A Redditor on r/Bourbon recently remarked that reviews of private selection whiskeys are pointless. Their logic being a single barrel yields few bottles; therefore, the vast majority of consumers would have minimal chance of acquiring one, let alone tasting the whiskey. It’s a fair and accurate point. Additionally, the timespan between purchasing a single-barrel selection and writing a review is relative. Quite often, weeks (sometimes months or years) fall in the interim. In other words, it’s more than a simple quantity issue, it’s an availability issue due to a lapse in time.
Are reviews of private selection whiskeys truly pointless? Have they no value for enthusiasts who’ll likely never have a chance at enjoying particular barrels?
They’re not pointless, and of course, they have value.
Anyone willing to dedicate their time to reviewing whiskey gets a thumbs up from me. I don’t care if it’s Jameson, Blanton’s, or your grandpa’s flask whiskey from 1965, if you’re making an honest effort to share your notes and opinion, you’re doing our community a favor. I don’t have to agree, offer praise, or share it with the world, but I can appreciate the contribution. Reviews of private barrel selections are no exception. Hell, I’d rather have a sea of one-off whiskey reviews than a pond of standards. But there are other reasons worth mentioning.
First, reviews of single-barrel selections provide readers with general profile snapshots based on recipe, age, proof, and maturation location (among other variables). Yes, there are always outlier barrels, but these don’t occur as often as some believe. In the case of Wild Turkey, there’s two recipes – one bourbon and one rye. With single-barrel rye selections discontinued indefinitely, one need only shift focus from recipe to age, proof, and location.
A grand majority of Wild Turkey single barrels fall in the eight- to nine-year range, though there are occasional barrels that cross the ten-year mark (I’ve personally seen as high as thirteen years). When studying reviews of Wild Turkey private selections, take note of their age if/when available. For example, an eight-year bourbon will generally taste more vibrant than an eleven-year bourbon, even if they share the same proof and/or maturation location.
Regarding bottling proof, there’s presently two options for Wild Turkey single barrels: Kentucky Spirit at 101 proof and Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon at 110. As one might assume, nine points results in profile differences. It doesn’t, however, mean that one expression is better than the other. In the case of private barrels, vendors often have a choice between the two. Take note, as their reasons vary from preference to profitability. Well-researched reviews can sometimes shed light on these motivations.
As for maturation location, Wild Turkey has a variety of rickhouses, the majority of which are of traditional wood/clad construction. They also have three separate geographical locations, or campuses: Tyrone (on site), McBrayer (across from Four Roses), and Camp Nelson (Jessamine County, KY). Each of these traditional rickhouses have a number of floors, typically six or seven. Depending on the rickhouse and floor, bourbon profiles will vary. Reviews of private barrel selections help to paint a picture of rickhouse flavor traits and signatures. Let’s say you’re contemplating a purchase of a 2020 rickhouse G Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon. The more 2020 rickhouse G reviews you read, the better idea of what you’ll expect from a potential purchase.
It’s come to my attention that Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel private selections, particularly older selections of the “tear strip” variety (2013-2015) or tag-only “red label” bottles (2015-2019), are commanding notable premiums on secondary markets. How notable? I’ve been told anywhere from $100-$600 a bottle based on the year, rickhouse, and/or selection vendor/group. While I find those values inflated (some ridiculously so), I understand our current pandemic-driven economic situation. Staying at home plus government stimulus checks equals time and money to burn. Wild Turkey’s recent rise in popularity plays a role as well. With secondary prices at record levels, one could argue reviews have research value for aftermarket buyers.
Please don’t take my argument as an endorsement for secondary whiskey markets. That being said, informed buyers should aid in quelling mania. On the flipside, favorable reviews might inadvertently justify higher values for specific selections. Could this fragile seesaw be manipulated by savvy individuals aiming to make a quick buck? Absolutely. It surely has already. It’s imperative that anyone seeking private barrel selections not only survey reviews, but the individuals penning them. Is there a connection between the reviewer and the selection? Is the review objective? Is the hype heavy-handed? These are valid questions, and critical thinking is always your friend.
Before signing off, it’s important to note that tag-only Wild Turkey private selections (particularly Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel) are ripe for potential fraud. All one needs is a legit paper hang tag and a sealed bottle of the appropriate label style to dupe someone out of a handsome premium. I’ve discussed this before, yet it bears repeating. Paying significant sums of money for these (largely unverifiable) bottles is a roll of the dice. Know with whom you are dealing, validate laser codes if possible, or maybe just pass them by altogether. It’s not like Wild Turkey stopped making bourbon. There’s plenty of Kentucky Spirit and Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel private selections out there – even more barrels aging as I type.
Whiskey reviews focused on private barrel selections aren’t just valuable, they’re necessary. Without them, evaluating the overall quality of a distillery’s barrel program would be difficult, if not impossible. Off the top of my head, I’d say 25% of this blog is focused on Kentucky Spirit and Russell’s Reserve private barrel bottles. It’s not something I plan or plot, I just enjoy the subject material. And there’s something to be said for that. If a whiskey motivates you to write a review, write the damn review. (Alternatively, if you’re a vlogger or YouTuber, record the damn review.) Inspiration should never be left to loiter. One never knows, your small contribution could offer meaningful direction in someone’s whiskey journey.
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