A few months ago, I received a thoughtful surprise from a whiskey friend: two private-barrel bottlings from The Sugar House in Detroit, MI. While it’s uncommon for consumers to have bar selections, having two aged around twelve years – one a Kentucky Spirit, the other a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel – is practically unheard of.

I’ve spent weeks sipping these bourbons, more often than not, side by side. I doubt it will shock anyone to hear that each is excellent (well-aged Turkey usually is). The catch is in the comparison and how these two barrels differ.

Can a 101-proof bottling stand up to a 110-proof, NCF bottling? After all, they’re from the same rickhouse and floor. This is the crux of today’s post.

In my time as a Wild Turkey fanatic I’ve come to appreciate the differences between Kentucky Spirit and Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon. Having said that, I wasn’t always keen on Kentucky Spirit, especially since the iconic “tail feather” glass disappeared. While there were some fantastic bottlings over the years, others bordered the profile of Wild Turkey 101. It’s as a fellow whiskey blogger once remarked, “Kentucky Spirit has a high ceiling, but a lower floor than Russell’s.” From a wide angle, he’s right. But if you zoom in and isolate selections based on age, location, and intricacies in profile, you might just find something unique at 101 proof. 

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit “Iron Hammer” – selected by The Sugar House – 101-proof KSBW – aged twelve years – bottled 03/02/22 from barrel #19-0091, warehouse (CN)A, rick 20 – distilled and bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Company, Lawrenceburg, KY

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color: dense amber

Nose: cherry-vanilla, honey, cake frosting, sweet oak char, Jordan almonds, hints of nutmeg & leather

Taste: rich caramel glaze, English toffee, cherry candy, honey-maple, syrupy oak, fermented orange

Finish: medium-long w/ savory oak, silky molasses, cherry cola, brown sugar, leather, faint pepper

Overall: Easily one of the best modern Kentucky Spirit selections I’ve tasted. Twelve-year Turkey bottled at 101 proof is undoubtedly special, and The Sugar House’s Iron Hammer only drives that point home. Few Kentucky Spirits can compare.

Rating: 4.25/5 🦃

Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon “Golden Dagger,” barrel #19-0126, rickhouse (CN)A, floor 4 – selected by The Sugar House – 110-proof, non-chill filtered KSBW – aged eleven years, ten months – distilled and bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color: dense copper

Nose: black cherry, spice drops, robust sweet oak, brown sugar, maple syrup, blood orange, toasted honey

Taste: Cheerwine, chewy caramel, dark fruit, chocolate-covered cherry, toffee, clove gum, leather

Finish: long w/ cherry cola, molasses, charred oak, flame-singed citrus, hints of chocolate & pepper

Overall: Golden Dagger showcases mature, oak-laden attributes with notable complexity and body. The sweeter notes counter its earthier spice impeccably, accented by a healthy, near-full-proof ABV. Pure excellence.

Rating: 4.25/5 🦃

Iron or Gold?

At their cores, Iron Hammer and Golden Dagger carry more similarities than differences. While oak influence played a significant and comparable role in each profile, it’s the way in which that maturity is nuanced that sets them apart. Golden Dagger is notably robust and “heavier.” Iron Hammer, on the other hand, is sweeter and creamier. A sound argument could be made that dilution played an equivalent role in shaping flavor contrast, but without knowing the ABV of each barrel it’s an assumption. In fact, I confirmed with Campari that Iron Hammer was originally slated as a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel selection but fell below the required 110 proof. As a result, it was bottled as a Kentucky Spirit.

As for which barrel I prefer most, making a definitive call is virtually impossible and dependent solely on my mood (for what it’s worth, I rated them identically). That being said, after months of sipping these bourbons on various occasions, I find myself reaching for Iron Hammer more frequently than Golden Dagger. Granted, I appreciate the intense, full-body character of the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel selection, but the sheer enjoyability of the Kentucky Spirit wins me over time and time again. It’s a true gem, and unless you have access to the recent Wild Turkey 101 12-Year export, an exceptional rarity in terms of flavor.

So there you have it. Given the right selection, Kentucky Spirit can sometimes best Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon – even when they tout near-identical specs. Of course, one should always consider the weight of personal preference. Just because I feel one whiskey is more noteworthy than another, doesn’t mean you’ll feel the same. Subjectivity and interpretation are critical pillars of this hobby. At the end of the day, your opinion matters more than anyone else’s – regardless of their occupation or level of proficiency. And as I often say, if you’re honest with yourself, you’re never wrong.


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