Here we go again …
In case you’ve been living under a rock, Russell’s Reserve Thirteen Year Old Bourbon began hitting liquor store shelves two weeks ago. In some locations, it never hit shelves. It just disappeared. Vanished. Poof. Where did it go? I think you already know. When a bottle priced at $69 is valued at roughly $400 on whiskey secondary markets, bottle flippers circle liquor store parking lots like buzzards over carrion. It’s the state of bourbon these days. The obsessiveness and spurts of insanity once reserved for brands like Pappy Van Winkle and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection have now come to roost for Wild Turkey (no pun intended).
Before going any further I should make something clear: Wild Turkey was never immune from this behavior. No whiskey brand was or ever is. Given the rising popularity of America’s spirit, at any point in time any brand – heritage or tomorrow’s NDP – can and will, under the right circumstances, become a target of shady profit schemes and secondary shenanigans. Many enthusiasts like to point a finger at Buffalo Trace. Hell, I’ve had some not-so-wonderful things to say about Blanton’s on occasion – but – Buffalo Trace didn’t get us here. The Van Winkles didn’t get us here. Anthony Bourdain, Sean Brock, Fred Minnick, not to mention the fictional Don Draper and Boyd Crowder – they didn’t get us here. We did. We got us here. We built the beast, now we’re cleaning up its massive, never-ending pile of steaming, loathsome, “look at my shiny bottle crotch shot” shit. High fives?
Now, I’m not saying we intended for all of this to happen. Most of us simply enjoy buying a bottle of a recent favorite, going home, popping the cork, and pouring a healthy dram after dinner. If you live alone and don’t communicate with the outside world, well, maybe you’re not to blame. But if you’re like me and countless other enthusiasts, you talk about your favorite (and not-so-favorite) whiskeys. From local friends and bartenders, to worldwide social media and YouTube videos, we like to discuss what we’ve been sipping. We share our opinions – and that’s a good thing! I’ve discussed this repeatedly – fellowship and sharing are the heart of this hobby. Regardless of what goes on around us, that should never change. That being said, word travels fast. And when people search for “the best,” they hear those words. They seek them out and soak them up like freshly wrenched sponges.
What’s That? Opportunity Knocking
Enter the profiteers. The secondary whiskey market is a lucrative minefield that motivated enthusiasts are willing to navigate – often with the best intentions – to obtain their must-have prize. Those desiring to make a fast buck are well aware and more than happy to advertise safe passage. These profiteers are mindful of our desire to share. They read reviews, watch videos, scroll through our Instagram posts, and sip among us as apparent friends and so-called community “helpers.” They know what people want – what’s profitable – and care very little for anything else. My first infuriating experience came shortly after my Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel selection, “One & A Century,” was literally flipped in the parking lot of a Columbia, SC liquor store. Thanks to the actions of these shrewd opportunists, a lot of well-deserving people missed out. To make it worse, there was virtually nothing I could do about it.
That didn’t stop me from my passion – sharing my love of Wild Turkey. Nor should any similar situation stop any content creator, blogger, Redditor, or any Jane or Joe from discussing their favorite whiskeys. The real trick is how to do so without feeding or otherwise disturbing the beast. Some will say it’s an impossible task. The chains are loosened and the city must crumble before we can find serenity again. Or, as more commonly stated, the bubble must burst. I don’t think so. I’m an optimist – tragically so at times. We may not be united enough to defeat or even tame the beast we fostered, but we can damn sure contain it. At the very least, we can help keep its waste off our lawn.
First and foremost, we shouldn’t let bad behavior influence our opinions. Honesty is always the best policy. If you love or loathe a certain whiskey, say it. Just as you shouldn’t augment your opinion to pacify a brand or store owner, don’t augment your opinion to hoodwink a flipper. Be honest and straightforward. That’s what people want to hear, and should. Honest information used for dishonest purposes is discouraging. Dishonest information used for any purpose – honest or dishonest – is potentially dangerous.
