.”
And then it happened – the big change. What should’ve been a resounding improvement for Wild Turkey’s single barrel program resulted in (yet another) frustrating mess. Of course, I’m referring to the removal of hang tags and the introduction of a new private selection label for Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon in mid/late 2019.
I’m sorry, I needed to get that out. But seriously – if you’re going to do something, do it right. As much as I love and appreciate barrel information becoming permanently affixed to a bottle (including important dates) why omit the campus information that enthusiasts were so thrilled about the year prior? Buzz killed.
And here we are in 2020. If a Russell’s Reserve or Kentucky Spirit label states A, B, C, D, E, or F, we don’t know for certain if that’s Tyrone or Camp Nelson. Not to mention, I have no clue how McBrayer rickhouse barrels are labeled. (There can’t be more than two or three.) I can only assume alpha designations like the others (so A, B, C?). Yet it bears repeating – this information means something to whiskey enthusiasts. It should matter to non-enthusiast consumers as well. If someone purchases a single-barrel selection and loves the profile, they might just make note of the aging location and search for a similar bottle. (I hope it’s not a bottle labeled “A.” If so, good luck.)
At this point, I think it’s pretty clear why fans of Wild Turkey need campus information on single-barrel bottlings. Now, I’m going to give Campari a little incentive.
Imagine a product that encourages consumers to purchase a set or series. Much like a baseball card collector seeks out missing cards, there’s a desire to have them all. What drives that desire is slightly different for the individual, yet it exists. And I can tell you for a fact … it exists for Wild Turkey fans. We want to experience every rickhouse Wild Turkey owns. We want to taste, share, discuss, and compare every single one. Hell, there’s countless folks already trying to obtain a bottle from each. They want the entire series. As is, Campari is leaving money on the table. Were every single-barrel product labeled accurately, sales would likely increase. At least by the volume of inquiries I receive, I’d bank on it.
Wrapping up, I’d like to circle back to something I stated a few paragraphs back: If you’re going to do something, do it right. If a consumer is curious which rickhouse a particular Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel or Kentucky Spirit matured, they look to the label for an answer. The sheer fact they have to follow that up with a second (often unanswered) question is a fail. When someone asks me where I grew up, I don’t answer with just “Carolina.” If I did, it would only confuse or frustrate the inquirer. At best they’d ask for clarification of North or South. At worst they’d assume I don’t care for them to know. It’s communication 101.
There’s enough confusion and frustration in whiskey these days. In the grand scheme of things, Wild Turkey is a minor offender. It’s annoying, easy-to-fix items like this that keep it on the radar. Let’s fix it.
Photography by Victor Sizemore; (c) 2019 Rare Bird 101
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I was impressed when Jim Beam re-launched Baker’s as a single barrel, that they printed on the label the exact age and warehouse the bottle came from. I sadly did not like my one and only bottle of Baker’s single barrel that I purchased, but major props to Jim Beam for putting that info on the label. Just another example of how Campari is not letting Wild Turkey keep up.
It could be better, definitely. Though in all fairness to Campari, we have more barrel information now than we’ve ever had before. We just need more accuracy and across all products (not just private selections).