It’s that time of year again – time for my annual “Best of” post. I’m sure you’ve already seen enough 2020 retrospective whiskey lists to make your eyes crossed – BUT – mine’s all Wild Turkey! And what’s not to love about Wild Turkey?

As with past “Best of” posts, the premise is the same: recognize Wild Turkey releases that aren’t just quality pours, but offer traits one could argue as unique or special. Ratings will factor into my selection process, though it’s important to note they aren’t the sole determining factor.

My rules are simple (no changes from years prior). To be eligible for selection a release must be:

  1. Produced at Wild Turkey Distillery and bottled and/or initially available for sale within the same calendar year. That means no “dusties” or bottles from previous years.
  2. Private single barrels, independent bottlings, and Campari Whiskey Baron releases are all potential selections (so long as they’re confirmed as Wild Turkey produced).
  3. While some whiskeys are eligible for multiple categories, each category will have an exclusive winner. In other words, you won’t find a particular whiskey winning multiple categories.

With that said, I proudly present Rare Bird 101’s The Best of Wild Turkey 2020.

Russell's Reserve 2003

Best Design (2020) – Russell’s Reserve 2003

While a contender for Best Whiskey Overall, I struggle with the fact this rare bourbon is severely allocated and expensive ($250 SRP). As a result, very few Turkey fans are able to find, much less afford Russell’s Reserve 2003. But regardless of ownership or whether or not one has the opportunity to taste it, there’s one thing we can all appreciate – it’s damn sure easy on the eyes.

Similar to past Russell’s Reserve limited editions, such as 1998 and 2002, Russell’s Reserve 2003 is housed in a brand-appropriate, somewhat spartan wood box. The bottle itself is essentially the standard Russell’s Reserve squat glass; however, the metal logo/seal and neckband give it a rustic luxurious touch. Its label, while minimal in design, provides all of the details a whiskey geek should want. It also gives 2003 more of a hand-crafted look despite its apparent manufactured origin.

Yet, the real star of the show is the whiskey. Thankfully, Russell’s Reserve 2003’s minimalist aesthetics provide sufficient space for the mature, barrel-proof bourbon to shine through. We’ve seen this feature in past Campari designs, like Master’s Keep and Longbranch, and I hope to see more of it in the years to come. In fact, if I had my way, this is the type of design (sans box) I’d employ with the upcoming Russell’s Reserve Thirteen-Year. That would require another TTB filing, however. But I can be patient. How about it, Campari?

Rare Breed

Best Core Expression (2020) – Wild Turkey Rare Breed (116.8)

Barrel-proof bourbon expressions from major distilleries aren’t hard to find nowadays, but that wasn’t always the case. Jim Beam kicked off the trend with Booker’s in 1988, with Wild Turkey’s Rare Breed following shortly after in 1991. Both Booker’s and Rare Breed remain regularly produced expressions for their relative brands, yet the pricing between the two has grown substantially. Once priced similarly, at $45 Rare Breed is now half the price of Booker’s (sometimes less than half, retailer depending). Neither have changed their reported maturations or specifications, yet Rare Breed maintains its working-class price.

Here we are in 2020, and the competition is fiercer than ever – Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, Bulleit Barrel Strength, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, etc. Even so, Rare Breed has complexity, affordability, and most importantly, availability. Finding another barrel-proof bourbon with all three of these aspects isn’t so easy. And while I’ve never had a Rare Breed 116.8 to disappoint, 2020’s batches are some of the best I’ve ever tasted. But don’t just take my word for it. There are countless writers, bloggers, Redditors, and YouTubers that feel the same. If you’ve yet to try Rare Breed batch 116.8, you’re missing out.

Rare Breed Rye

Best Straight Rye (2020) – Wild Turkey Rare Breed Rye (112.2)

Another contender for Best Whiskey Overall, Wild Turkey delivered its first punch square on the nose of 2020 with Rare Breed Rye. Reportedly a blend of four-, six-, and eight-year rye whiskey, Rare Breed Rye is Wild Turkey’s first ever barrel-proof rye (bottled NCF, no less). Talk about flavor! It’s everything one loves about Wild Turkey 101 Rye “cranked to eleven” – vanilla candy, caramel drizzle, lemon squares, zesty citrus, faint mint, and loads of peppery spice. I honestly don’t think one could come up with a better rye iteration to bear the Rare Breed name. A damn fine job, Mr. Russell.

