When you think about your life, what stands out most: the people you’ve met or the experiences you’ve had? There’s no wrong answer, of course, but I’ve often found the best of times occur with the best of people. I was able to enjoy one such occurrence recently when my friend and founder of KOBBE, Jamar Mack, invited me to a bottle share on the outskirts of Louisville, KY. To recount the number of enviable bottles would be a fool’s errand, with limited editions on hand from several legacy brands. (KOBBE knows how to throw a party!) That said, there’s one bottle that drew my immediate interest and it’s the subject of today’s review.

To enjoy single-barrel whiskey is to learn someone else’s palate. By definition, single barrels fit a certain flavor profile as designated by the distillery, but they also go one step further in that every single barrel selection is a reflection of whoever picked it. Today, I’ll be reviewing a single-barrel selection made by Jamar Mack on behalf of his group, Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts, or KOBBE for short. What makes this bottle special (beyond the fact that Jamar is a friend) is that this is a 13-year-old Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon.

Not to be confused with the wildly popular batched product Russell’s Reserve 13, this is simply a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel that happened to spend 13 years resting in oak. Curious to know just how that happened? Lips are sealed when it comes to those involved and details are scarce, but though its origin story remains a curiosity I think there’s an important lesson this bottle can offer.

While conventional wisdom calls comparison the thief of joy, in the whiskey world it’s simply par for the course. As David Jennings recently noted on this very site, comparing Russell’s 13 to the standard Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel expression that you’re more likely to see sitting on the local liquor store’s shelf is now commonplace for those lucky enough to get their hands on the former. Tasting Russell’s Reserve bottlings side by side with Russell’s 13 has become an instructive lesson for scores of Wild Turkey fans because as you know, dear reader, age is something more than a number. Time spent in an oak vessel is not only a prerequisite for bourbon production but it also has an outsize impact on flavor.

What can we typically glean from such comparisons? Suffice it to say batches of Russell’s 13 tend to carry more oak flavor and dark, sweet notes than their less mature counterparts. That isn’t to say that one is universally better than the other (certainly there are single barrels of Russell’s Reserve that stand toe to toe or even surpass Russell’s 13) but rather, due to its additional time in the barrel Russell’s 13 tends to more reliably fit into a certain flavor profile.

What, then, can we learn from adding a third variable to our equation? That’s what I set out to discover as I review this KOBBE Russell’s Reserve private selection, “Sting Like A Bee,” courtesy of a generous sample supplied by David. In order to place my review of “Sting Like A Bee” into context, I’ll be using the Rare Bird 101 “Corner Barrel” selection and the LL/JL batch of Russell’s 13 as guideposts. Let’s dive in!

Russell’s Reserve “Corner Barrel” – Russell’s Renegades for Keg N Bottle

Proof: 110

Age: 8 years, 7 months

Misc.: Distilled & bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY

Color: Golden amber

Nose: Lemon cake, star anise, clove, apple butter, sweet oak, toffee, cinnamon.

Taste: Gooey caramel, roasted almonds, cooked red apple, baking spice, barrel char, powdered sugar and pound cake, a hint of leather.

Finish: Medium-long with brown sugar, caramel, cooked apple, singed orange peel, and sweet oak hanging around the longest.

Impression: This is one of my favorite Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel selections and for good reason – it’s firing on every cylinder. It has enough spice to satisfy anyone familiar with the kickin’ chicken side of the Wild Turkey flavor profile but also boasts robust sweet notes and a dense texture to carry all that flavor on. I’m not just saying this, DJ & company did a bang-up job selecting this barrel. Frankly, this has all of the oak character that I’d expect from a slightly older expression of Wild Turkey bourbon, but with two considerably older expressions ahead let’s see if that impression holds.

Russell’s Reserve 13 Year Bourbon (LL/JL 2021)

Proof: 114.8

Age: 13 years

Misc.: Distilled & bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY

Color: Slightly darker amber

Nose: Black cherry, leather, rich oak, date syrup, nutmeg, maple syrup, wet tobacco, peppercorn, honey.

Taste: Again there’s gooey caramel, black cherry, green apple, nutmeg, barrel char, vanilla extract, powdered cocoa, a hint of leather, and walnut.

Finish: Nice and long with black cherry, barrel char, sweet leather, walnut, and the baking spice hanging around the longest.

Impression: I’ve been a BIG fan of Russell’s 13 year from Day 0, which is to say I knew I’d like it before it even made its debut. Once I finally had a chance to try it I was blown away. Everything you expect from Russell’s Reserve is dialed up to 11 and with the nice bump in proof to accompany that depth of flavor this is simply a delicious whiskey. The palate is resplendent with black cherry notes but those are buttressed by citrus, the influence of leather and oak, plus a finish that just can’t quit. If we’re looking to learn from this experiment then already it’s easy to see that an extra five years in the barrel is transformative. This pour is altogether a bit richer than Corner Barrel with an equally impressive mouthfeel and a superior finish.

Now for the true test…

Russell’s Reserve “Sting Like A Bee” by KOBBE

Proof: 110

Age: 13 years

Misc.: Distilled & bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY

Color: Honeyed copper

Nose: Burnt orange zest over buttercream, caramel apple pastry, clove, ginger, aleppo pepper, milk chocolate, sweet oak, and almost a dustiness.

Taste: Cinnamon, candied walnuts, milk chocolate, cooked apple, ripe cherry, singed orange peel, nutmeg, and sweet oak.

Finish: Surprisingly long with brandied cherry, milk chocolate, molasses, sandalwood, vanilla, tobacco, and subtle barrel char hanging around the longest.

Impression: Well, this selection is sublime. Balancing notes of rich milk chocolate, candied walnuts, and stewed red apple plump with natural sugars is no easy feat. Sting Like A Bee does just that, though, as it adds a few dashes of aleppo pepper and clove on top allowing all of those disparate parts to rest on a bed of well-integrated oak that almost gives off a dusty note. Did I mention that it simultaneously drinks below its proof while containing a depth belying its age? Due to its egalitarian handling of flavors, Sting Like A Bee is surprisingly more balanced than Russell’s Reserve 13 while plumbing a depth of richness that was just out of reach for Corner Barrel.

So what have we learned today? As noted above, age is often more than just a number when it comes to whiskey. With Russell’s 13 alleged to have a fair amount of older whiskey in the blend, it certainly caters to those who enjoy a more mature flavor profile. KOBBE’s Sting Like A Bee, on the other hand, delivers a lighter take on well-aged bourbon, and one that favors elevating the chorus of flavors rather than simply turning up the volume on a few of them.

If you’re wondering which of these bottles is my favorite, in this judge’s decision KOBBE’s Sting Like A Bee scored the knockout punch. It bears repeating just how solid the contenders are, with Corner Barrel remaining one of my favorite Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel selections and Russell’s 13 retaining a soft spot in my heart. Though after having all three, there’s only one winner in this bout – me.

Frank Dobbins

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