Second, we should always call out bad behavior. You don’t have to name names or share links. There’s no need to throw yourself into harm’s way, legally or otherwise. All the same, staying silent only allows a problem to repeat or multiply. If there’s one regret I have in my time as a whiskey blogger, it’s criticizing Bourbon Pursuit for their bourbon counterfeiter interview. Was it an uncomfortable episode to listen to? Sure. It was an uncomfortable subject. Should harder questions have been asked? Possibly, but in my armchair critique I completely missed the point. They did something no one else had before. They sat down with the lowest form of whiskey profiteer and called him out publicly.
Folks, if you think Pappy and BTAC are the only whiskeys subject to being faked, think again. For $69 someone could buy Russell’s Reserve Thirteen-Year, drink or decant it, refill the bottle with Rare Breed, buy some generic perforated shrink wrap from Amazon, and voila! An easy few-hundred dollars swindled in minutes.
There’s no specific formula or math to follow – you know obscene overcharging when you see it. It’s Stewart’s Test.
Which brings me to my third and most important point: Please don’t pay unreasonable prices for whiskey. This can’t be stressed enough. I’m not referring to vintage rarities or legitimate charity offerings; I’m talking about modern-day releases – one-time limited editions, private single-barrel selections, and annual expressions like Russell’s Reserve Thirteen-Year. Don’t overpay; it’s really that simple.
I’m not saying you should always and only pay a suggested retail price. While ideal, it’s highly unlikely in a majority of non-ABC states; moreover, liquor retailers commonly charge small premiums over SRP. Depending on a store’s location, it can happen across an entire inventory range. In other words, a ten or fifteen percent markup (plus inevitable tax) isn’t necessarily something to cry foul over. There’s no specific formula or math to follow – you know obscene overcharging when you see it. It’s Stewart’s Test. And, if something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not. Don’t buy into it.
The same goes for whiskey secondary markets. Granted, there are fair trades and assists that happen among well-meaning enthusiasts every day, but there are just as many crooked ventures. Again, don’t buy into it. Each time you do, you feed the beast. You might even get a counterfeit bottle or possibly nothing at all. Be mindful of FOMO and understand that in the end, it’s just booze. Besides, there’s plenty of quality bourbon and rye whiskey down the street (probably plenty in your cabinet too). Trust me – you’ll be fine without the latest, greatest release. Kentucky alone has more barrels aging than it knows what to do with. In the words of Axl Rose, “All we need is just a little patience.”
But, There is Beauty
Everyone still with me? Excellent, because I have a bourbon to taste. But before I do, I want to offer a sincere thanks to my friend and devout Bourbon Crusader, Brett Atlas. Without Brett, I wouldn’t be writing this review. Thank you for your thoughtfulness, sir.
I assume most of you reading know exactly what Russell’s Reserve Thirteen Year Old Bourbon is by now. The name speaks for itself – thirteen-year Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey brought to you by the two most experienced master distillers in the world, legendary father-son duo, Jimmy and Eddie Russell. Add to it the fact it’s uncut and unfiltered, and you have a Turkey lover’s dream-spec whiskey (at least on paper). But, the real test is in the taste, which is precisely what I’ll do now.
Russell’s Reserve Thirteen Year Old Bourbon (2021) – 114.8-proof, thirteen-year Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey (NCF) – distilled & bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: dense copper
Nose: (robust, complex) toasted brown sugar, rich vanilla, black tea & honey, fragrant charred oak, candy spice drops, maple syrup & pancakes, medicinal grape
Taste: (intense, flavorful) flame-roasted caramel, leather, dark cherry, savory oak, smoky blood orange, cola, hints of molasses & black licorice
Finish: full-bodied w/ long & lingering woody spice – antique leather, tobacco, luxurious oak, dried citrus, sweet cedar, nutmeg, clove, faint cinnamon
Overall: Honesty is the best policy, right? Russell’s Reserve Thirteen-Year is without a doubt a homerun bourbon, just shy of a grand slam. The complexity is striking, as is its overall balance in consideration of its maturity. The introduction is immediately satisfying – a layered, yet well-tempered aroma of dark baked confectionery notes enveloped by seasons of oak and traces of medicinal grape. Its taste is as sublime as the nose leads you to believe, with elegant savory char, flame-singed caramel, and a captivating dance of smoky citrus. And, just when you think Russell’s Thirteen has finally revealed itself, the finish reminds you to blink – marching on with a flavor parade of tobacco, leather, and heady (but never drying) baking spice. Marvelous.
