You know it, I know it: we write about an awful lot of weird stuff on Malt. No, “weird” is unfair. I should say we write about a lot of interesting stuff. Under-the-radar stuff. Niche whiskies from places that don’t normally get column inches; at least not here in the UK. Longer-toothed Malt readers will know what I’m talking about. Finnish rye. Israeli malt. Indie-bottled craft US gubbins. That birchwood-smoked thing from Austria’s Broger.
We write about these whiskies for all sorts of reasons. Because they interest us. Because not many other folk are giving them a share of digital toner. Because – yes, why hide it? – they occasionally send us bits and pieces directly. (Which is very decent of them, considering the slatings we frequently hand out.)
Mostly though, we write about them because they’re making absolutely fabulous stuff that deserves to be written about. And long may that continue. But, at the time of writing, I’m looking at my recent doodles and I can’t help feeling I’ve been neglecting the classics.
And what could be more classic than a single barrel bourbon from the auspices of Wild Turkey? Which is what we have here, in the shape of a Russell’s Reserve picked by Wades Wines in California.
Store picks are, generally speaking, America’s answer to independent bottlers. As Alexandra recently highlighted (so recently that I’ve had to cram in this addendum last-minute) they’re a chance to show off the wonkish nature of single barrels; riffs on a distillery’s well-worn theme. They tend to be smart buys for UK bourbon lovers making a trip stateside, as not many of them slip across the Atlantic, and they offer something different within known and loved parameters. Four Roses offerings are particularly fun, since the distillery-bottled 100-proof single barrels are always to the “OBSV” recipe, whilst store picks could be selected from any of the well-documented ten recipes.
Which leads me, I suppose, to my cavil with today’s subject. It’s rather difficult to see quite what makes this particular Russell’s Reserve unique. Besides than the blindingly obvious and somewhat unconstructive fact that it is unique … because it is unique. It’s a single barrel of Wild Turkey bourbon, selected by Eddie and or Jimmy Russell, further distinguished in having been subsequently chosen by the team at Wades Wines. If I was a gambling man I might speculate that an additional premium has been added in this moving around of stock. If I was a cynical man I might question whether it’s really a premium worth paying for a single barrel bourbon made in the same way, for presumably about the same length of time, and bottled at the same proof as the standard-issue Russell’s Reserve.
The counter to that, of course, is that this is the particular selection of Wades Wines, and therefore comes with a particular degree of rarity, collectability (shudder) and specificity. Presumably the team was sent a selection of cask samples, and picked this one ahead of the rest. But given “standard” Russell’s Reserve bourbons are already billed as the considered selections of Eddie or Jimmy – with all the benefits that implies – and are, being single barrels themselves, equally as rare and theoretically collectable as the barrel selected by Wades Wines, it’s tricky to see quite what your extra cents are going towards.
But maybe it’s so gosh-darn tasty that all of my too, too solid quibbles will melt. Let’s see.
Russell’s Reserve Bourbon, Wades Wines Store Pick – Review
On the nose: Surprisingly high-toned really, though full of classic Wild Turkey characteristics too. Citrus peel and sawn wood jostle with maple syrup, caramel and corn. Dusky rickhouse. It’s surprisingly ethereal and delicate. And it feels just a shade raw.
In the mouth: The palate is as unctuous and oily as you’d expect from Wild Turkey of this strength, but the alcohol is surprisingly prickly and astringent. Caramels, corn oils, coconut and vanilla buzz and flit, but it’s all being played in the upper octaves of bourbon’s keyboard.
Where’s the depth? Where’s the muscle and grunt? When I think of Wild Turkey I think of rich, booming, mouth-coating bourbon, sticky with dark, fruity, spice-laced caramel. The sort of thing they did so peerlessly in the seventies… but were still effortlessly producing as recently as a decade ago, when I was sipping from my formative glasses.
Bourbon’s flavour profile has shifted dramatically. That’s obvious to those of us who have seen the age statements slip from Elijah Craig and Wild Turkey 101; who have watched Buffalo Trace drop to 40% abv, and who have seen bottles such as Alexandra’s bargainatious Heaven Hill disappear entirely. Those ripest and most splendid of notes, once so ubiquitous, are now the privilege of the limited release and the special edition; housed in razzmatazz decanters and hawked on secondary markets.
It’s all down to bourbon’s resurgent boom in popularity of course. Distilleries were caught unexpectedly on the hop, and naturally they have had to respond accordingly. We may not like it, but it’s the congenital upshot of supply and demand. But if even specially selected individual barrels aren’t really producing the goods any more, then the apple has fallen a seriously worrying way from the tree.
Mind you, single barrels being as unpredictable as they are, I could just be fretting over nothing. I certainly hope so.
Many thanks to Brian of Malt Musings who squirreled a bottle back from a trip to California and was good enough to pop a sample in the post.