Earlier this week, Campari released its year-end financial results for 2022. With the exception of well-deserved praise for Wild Turkey’s performance (up 48.9% over the last three years), it landed with a thud for many whiskey enthusiasts. Granted, the target audience wasn’t fans of Wild Turkey; it was prepared specifically for company shareholders and potential investors. Even so, there were elements, particularly a presentation slide, that stirred considerable emotion. Some enthusiasts were offended, some indifferent, but I don’t think anyone was entirely thrilled.
The purpose of today’s post isn’t an analysis of Campari’s financial report. It’s available for download, should you wish to review it. But seeing how Russell’s Reserve 13 was the centerpiece of Tuesday’s fuss, it’s relative and warrants some discussion.
It’s widely accepted that politics and religion aren’t healthy topics among those in our hobby. I’d argue talk of pricing isn’t far from it. Whether it’s rants about secondary whiskey markets, or how the liquor store down the street is charging astronomical amounts for sought-after bottles, there will inevitably be passionate opinions.
Over the years, I’ve found myself on both sides of these arguments. On one hand, I hate seeing individuals purchase whiskey at retail prices, then flipping it for three or four times its cost. Putting aside the questionable legality of the practice, it hurts to see others profiting (significantly, I might add) off a distiller’s hard work. In these instances, price increases only seem justified. On the other hand, Wild Turkey has traditionally been an affordable brand. As prices increase, the risk of alienating loyal consumers compounds. It’s a tricky balance, one that may or may not be in jeopardy in 2023, depending on who you speak with.
At this particular moment, I’m in the camp of supporting reasonable price increases for limited editions and highly sought-after releases. Defining what’s reasonable is the tough part. It’s a slippery slope, as increasing the price of one expression often impacts another expression (and another, and another, on down the line). But in the case of Russell’s 13, it was apparently priced too low to begin with ($69 SRP). I didn’t see it at the time, but it’s true. Profiteers didn’t just seek out bottles in 2021, they swooped up cases worth and flipped them without hesitation.
The following year, Campari raised the suggested retail price to $99. If it made any difference it was minimal. Bottles were still flipped for multiples over their retail price (still are to this day). Once again, additional price increases appeared inevitable, and frankly, justified.
So here we are in 2023. Will we see another batch of Russell’s Reserve 13-Year, and if so, will it maintain its $99 price tag? While I’m confident we’ll see it again, I’m doubtful it’ll remain $99. And truthfully, I don’t think it should. If anything, it’s underpriced for the times. But here’s the hard part … What’s a reasonable price for Russell’s 13? Where’s the middle ground? How can Wild Turkey seize the margins from the flippers without offending or alienating their devoted fans? I don’t have the answers, but I can tell you that it starts with well-executed communication. Tuesday’s financial report fell short of that.
I’ll pause here and sip some bourbon – you guessed it – Russell’s Reserve 13-Year. More specifically, I’ll be sipping a bottle from May 2022. Many folks call this “batch 3.” While I don’t believe the commonly employed fan-made naming will scale well over the years, that’s a debate for a different day.
Russell’s Reserve 13 Year Old Bourbon
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Age: 13 years
Misc.: non-chill filtered; distilled & bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: rosy copper
Nose: (fragrant) sweet oak, saddle leather, blood orange, rickhouse funk, stovetop vanilla pudding, tobacco, hints of clove & licorice
Taste: (notably robust) toasted caramel, medicinal cherry, honey-maple, charred oak, English toffee, baked brown sugar, holiday spice
Finish: long & flavorful – fizzy cola, singed orange peel, vanilla bean, oak char, cinnamon, leather, sweet earthy spice
Impression: It doesn’t get much better than this. There are countless bourbons out there – many of high quality – but very few that can measure up to Russell’s Reserve 13. It has just about everything one could ask for in a barrel-proof whiskey – intense complexity, noteworthy maturity, and undeniable balance. And all of it works because it’s more than just 13-year bourbon. Believe it or not, there’s 20-year bourbon in this May 2022 release. It’s an expertly crafted blend of phenomenal stocks that showcase Wild Turkey’s greatest strength – well-aged Kentucky straight bourbon, bottled uncut and unfiltered.
As for which Russell’s 13 release is my favorite, I think it’s fair to say I love them all. Every bottle of Russell’s 13 to date has been spectacular. If I really wanted to split hairs I might lean towards the December 2021 release, but it’s so damn close to the one I’m sipping now there’s no reason to nitpick. If you have a bottle of Russell’s Reserve 13 – any bottle of Russell’s 13 – be happy, share it, and enjoy every single drop.
Ah, yes … the “p-word,” price. Here I am, elated to be sipping one of the best bourbons produced in the last several years, and I have to talk about pricing again. Ugh. Nevertheless, it must be addressed.
Back in 2015, Wild Turkey released Russell’s Reserve 1998. It retailed for a suggested $250 (a hefty price at the time). As a result, plenty of enthusiasts passed it by. The 15-year, barrel-proof bourbon was an absolute stunner. One could argue it’s one of the best things ever bottled by the distillery. Even so, there were grumbles over the price. And what does that whiskey sell for now? Roughly $2,000. I’ll tell you this, if I could go back in time and buy Russell’s Reserve 1998 for retail price, my credit card would be toast. It’s that good.
Now ask yourself – eight years from now, will Russell’s Reserve 13 be around? Will it taste the same? No one can say for sure, not even the Russells. But if Russell’s 13’s price were to increase this year – let’s say even as high as $250 – would you regret not buying it come 2031? It’s the question we each have to ask ourselves … What is this bourbon worth to me?
As stated earlier in this post, I don’t have the perfect answer. No one does. The best advice I can offer is to vote with your wallet. If Campari raises the price of Russell’s 13 to a figure you don’t feel comfortable paying, don’t pay it. There’s plenty of options, such as Rare Breed, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, and Wild Turkey 101. As for me, I grow tired of limited releases never hitting shelves. The only ones I can easily find come from producers who deliberately price the flippers out, like Barrell Craft Spirits and WhistlePig. It’s a bold strategy, one that appears to be working.
I’m not opposed to Campari pricing out flippers. If it means that I could walk into a local store and find Russell’s 13 whenever I wanted it, I’d consider that a win. It would simply become a special occasion whiskey (it essentially is for me anyway). But to do that, Campari must deliver the message in a way that makes sense to their loyal customers. Stating you’re manipulating market scarcity when the liquid is scarce to begin with is unnecessary. It takes finding a middle ground – convincing the consumer you’re doing what’s best for the company without taking advantage of their interest in your products. It’s no easy task, but I’d argue it’s a critical one.
I’d like to close on a higher note. I’m proud of Campari for giving Wild Turkey new life back in 2009. I’m proud of each and every distillery worker, company representative, and brand manager. Most importantly, I’m proud of the Russells. The tremendous success of Wild Turkey should be celebrated. I just hope that Campari never forgets the fans and long-time customers who contribute to that success. We want the best for Wild Turkey, we only wish for the best in return.
Enjoy this blog? Please consider supporting it via Patreon. In return you’ll receive access to exclusive rewards and weekly whiskey content. Thank you! dj