Surprise, surprise! Russell’s Reserve Thirteen Year Old Bourbon has arrived, and along with it, complete buyers’ hysteria. With prices on secondary whiskey markets averaging $500 a bottle (suggested retail price is $70), it makes the ten-year Russell’s Reserve seem like a steal at $35 (even with the hefty proof difference). I’d argue it is.
We all have a favorite whiskey. For some it’s a rare pour spared for special occasions, for others it’s the bottle they reach for day after day. For many years I fell somewhere in between, but now … times have changed. While I certainly appreciate a dusty rarity or barrel-proof bruiser, they’re not something I drink on a regular basis. Hell, I can’t say I drink Wild Turkey 101 on a regular basis at this point. Sure, I keep an open handle on hand, but it doesn’t beckon me like it once did. So what do I consider my favorite now? Russell’s Reserve Ten Year Old Bourbon.
My evolution in finding affection for Russell’s Reserve Ten-Year has been gradual; I can’t think of a single “a-ha” moment. I suppose it began upon discovering its effectiveness in home whiskey blends. Need to drop the proof of a blend but maintain maturity? Russell’s Ten is an ideal choice. I’ve also grown to appreciate Russell’s Ten-Year in cocktails, such as the Boulevardier: two parts Russell’s Ten, one part Campari, one part sweet vermouth, and you’ve got a complex libation that’s sure to please. But the turning point likely occurred as I transitioned to lower-proof whiskeys when writing. One can only sip so much Rare Breed and stay coherent. We can’t all be Gonzo.
So what makes Russell’s Ten-Year my choice? Why not Longbranch, Russell’s Reserve Six Year Old Rye, or other lower-proof Wild Turkey alternatives. Simple – the ten-year flavor profile. There’s just something about that oak, cherry, and leather combo that tickles my fancy. The same could be said of Eagle Rare, which I unashamedly consider my favorite Buffalo Trace expression. Although, Russell’s Ten has a bit of baking spice that Eagle Rare lacks. Both are fabulous bourbons with similar notes. I just appreciate the signature Turkey spice a bit more (no shock to readers, I’m sure).
Now that Russell’s Reserve Ten-Year is a bonafide favorite, I find myself contemplating it more than most modern Wild Turkey expressions. Of course, this line of thinking always leads to late-night questions (rather nerdy ones at that). In an effort to see these questions answered, I reached out to Master Distiller Eddie Russell. Eddie graciously spent time replying to my inquiry and sharing his personal insight. But, before I jump to the interview, I think it’s best to provide some perspective via a recent bottling of Russell’s Reserve Ten-Year.
Russell’s Reserve Ten Year Old Bourbon (2021) – 90-proof Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey – aged at least ten years – distilled and bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Company, Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Nose: (mature, elegant) chocolate-covered cherry, fragrant oak, orange peel, nutmeg, leather, faint sassafras
Taste: (silky mouthfeel) toasted toffee, caramel, dried citrus, brown sugar, hints of honey-maple & herbal tea
Finish: medium in length – medicinal cherry, vanilla spice, charred oak, dark chocolate, sweet clove & licorice
Overall: Russell’s Ten-Year is everything a sub-$50 bourbon should be, and 2021’s iteration is no slouch. There’s plenty of “core bourbon” vanilla and caramel, but with the added depth of sweet and savory spices like clove and licorice. More importantly, there’s the signature oak, cherry, and leather combination that all but defines modern-day Russell’s Ten. A fabulous whiskey at a fabulous price – who could ask for more?
Rating: 3.75/5 🦃
Q&A with Eddie Russell
Last week, Wild Turkey master distiller Eddie Russell kindly entertained my questions regarding Russell’s Reserve Ten Year Old Bourbon. Some of these questions you may have wondered yourself, others might just be the product of my geeked-out Turkey mind. Either way, I’m thankful for Eddie’s willingness to chat and hope you enjoy the interview.
David Jennings: The original Russell’s Reserve Ten-Year (101 proof) was a sentimental release for the Russell family. Do you feel a similar connection with the modern version?
Eddie Russell: I love the Ten-Year. It was developed for Jimmy’s 45th year but the taste profile that I like. I still think of all the Russell’s products as part of the family.
DJ: The change in Russell’s Ten’s proof from 101 to 90 in 2005 – I’ve often assumed that was born out of necessity due to aged barrels dropping below 101 proof. With the barrel-entry proof increased roughly fifteen years ago, I’m assuming the profile is exactly where you want it to be (as it remains 90 proof). What is it about Russell’s Ten’s flavor – in its modern state – that you appreciate?
ER: The change was actually to get more people to try it. I know it is hard for the modern bourbon guy to understand, but not many people were drinking higher proofs even in 2005. 101 was considered too strong unless they were that older guy who loved bourbon. We didn’t have a problem with the proof. It was more me knowing what a great product we had and wanting more people to try it. The proof fits the profile, more sweetness and not as bold spice with a shorter finish.
DJ: Are there specific rickhouses and/or floors you prefer when crafting Russell’s Ten?
ER: We can’t control the warehouses because you don’t know what works for six or seven years. The main objective is the middle floors to bring out that creamy richness.
DJ: You’ve mentioned in past interviews that barrels older than ten years sometimes find their way into Russell’s Ten Year Old batches. How frequently does that happen? What’s the oldest whiskey that’s found its way into the expression? Want to provide a month and year for the taters to go crazy chasing it? 🙂
ER: It has been a couple of years ago. That is when the lightbulb went off and we decided to release the new thirteen year.
DJ: What’s the approximate batch size (in barrels) for Russell’s Ten and how often is it batched? Would you consider it “small batch” in the Wild Turkey sense? (The older label states small batch but the newer label does not.)
ER: We decided that anything we call “small batch” would be 200 barrels or less. Russell’s Reserve is a small batch for us. The batches depend on sales. It is growing, so more than we used to do. We probably do twenty-five batches of WTMB [Wild Turkey “mixed batch” – 86.8 and 101 proof] or 101 for one batch of Russell’s. This is just a general guess.
DJ: What’s the approximate average batch proof of Russell’s Ten?
ER: You would be looking at 112 to 117. [That] would be my best guess.
DJ: With the new distillery’s official launch coming up on its tenth anniversary (June 11th), I assume we’ll soon be seeing those barrels make their way into Russell’s Ten. While I know you and Jimmy are keen on consistency, particularly when it comes to standard expressions, do you perceive or possibly desire a profile shift (even if slightly)? In other words, can we expect new or different things from Russell’s Ten in the years ahead?
ER: I would think it will change some.
DJ: Where do you see Russell’s Ten in terms of legacy? Do you think the expression will be around twenty or thirty years from now? If someone stumbles upon this interview in 2041 or 2051, what would you like a future consumer to know about Russell’s Ten?
ER: I think Russell’s could always be on the market. That can always change by the people who own our company. It was a product made for a father who had spent forty-five years making Wild Turkey and staying true to what he believed in. For me, it was not only an honor to do but a new chapter in my bourbon journey.
A very special thanks to Eddie Russell and Sarah Bessette at Campari PR for making this interview possible. I truly appreciate it.
For those of you who, like me, once considered Russell’s Reserve Ten-Year a less desirable Wild Turkey option, I encourage you to give it a try again. Taste it next to industry comparables like Eagle Rare, Bulleit Ten-Year, and Evan Williams Single Barrel. If it isn’t a favorite today, watch out! It might just grow on you.
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