What’s up with Wild Turkey’s private barrel program?
That’s the question I’ve been fielding lately, and I understand why. There have been notable delays, with some 2020-2021 bottles taking over a year to make it to retailers post selection. As for 2022 allocations, I know of a handful of on-site selections in the last few weeks, though from what I’ve gathered, those barrels appear to be holdovers from 2019-2021. If there are new barrels in the mix, they’re from rickhouses represented in recent years (A, B, G, K, S, etc.). Finally, as of today I’ve yet to confirm any off-site selections for 2022. According to the representatives I’ve spoken with, the process is currently being reviewed for rollout. But I should stress that I’m not a Campari employee and can only assume that they’re playing catch up.
With all of that in mind, I couldn’t help but reflect on Wild Turkey’s private barrel program and wonder if it deserves a reboot. What I have to say today will likely ruffle some Turkey feathers – particularly for those who favor the old ways. The fact of the matter is, the current process can’t scale. The overall volume of Wild Turkey private barrels has increased significantly since 2014, going from a few hundred to nearly a thousand. There’s simply no way for Eddie Russell to sip and debate each barrel with every party (and hasn’t since Covid), be it on site, off site, or even virtually. The math just doesn’t work.
So what can be done? Scaling back, while always an option, certainly goes against today’s escalating demand and offsetting boosts in production. If there are enough quality barrels worthy of meeting demand, why not make that happen? Of course, you’ll always contend with the argument that standout barrels could make for better batches. Jimmy Russell would probably agree with you. (It’s no secret that Jimmy would be perfectly content producing Wild Turkey 101 exclusively.) Nevertheless, diverse expressions and a strong private barrel program have become hallmarks of a healthy and competitive bourbon brand. The trick is figuring out the logistics. What worked eight years ago might’ve worked five years ago; it’s just not working now.
Reassessing the Approach
If I had read the paragraphs ahead in 2018, I would’ve closed my laptop in frustration and fashioned myself a hefty pour of Rare Breed. After all, there’s a certain romanticism in selecting your own barrel of whiskey, by yourself or as part of a group. It’s an experience that never gets old. But just because that experience existed one way, doesn’t mean it can’t exist another. You don’t have to stand in rickhouse A. You don’t even have to stand beside a Russell. Selecting a barrel of Wild Turkey from samples alone, while not ideal in consideration of established alternatives, is still fun. At the end of the day, you find your whiskey. Regardless of how that whiskey is selected, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s your whiskey of choice.
In September of last year, I participated in a Westland Whiskey virtual cask selection. What made that particular selection different, however, was the fact the product was already bottled. There were three unique casks, represented via samples with notecards explaining each and every detail a whiskey nerd could desire. And since the casks were already bottled, the ABVs, yields, ages, and most importantly, the flavor profiles, were concrete. What we tasted was exactly what consumers would taste straight from the bottle. Not to mention, we knew precisely how many bottles would be available for consumers to enjoy.
If you think any of this changed the selection mojo, you’re right. It did. But not in the way you might imagine. The romanticism – the revelation and excitement – was still there, we just had additional details to ponder (and less unknowns to worry about). Also, the process allowed us to experience three entirely different whiskeys. There was an ex-calvados cask, an ex-tequila cask, and a peated whiskey cask. Each of these brought with it its own distinctive profile.
While there are relatively few incidents of complaint when it comes to individuals choosing Wild Turkey barrels, the ones I hear most often are: 1. “Our group tasted multiple barrels from the same exact rickhouse and floor.” 2. “The barrels we tasted were very similar in profile.” 3. “When our barrel was bottled, the proof dropped and we ended up with a Kentucky Spirit. We were told we were getting a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel!” And, 4. “When our bottles came in, the yield was extremely low and there weren’t enough bottles to go around.”
If Wild Turkey ran a program similar to Westland’s, these matters would essentially become moot. Distillery employees preparing samples for tastings could pull from a variety of maturation locations and ages; moreover, the proofs and bottle counts would be set in stone and fully disclosed – no surprises. You’d also be tasting at the exact bottling proof – 110 for Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel and 101 for Kentucky Spirit (chill filtered to boot). Again, no surprises. Hell, you could request a number of samples for each expression and go blind. You might end up selecting a Kentucky Spirit simply because you preferred the way it tasted at bottling proof. And best of all, save for the printing of custom hang tags, your bottles (pre-labeled with all of the barrel details) would be ready to ship out.
Making it Work
I can already hear the grumbles. “But I want to taste straight from the barrel with Eddie!” Yes, we all do. It’s just becoming harder with bourbon’s rise in popularity. I’m not saying it can’t or shouldn’t happen. Whenever possible, it should. I’m just saying that, like it or not, off-site selections are destined to increase. And as previously stated, with production ramping up, there’s just no way a Russell can participate in every single selection, on or off site. Even if Jimmy, Eddie, Bruce, and JoAnn focused all of their attention on the private barrel program, 1,000 barrels spread out over 50 states is a huge task. Frankly, they have other things to do.
I could easily write another thousand-plus words on the pros and cons of this brainstorm. Storage would surely be an issue, as you’re holding cases of bottles instead of a single oak barrel. Though they could fit on a pallet rather easily, so long as you chunked the empty barrel (apologies to those who’ve enjoyed getting the actual barrel). Also, Wild Turkey would need a dedicated private barrel tasting panel, which should include Eddie (of course), to determine profile, provide general tasting notes, and decide whether barrels deserve to be bottled as Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel or Kentucky Spirit. Since all of this could be done in house without traveling or transporting pre-filled sample bottles of actively aging whiskey, it shouldn’t be a difficult endeavor. Regardless, it would still require Campari to develop that plan and allocate or acquire the resources necessary to make it work. Could it happen? Absolutely. Should it happen? I think so. Will it happen? Ehh.
In the meantime, we as enthusiasts must sit and wait. Worst-case scenario, we’re right where we’ve been for the last year or so (sigh), that is, until things catch up. Personally, I think a change could do the program good (and the sooner the better). Feel free to disagree with me, just don’t come running back when your epic Russell’s pick arrives as a 42-bottle Kentucky Spirit.
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Good points in here. Coming from someone that grinds it out 5 days a week in the industry working 12 hour days currently to do the daily blending and processing and catching up on custom barrels which are typically 6-12 plus months for most that we’re trying to meet in 3-6 months it can be easy to voice improvements from the picker perspective. There’s a lot of physical labor, logistics and time involved in a custom barrel program. It’s a treat to those who experience and those who offer it. Would love to enjoy a pour of RR SB CNF at the end of these long days but not happening right now. Patience is a virtue and plenty of other expressions to enjoy at the end of day. Always an enjoyable read DJ. Cheers!
I’m sure it’s a very tough job. Most consumers (of any product) never appreciate, much less see, what goes on behind the scenes. That being said, when competing brands deliver quality results faster, it should always be an area of concern for a business. Customers, unfortunately, aren’t the most understanding folks. I hope one day your hard work is rewarded. Thanks for reading and commenting. dj