Let’s hope we see increased distribution of Rare Breed Rye in 2021. That’s the only downside to this expression. Wild Turkey’s rye stocks are significantly less than its bourbon stocks and have been for years. But, production has ramped up over the last decade. Based on the reported ages of this expression, I’m thinking by 2022 we’ll see this hanging around on shelves a bit longer. It’s just an educated guess, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed for now. 😉

Lincoln Road RRSiB 1209

Best Single Barrel (2020) – Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon (#20-1209, Lincoln Road Package Store)

It may not be the best single barrel I’ve tasted in my life, and surely not the highest I’ve rated on this blog, but what Lincoln Road’s #20-1209 lacks in specs and exclusivity it more than makes up for in pure satisfaction. The last time I enjoyed a private selection in this same manner was Justins’ House of Bourbon’s #18-0708 … flavorful and fun! There’s so much excitement and enjoyment in Jamie Farris’ unassuming eight-year selection from Tyrone A – caramel apple, vanilla frosting, zesty fruit, and earthy spice. It’s unbelievably balanced – literally impressing me each time I pour a glass.

There’s a lesson in this bottle, and I’m reminded of Reid & Emerald’s famous six-year 1789b Willett Family Estate #797 (damn, was that good) … When it comes to straight whiskey, age is only a number. In a year with so many fantastic ten- and eleven-year Wild Turkey single barrels (several of which I debated for this award), it might surprise folks that I elected Lincoln Road’s #20-1209. While those well-aged barrels are excellent, there’s something special about a profile you keep coming back to over and over again. It’s not easily explained, but regardless of age, when it’s right, it’s right. Oh, and if you’re looking for a rickhouse compass, give Jamie and Misty Farris a call.

Russell's Reserve Single Barrel

Patron’s Choice (2020) – Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon

Last year, I asked my generous Patreon supporters to select a Wild Turkey expression they felt deserving of praise. They elected Campari’s W. B. Saffell and I don’t blame them one bit. This year, out of the sea of annual Wild Turkey expressions, they chose another personal favorite of mine, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon. Once again, I don’t blame them.

What can be said about Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel that hasn’t been said already? When it comes to tasting whiskey straight from a unique Wild Turkey barrel, outside of occasional Single Cask Nation bottlings, this is as close as you’ll get to the real thing.

Bottled NCF at 110 proof, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel is only five points away from Wild Turkey’s 115 barrel-entry proof. It’s typically aged eight to ten years and is closely supervised by Eddie Russell himself. Not to mention you get a quality variance straight from Mother Nature that’s unlike any other Kentucky distillery. Whereas other producers rely on multiple mash bills and yeasts to achieve variance, Wild Turkey’s single bourbon recipe blossoms into exceptional profiles thanks to traditional wood/clad rickhouses situated on multiple campuses.

If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind single-barrel bourbon of the highest quality without driving around town or spending ridiculous money, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon is the best place to start. And you won’t have to seek out a private selection to find a winner. If you think about it, every Russell’s Reserve bottle is an Eddie selection. I think it’s safe to say that fella knows what he’s doing. 🙂

Master's Keep Bottled in Bond

Best Whiskey Overall (2020) – Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond

I think we can all agree, as bad a year as 2020 has been, it’s fortunately been a solid year for Wild Turkey expressions. And if there’s one 2020 release that surely deserves accolades, it’s Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond. On paper alone, this one is impressive. Aged seventeen years at the Camp Nelson rickhouses in Jessamine County, bottled in bond and batched under the guidance of Eddie Russell, Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond is a perfect example of what a limited edition should be – a unique, notably aged whiskey with unquestionable provenance.

As for Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond’s flavor profile, it’s very much what 2018’s Russell’s Reserve 2002 should’ve been – similar Camp Nelson attributes, yet refined, balanced, and slightly sweeter. And the oak influence … one could nose this whiskey all evening. Toasted cherry, antique leather, cedar, fragrant dry spice … complex, layered, lovely. Any concerns that this level of elegance shouldn’t continue on the palate and finish are quickly dismissed. Dare I say it’s enhanced? 

There are few bourbons showcasing such grace and enjoyability at seventeen years of age – hell, even some at twelve years of age. To do so and have it where a majority of enthusiasts can find it and afford it as a special occasion purchase is remarkable. I’m not sure that Wild Turkey can keep that going forever, however. As whiskey enthusiasm grows, the undeserved myth that Wild Turkey is a roughneck’s bourbon fades. It’s a positive thing for the brand, and a hard-fought achievement for the Russells, no doubt. But the time is upon us when releases like this won’t linger on store shelves. Gone are the days when Wild Turkey limited editions were the punchline of “shelf turd” jokes. (We’ll leave that torch with you, Woodford.)

Jokes aside, we’re truly living in the New Golden Age of Wild Turkey. Savor it. Share it. And cheers to Jimmy, Eddie, and the hard-working folks at Wild Turkey and Campari for making all of this possible.

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