Today is Eddie Russell’s birthday. How old is our favorite “new guy?” Old enough to make the best damn whiskey in the world. But you don’t have to spend a fortune or waste hours of your day scrolling pages of shady internet secondary markets to appreciate some of Eddie’s finest accomplishments. Sure, we’d all love to have his legendary Russell’s Reserve 1998, but the reality of obtaining that bottle is bleak. As such, I thought I’d take a few minutes to share five Wild Turkey expressions that capture the essence of Kentucky Bourbon Hall-of-Famer Eddie Russell. The majority of these should be relatively easy to locate in some shape or form, ranging in price from $20 to $175. Not too bad considering modern-day whiskey prices.
Before I kick off the countdown, it’s important to recognize Eddie Russell’s significance to Wild Turkey. He’s not Jimmy Russell. Never has been. Never claims to be. Yet, we all know Eddie has maintained the “heavy lifting” for some time, as Jimmy is well into his eighties. Frankly, Eddie deserves more credit than he receives from the general public. He’d never expect it nor ask for it. In fact, when speaking publicly Eddie only casts the spotlight on his father. Jimmy and Eddie might not agree on everything (often don’t), but there’s a healthy and admirable level of respect one rarely finds outside of Kentucky’s distilling families.
With that, let’s take a look at the last ten years – ten successful years – of Wild Turkey and highlight key expressions bearing Eddie Russell’s influence. Many of these you’ll find at your local bottle shop. Others may require a bit more searching, but they’re out there. Either way, none should be priced too far above suggested retail. If they are, move along to another vendor. There’s plenty of quality, appropriately priced Turkey to be found at reputable stores.
5. Wild Turkey Bourbon (81 proof)
Some may disagree, but the old 80-proof Wild Turkey Bourbon is nothing to brag about. Some bottles are decent, others are just plain awful (literal drain pours). Quality aside, the inconsistency is astounding and paying a premium for these 80-proof bottles – particularly releases from the 2000s – is not recommended. Why? It’s been said that Jimmy Russell never liked making it, yet did so to satisfy a perceived niche in the market (and likely some suits in New York as well).
By 2011, Eddie Russell made it a priority to change this baseline expression – to turn it around and make it a noteworthy contender to its competition like Jim Beam White Label and Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7. He accomplished the task by increasing the whiskey’s maturity and proof. Whereas the old 80-proof expression was, in the words of Eddie, “four years and a day,” the new 81-proof Wild Turkey Bourbon is crafted from whiskey aged five to eight years – essentially, a diluted, slightly younger Wild Turkey 101. As for the odd proof, the change from 80 to 81 merely signaled something was different, as well as riffing on the classic “1 over 100,” in this case “1 over 80.”
As for the whiskey’s profile, I enjoy Wild Turkey Bourbon, or Wild Turkey 81 as it’s sometimes called. It’s better than Beam White or Jack Daniel’s. It also works perfectly as a lower-proof summertime mixer in cola, ginger ale, or lemonade. The flavor on its own is nothing to gush about, but the expression and its origin story is. For $20 it’s a solid Kentucky straight bourbon and a testament to Eddie Russell’s drive to improve the Wild Turkey brand.
4. W. B Saffell (Campari Whiskey Barons)
Campari’s Whiskey Barons series was introduced in early 2017. The first two expressions, Old Ripy and Bond & Lillard (batch 1), performed moderately well, though probably not as well as Campari would have preferred. Some of that was due to the fact the Russells weren’t involved, yet the press releases touted Wild Turkey bourbon as their primary source.
Whiskey enthusiasts are funny folk. We notice the small, tucked-away details. Combine that with a hefty price tag of $50 per 375ml and one’s motivation to purchase curious bottles isn’t exactly spritely.
Then came 2019’s W. B. Saffell. Word quickly spread about Eddie Russell’s involvement and the rest, as they say, is history. But it wasn’t just the fact that Eddie proudly associated his name with the product, he fashioned an incredible tasting whiskey. So incredible, that the $50/375ml meant very little to most bourbon fans. Many viewed it similar to paying $100 for a standard 750ml limited edition release. Hell, that’s the way I saw it.
If you’ve yet to try W. B. Saffell, I encourage you to do so. Though a blend of bourbons aged six, eight, ten, and twelve years, it’s rooted heavily around a ten-year profile. It’s also a respectable 107 proof, falling between Wild Turkey 101 and Rare Breed, yet its robust and layered complexity sets it apart. Needless to say, a fantastic job by Eddie Russell and a flavorful expression that I hope sticks around a little while longer.
3. Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye
In 2015, Eddie Russell was named master distiller, sharing the title with his famous father, of course. Perhaps it was a minor dose of rebellion, but Eddie’s first core expression under his new title was Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye. Jimmy and Eddie may share a title, but they don’t share a love for rye whiskey. If you’ve ever wondered why Wild Turkey rye was practically unheard of for sixty-plus years, it’s because Jimmy’s not a fan of rye whiskey. He can make it. He just doesn’t like to sip it.
Eddie, on the other hand, was introduced to a new appreciation of rye largely because of his son, Bruce (now Brand Educator for Wild Turkey). Realizing there were some amazing rye barrels aging inconspicuously in some of their best rickhouses, he decided bottling these standouts at 104 proof (non-chill filtered) could provide whiskey enthusiasts a brand new perspective on Wild Turkey’s largely forgotten spirit. He was right.
Today, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye remains an important part of Wild Turkey’s portfolio. It’s a bonafide fan favorite – one I keep on hand (and in my glass) regularly. It stands toe to toe with luxury rye offerings from other producers and does so for a fairly priced $70. It may not be cheap, but it’s considerably less expensive than other rye whiskeys of its maturity, quality, and class. It also tastes delicious.
2. Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon
At this point, I don’t think there’s an American whiskey enthusiast out there who’s never heard of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon. It wasn’t always this way. Prior to 2013, and save for a handful of sparse travel-retail offerings, there was only one single-barrel Wild Turkey expression – Kentucky Spirit. At 101 proof and bottled in a beautiful “fantail” glass, Kentucky Spirit was Jimmy Russell’s baby. But Kentucky Spirit didn’t capture the full-bodied, single-barrel sipping experience Eddie Russell felt it could.
The early 2010s saw shifts in Wild Turkey’s general profile. This was primarily the result of barrel-entry proof changes instilled in 2004 and 2006. In order to capture the richness of sipping bourbon straight from a choice barrel, Wild Turkey needed a higher-proof single-barrel offering. 2013’s Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon was the answer. With a 110 bottling proof, consumers could enjoy a full-flavored bourbon close to barrel strength, but at a consistent and generally approachable ABV. Bypassing chill filtration also helped, giving the bourbon greater mouthfeel and texture, and debatably, richer flavor.
The following year, Wild Turkey kicked off its private barrel program. Seven years later, it’s skyrocketed in popularity. And rightfully so, as some of the most impressive whiskey bottled today can be found in Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel private selections. The secret’s out, folks. But it wouldn’t be so if the bourbon didn’t taste as remarkable as it does. We owe that to Eddie Russell.
1. Wild Turkey Master’s Keep (2015-Present)
If you really want to understand Eddie Russell at his most bold and adventurous, give a Master’s Keep expression a try. It doesn’t matter which. Every enthusiast has their favorite for different reasons. Personally, with one rare exception (Master’s Keep 1894), I’m a huge fan of them all. Now, I understand these aren’t readily available for a number of you reading. Availability is relative to geographical location and marketplace. Some areas see these releases on shelves for weeks, months, even years; other areas, days or even hours (if out on shelves at all). The good news is there’s more in the works, the next being Master’s Keep ONE later this year.
What makes Master’s Keep bold and adventurous? For starters, they’re whiskeys Jimmy would likely never attempt. Jimmy’s never been high on experimentation. He was trained by old-school distillers who believed in adherence to tradition and swore by consistency – do one thing, do it right, and don’t change a damn thing, as they say. Conversely, Eddie is the product of a different generation. Growing up, he and his peers welcomed change and seldom shied from new things. They were high on experimentation (possibly other things at one time 🙂 ) – breaking molds, pushing boundaries, etc.
Master’s Keep is Eddie Russell. His is the only name on every bottle – each an experiment in flavor, carefully crafted and meticulously supervised. I can’t promise you’ll love them all, but I can promise you’ll appreciate the passion that went into them. Enjoy a hyper-mature bourbon? Try Master’s Keep Seventeen-Year or Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond. Fancy a sherry-finished whiskey? Pick up Master’s Keep Revival. So you’re a rye fan, eh? Check out Master’s Keep Cornerstone. And last but not least, don’t forget Master’s Keep Decades. It may be the ultimate tribute to Eddie’s tenure under his father, Jimmy.
Outside of the expressions listed above, Eddie is the guardian, custodian, and seasoned caretaker of classic Wild Turkey expressions like Wild Turkey 101, Rare Breed, and Russell’s Reserve Ten Year, among so many others. As I’ve said, Eddie isn’t Jimmy – but – he’s precisely the distiller Wild Turkey needs. Despite Jimmy’s jests, in his heart I know he believes in “the new guy.” He knows that no other could carry the flame better than Eddie. And we know it too.
Cheers to Eddie Russell! And have a very happy birthday, sir.
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