Tasting whiskey is like navigating a maze. Sometimes the maze is overly simple and unchallenging – fun, though leaving much to be desired. Sometimes the twists and turns are overwhelming and confounding, potentially to a degree that one finds the overall experience unpleasant. But more often than not, when it comes to Wild Turkey the exercise lands somewhere between those examples. From everyday Wild Turkey 101 to the exclusive Master’s Keep series, there’s a range of mazes of various forms and complexity waiting to be explored. In the case of Russell’s Reserve 2003, the third in a line of highly limited, vintage-stated bourbons, it’s a maze unlike any before it.

I first learned about the bourbon that would become Russell’s Reserve 2003 at an event with Eddie Russell last year. He remarked that it was the last of the 107 barrel-entry proof whiskey, and in many ways reminded him of “Cheesy Gold Foil,” the revered twelve-year Wild Turkey expression from the 1980s and early 1990s. Of all Jimmy Russell’s hand-tailored shoes to fill, CGF might be the largest. Any modern whiskey reminiscent of CGF is surely one to covet. (And naturally, my mind has been doused in sin ever since.)

A few months later, in March of this year, a label for Russell’s Reserve 2003 was filed with the TTB. In the grand scheme of 2020 it was a blip on the radar. Yet, Wild Turkey fans remained intrigued – particularly with the label’s 89.5 proof. It’s not exactly the proof one expects of a limited edition from the self-professed bold bourbon brand (or any Kentucky distillery, really). I was somewhat mentally prepared, however, as Eddie had previously mentioned that while barrel strength, the CGF-like bourbon was considerably lower in proof. It’s not entirely unusual either, as Wild Turkey has released ultra-premium, sub-100-proof offerings before: 2014’s Diamond Anniversary (91 proof) and 2015’s Master’s Keep 17 (86.8 proof). A sixteen-year, 89.5-proof bourbon that reminds Eddie Russell of CGF? I can live with that.

By October, select retailers were receiving Russell’s Reserve 2003. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to taste a sample from these early bottles – first in a blind tasting with Jason C. of The Mash & Drum, and second as a “First Pour Thoughts” post for Patreon supporters. While impressive, Russell’s 2003 finished just behind Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond when tasted blind. It fared equally as impressive when tasted on its own, though I only had ¾ ounce left from the initial blind tasting to analyze. A whiskey of such distinctive pedigree and scarce availability warrants a proper evaluation. Remember, we’re talking about the last of the old barrel-entry proof whiskey (distilled at the old Austin, Nichols facility, no less).

The time has come for that evaluation. I’ve enjoyed numerous pours from this bottle over the last week, exchanging notions with fellow enthusiasts each time. I’ll fill my glass once again, clear my thoughts, and with a little luck, solidify my impression of this genuinely rare commemorative release. Cheers to the Russells!

Russell's Reserve 2003

Russell’s Reserve 2003 (2020) – 89.5-proof, sixteen-year Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey – distilled & bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY – bottle #3712

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color: rust/bronze

Nose: (notably mature, complex) dark cherry, vanilla bean, fragrant oak, dried apricot, autumn spice, apple-butter, toasted brown sugar, hints of petrichor & fruit punch

Taste: (delicate woody spice) burnt caramel, Cherry Coca-Cola, peppery oak, cedar, pipe tobacco, sassafras, antique leather, herbal tea, singed orange peel

Finish: medium in length w/ waves of dense oak – vanilla extract, ripe red plum, bittersweet chocolate, English toffee, molasses, leather, diminishing dry herbs & baking spice

Overall: Before diving into what this whiskey is, let’s talk about what it isn’t. It’s not CGF. I should be clear about that from the start. With that said, I understand Eddie Russell’s reference. There’s no “dusty Turkey funk,” fermented fruit, or Armagnac-like notes, but there’s the unmistakable traits of significantly mature (and beautifully so) Wild Turkey bourbon. Russell’s Reserve 2003 showcases exemplary oak character – dark cherry, antique leather, pipe tobacco, cedar, the list goes on. One finds similar attributes laced throughout CGF and other well-aged Wild Turkey releases, they’re simply profile-forward in Russell’s Reserve 2003. It isn’t dusty Turkey, but it damn sure isn’t modern, or even classic Turkey, either. 

Those familiar with Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond will find common ground with Russell’s Reserve 2003. Each is anchored in exceptional oak notes; 2020’s Master’s Keep is higher in proof, but Russell’s Reserve 2003 is gifted with finesse. In multiple tastings between the two, Russell’s Reserve 2003 repeatedly stood out when nosing, though by the time the whiskey hit the palate and ultimately finished out, Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond left a seemingly longer-lasting impression (arguably due to its proof). Each was remarkable in their own way (again, similarly so), but I struggled with the science – hell, even the art – of my experiment. After all, one was bottled at 100 proof and the other at 89.5. Surely a side-by-side comparison is always justified, but is it always relative?

And therein lies the crux of this review. If I took every Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon I’ve rated 4.5/5 and compared it to every other dusty or limited edition Wild Turkey I’ve rated the same, would they line up accordingly? Probably not. Sometimes you just have to taste a whiskey for what it is, not what it is in comparison to every other whiskey remotely similar (be it age, price, profile, or rarity). I get it. Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond and Russell’s Reserve 2003 are both 2020 releases. They’re seventeen and sixteen years of age, respectively. They each showcase the last of the old 107-entry-proof barrels (unless I’m doing the math wrong). Hell, they each contain Camp Nelson barrels. In a recent conversation with Bruce Russell, I learned that Russell’s Reserve 2003 contains Tyrone aged bourbon, as well as Camp Nelson aged bourbon moved to Tyrone. Anyone affixed to the “Tyrone vs. Camp Nelson” aspect should certainly take that into consideration. 

I’ve spent every night sipping Russell’s Reserve 2003 since I purchased this bottle – and not just Russell’s 2003, but other notable whiskeys (and cocktails) as well. Yet, I can’t help but marvel at the graceful impressiveness of 2003. It may only be 89.5 proof, but it’s 89.5 proof of pure vintage, barrel-strength Wild Turkey. It’s lovely – elegantly complex, delightful, and poignant. There will never be another bourbon like Russell’s Reserve 2003. Call it nostalgia, call it romance, but I’m unwilling to call it anything less than perfect. Thank you, Jimmy and Eddie.

Rating: 5/5 🦃

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