I was fortunate to participate in two unconventional private barrel selections this year. And as unfortunate the circumstances may have been in comparison to past selections, it’s surely nothing to complain about. Hell, I’m grateful. The events of this year have affected so many and continue to do so daily. Choosing a barrel of bourbon – no matter how exceptional or boring the method – means very little in the grand scheme of things. It’s a luxury, plain and simple.

Yet, here we are. Life moves forward, as does this industry and the growing hobby surrounding it. Despite its arguable irrelevance, whiskey enthusiasm is an escape from the struggle many face. We can bond over a common passion, push politics and personal beliefs aside, and focus on a single unifying goal – finding that whiskey that bewilders or inspires. I can think of no better way to do that than selecting your own special barrel and sharing it with others.

Prior to this year, Wild Turkey barrel selections I’ve participated in took place off or on site, but always in the presence of Eddie Russell. I had plans to visit the distillery earlier this year to select as I have before, but like so many others, plans were inevitably, and understandably, cancelled. Thankfully, my state’s Campari representative made sure the opportunity to choose a barrel didn’t pass me by. (Appreciate it, Amy.) Of course, there would be no visit from Eddie, no gathering of friends to assist, no seemingly infinite series of barrels to taste from, but I understood. This is bourbon 2020.

There’s one benefit to selecting a barrel with no time limit or group waiting in line to taste behind you – experimentation. More specifically, the ability to taste a whiskey at precise proof points, so that’s what I set out to do. Of the four samples available, two were from rickhouse B and two were from rickhouse E; both aged at Tyrone, or the main (onsite) Wild Turkey campus.

Initially, I tasted all four whiskeys blind at barrel strength. Barrel #404 from rickhouse B immediately stood out. Its “core Turkey in a bakery” was warm and inviting, notably balanced as well. Not quite the depth of the upper-floor B selections from 2017 and 2018, but similar in a confectionery way. I then re-tasted blind at 110 proof (to align with Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel’s bottling proof) and barrel #404 stood out yet again. I had a winner.

This process seemed simple enough, though I should mention an important element. As I was tasting these selections I was simultaneously providing profile notes and impressions to my patrons on Discord. They asked questions, offered critical feedback, and inevitably helped ensure I didn’t miss or overlook a single detail. In a typical barrel selection, there’s no time for this. You have a few minutes at best to express your thoughts – sometimes only head nods or shakes. And though I appreciate and prefer tasting barrels alongside Eddie, I’ll have to admit that my virtual selection process wasn’t a disappointment. (Is tasting barrel-proof Turkey ever a disappointment?)

As a nod to the invaluable community involvement, the first selection was titled “Russell’s Renegades: Rare Bird 101 #404.” It will remain a memorable, wholeheartedly positive 2020 experience. My notes follow.

Russell's Renegades 404

Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon “Russell’s Renegades: Rare Bird 101 #404” (barrel #20-0404, rickhouse B, floor 4) – selected by Russell’s Renegades – 110-proof (from a barrel proof of 115.9), non-chill filtered KSBW – aged eight years, five months – distilled and bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color: copper

Nose: (confectionery delights) toasted caramel, Mary Jane candy, vanilla, maple, brown sugar, charred oak, nutmeg, Jordan Almonds, hints of citrus & herbal spice

Taste: (creamy) caramel nougat, Three Musketeers candy bar, buttery vanilla, sweet oak, brown sugar, baked apple-cinnamon, herbal tea

Finish: medium-long w/ holiday spice – vanilla extract, molasses, oak char, baked cinnamon, zesty dark citrus, spiced gumdrops, faint tobacco & leather

Overall: If you’re a fan of classic candies like Mary Janes, Jordan Almonds, or Three Musketeers, “Russell’s Renegades #404” is right up your alley. Strangely, I didn’t get those flavor-specific notes when selecting this barrel. I’m damn sure getting them now. Perhaps it’s the additional time in the barrel, as the original sample was pulled in January 2020. Perhaps it’s just me. Regardless, Russell’s Renegades #404 is everything I hoped it would be – a little more so, even. But I can’t take the credit. It’s Jimmy and Eddie Russell, the hard-working employees at Wild Turkey, and Mother Nature that made this whiskey what it is today.

Did you catch it earlier when I said “first selection?”

While barrel #404 stole the show on my initial tasting, barrels #180 and #183 from rickhouse E were unlike any Wild Turkey barrels I’d had to that date. In fact, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of them. I appreciated their unique attributes. At the same time I found them slightly odd and unbalanced. At least that was my take at the time.

Upon the encouragement of my patrons, I decided to retaste #180 and #183 at 101 proof. Could the addition of water round the edges and tame the pequilarites, or would it ruin the bourbon altogether? Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, depending on your level of openmindeness) it improved the overall sipping experience. And thus, through the help of my incredible patrons, the remaining selections were whittled down to barrel #183. Like that, my first Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit came to be.

Russell's Renegades 183

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit “Russell’s Renegades: Rare Bird 101 #183” (barrel #20-0183, warehouse E, floor 4, rick 23) – selected by Russell’s Renegades – 101-proof KSBW – distilled 10/26/2011; bottled 8/25/2020 – distilled and bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Company, Lawrenceburg, KY

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color: copper

Nose: (sweet modern WT) vanilla wafers, caramel apple, waffle cone, fresh-baked bread, glazed pears, zesty oak, honey-lemon, hints of herbal spice

Taste: (well-balanced) vanilla candy, toasted caramel, orange frosting, honey-oak, nutmeg, confectioners sugar, faint clove & pepper

Finish: medium-long, sweet w/ subtle spice – English toffee, vanilla bean, charred oak, burnt caramel, apple-cinnamon, nutmeg, clove

Overall: Each time I taste this bourbon I find something new. It makes me appreciate what Wild Turkey can accomplish at eight years and 101 proof even more. No, it’s not dusty 101/8. It is, however, remarkably tasty and notably finessed over modern Wild Turkey 101. As such, I have no regrets opting for Kentucky Spirit over Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel. Not a single one. At 101 proof this whiskey proves sweeter and far more balanced – flavorful without distraction, if you will. As I’m sure you can tell, I’m quite smitten with it. A very special thanks to the patrons that pushed for this selection. Your feedback and suggestions truly paid off.

If you’re interested in purchasing either of these Wild Turkey barrel selections and live in the Augusta, GA area, a small number of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel #404 may be available at North Augusta Wine & Beverage in North Augusta, SC. As for Kentucky Spirit #183, a limited supply can be found at Liquor World in North Augusta, SC (I-20 Exit 5). Happy hunting and safe travels. Cheers!

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