Is Russell’s Reserve Thirteen-Year perfect? Almost. While it stands on its own as a new Wild Turkey expression, I don’t consider it as unique and expertly crafted as whiskeys like Master’s Keep Revival or Russell’s Reserve 2003. The proof hounds will surely sneer and growl at that sentence, but barrel strength doesn’t inherently translate to perfection. We should also keep in mind that Russell’s Thirteen is said to be an annual release – a permanent addition to the Russell’s Reserve family. Similar to its competition like Stagg Jr. and Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, there should be future batches.
2021’s Russell’s Thirteen-Year is a damn strong inaugural release; but, despite what some profiteering Instagram braggarts and Johnny-come-lately influencers would have you believe, it’s not the crowning achievement of Wild Turkey. With thousands upon thousands of barrels aging under the watchful eyes of the Russells, I’m confident the best is yet to come.
Rating: 4.75/5 🦃
Safety in Numbers
Before I close out this post, I’d like to circle back and address the beast one last time. I’d also like to briefly discuss gatekeeping in whiskey enthusiasm – particularly in relation to Wild Turkey.
As incredible as Russell’s Reserve Thirteen-Year may be, it’s not worth the asinine premiums people are asking (and unfortunately paying). It’s not. In fact, in a blind tasting against a handful of top-quality Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon private selections, I’d wager it would do quite well, but fail to win each and every time. While Russell’s Thirteen carries a notable age statement, it’s only 2.4% higher in ABV than Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel. Depending on flavor profiles and taste preferences, it could very well place last. So please, take that into consideration when searching for Russell’s Thirteen-Year. It’s simply not worth hundreds of dollars. Period. Remember – paying unreasonable premiums for whiskey only feeds the beast.
If you’re a seasoned enthusiast who thinks Wild Turkey is just now producing amazing whiskey – give me a break.
Finally, there are a growing number of Wild Turkey fans who are perturbed – even outraged – at the level of hype and lunacy surrounding Russell’s Reserve Thirteen-Year. Many of these individuals have cherished the brand for decades. They bought the bottles no one wanted. They proudly wore their Turkey hats and t-shirts when it wasn’t cool. Now, they’re competing with ego-fueled, profit-driven store stalkers and they’re fiery mad about it. In the last few weeks I’ve talked with more than one longtimer that’s disgusted to the point of stepping back. They spent years relatively sheltered from the beast to find that convenient refuge is no more. And, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel partially responsible.
But, there’s another side to this coin. Wild Turkey, more specifically, the Russells, have deserved this level of attention and acclaim for a considerably long time. Yes, it irritates me to see phrases like “Finally! A Wild Turkey product that’s as good as Stagg.” Whatever. If you’re a seasoned enthusiast who thinks Wild Turkey is just now producing amazing whiskey – give me a break. But the recent surge in Wild Turkey’s popularity isn’t all disingenuous. I’ve welcomed countless new fans to the rafter in the last five years – kind fans, sincere fans. This is a good thing for the brand. It’s a good thing for the Russells. What we shouldn’t do – new fans or veteran fans – is become gatekeepers.
Gatekeeping won’t keep the beast from the door. Just because someone is a longtime Buffalo Trace or Four Roses fan, doesn’t mean they can’t also be a stalwart Wild Turkey fan. Shooing and shunning interested enthusiasts away only promotes elitism and a false sense of privilege. There’s enough of that in bourbon already. Wild Turkey doesn’t need it. We should be encouraging and sharing with our curious sisters and brothers – showing them there’s fantastic expressions to be found that don’t require you to scour Facebook and spend a fortune. After all, there’s plenty of Wild Turkey 101 to go around.
Thank you for taking time to read and consider my perspective. Is it a rant? Is it a review? I honestly don’t know what to call it, but my fingers sure feel I deserve another pour of Russell’s Reserve Thirteen-Year.
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