Father, son, and grandson.
This trinity has taken on special emotional resonance for me as my kids reach the ages where they’ll be forming lasting memories of their grandparents. Watching my dad and my son converse and play, I’m reminded of many happy times spent with my own grandfather.
I can only imagine that the feelings attendant these interactions are heightened and intensified when they occur as part of running a family business. I also suspect that other, darker emotions begin to permeate the pleasant mix of unabashed joy and wistful nostalgia. This is not a shady slight on anyone mentioned here, but rather a comment on human nature. So common are the pitfalls of familial legacies that adages such as “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” have been coined to describe the effect where 90% of a family’s wealth is dissipated by the progeny of the founder’s children.
In fairness, I can see the problems from both angles. From the perspective of the older generation: they have been successful doing things their way for a very long time. Who’s a young person to come along and tell them to do something new or different? From the perspective of the younger generation: the weight of a family name and reputation can be a privilege and an aid, but also a burden. The desire to be one’s “own man” must complicate the acceptance of a legacy and its stewardship.
As a result, I’m very pleasantly surprised when I see these multigenerational relationships functioning well in a business context. It’s a triumph over the odds and a comment on the strength of character of all involved. There are a few examples of this in bourbon; Booker, Fred, and Freddie Noe come to mind. The Van Winkles are among the best-known families in bourbon and are now on the fourth generation in the business, despite no shortage of tribulations over the years. Today’s reviews happily provide us another chance to relish in consecutive generations of the same family working alongside one another successfully.
I’m referring, of course, to the Russell family of Wild Turkey fame. Grandfather Jimmy, son Eddie, and grandson Bruce are all dedicated to the distillery, the brand, and (of most consequence) the whiskey in the bottle. While the family doesn’t own the distillery (Campari does), the family name is synonymous with the products, and not just because of the enormously popular Russell’s Reserve expressions. Rather, the keen-eyed among us will note the Russell surname on every label, down to the humble 81 proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
I had my first flirtation with Wild Turkey’s high end “Master’s Keep” range with my recent tasting of the Revival expression. The review prompted a discussion of the other expressions online, which resulted in the kind offer of these samples from a reader (cheers, Alpay). As a consequence of his generosity, I will now be able to round out my assessment of the best that Lawrenceburg, KY has to offer.
I discussed this flight of turkeys with our friend David Jennings, a.k.a. Rare Bird 101, who remains the [cheesy] gold [foil] standard for Wild Turkey connoisseurship. I was thinking about the structure for this article and he noted that each of these expressions has an association with a different member of the Russell family. Thus, the conceit for this review was born.
Let’s start with the patriarch, in the form of the Diamond Anniversary bottling. The raison d’être for this expression is the commemoration of Jimmy Russell’s 60th year of service at Wild Turkey (he reached 65 last September, God bless him).
I had previously called out Diamond Anniversary in my article on “shelf turds,” prompted by a visit to a liquor store where I saw a dozen of these sitting unmolested. The main sticking point with this expression seems to be the lower bottling strength; it is 91 proof (45.5% ABV), which Eddie Russell indicated was actually close to batch proof. Regardless, it seems to have diminished enthusiasm from the consuming public.
This is a blend of Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey in the 13-to-16 year age range. The bottle code of LL/CG251332 indicates this was bottled on July 25, 2014.
I most recently observed this Turkey in the wild for $130 at which price, as noted above, bottles were as flightless as their avian namesake. This is also available via the Whisky Exchange for £175. Perhaps these are diamonds in the rough, awaiting discovery? Let’s find out…
Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary – Review
Color: Orange copper.
On the nose: Richly sweet aromas of chocolate-covered cherry. Some notes of dried firewood kindling emerge with some concentration, but I’m drawn back again and again to the cherry. With some time in the glass, I am overwhelmed by the sticky-sweet scent of banana Laffy Taffy. There’s buttered corn on the cob, orange rind, and a bit of salted caramel here but, still, banana candy overwhelms.
In the mouth: Very lithe, lean profile. There’s a nip of rosewater-inflected sweetness at the front of the mouth. At the middle of the tongue, this evens out with more of a savory flavor and a tart note. Very mineral-driven at the end, where a lemon accent emerges to tighten this up through the finish. Unlike the others, which became more expressive in the mouth over time, this didn’t really evolve much as I let it rest. Some more peanut flavors, perhaps? In any case, not enough for me to substantially revise my notes.
An odd profile for Wild Turkey. Based on the banana notes on the nose, I’d guess that most well-informed tasters would have pegged this for a Jack Daniel’s, assessed blind. Not necessarily unpleasant but I don’t love it, which I would have to in order to justify the price.
Moving down a generation, we now have Master’s Keep Decades. This was released as a commemoration of Eddie Russell’s 35th year of the business, which would be a landmark accomplishment for most others. However, Eddie still has Jimmy kicking around the Wild Turkey visitor’s center, making him look like the new kid on the block.
Jokes aside, this is a blend of bourbon barrels in the 10-to-20-year age range. It is interesting in that it contains whiskey from three different eras in terms of barrel entry proof: the pre-2004 period of 107 proof, the 2004 to 2006-era barrel entry proof of 110, and the current barrel entry proof of 115. From the bottle code of LL/EF060249, we can tell that this was bottled on June 6, 2016.
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Decades – Review
Color: Rose-tinted copper.
On the nose: This progresses notably from the former. It’s still got that high-pitched part of the register, but layers in some maple syrup, furniture polish, and an entire forest floor full of fallen, dried autumn leaves. Almonds; a hefty dollop of peanut butter. With a bit of time, I get an exceedingly pleasant chocolate fudge note. Scratch that, maybe it’s banana nut bread with chocolate chips? Oh, also toasted marshmallow. In any event, it smells delicious.
In the mouth: Very stern to start, by way of contrast. There’s little but a steely note at the front of the mouth. A rather sloppy wave of vanilla comes across at midpalate, which moves into some spicy flavors of nutmeg and an echo of the aforementioned chocolate fudge. This is most noticeable toward the back of the mouth, where it becomes slightly bitter with another nutty accent and a lingering medicinal cherry note.
Bang-average bourbon with a well-above-average price tag. Honestly, I’d probably rather have 101, and that’s regardless of cost. There are some interesting notes here and there – the nuttiness, for example, is intense – but that doesn’t come close to justifying the high ask on this one. I’m docking a point as a consequence.
“And now for something completely different.” To this date, I have only reviewed bourbon whiskeys from Wild Turkey. However, the distillery is also highly regarded for its rye whiskeys. I had previously discussed the genesis of these whiskeys with David, who noted Bruce Russell’s fondness for rye (and, amusingly, Jimmy’s aversion to it). The success of the Wild Turkey rye range is a credit to Bruce, and it’s rumored that we’ll have some new expressions with this mash bill to taste soon.
I had considered saving this Cornerstone for that future horizontal tasting of Wild Turkey ryes but was instead tempted to include it in this review. Putting the matter to a Twitter vote, the consensus opinion emerged that this should be reviewed forthwith. Fine, twist my arm.
This is the fourth and most-recent release in the Master’s Keep series. It is a blend of rye whiskey barrels ranging in age from 9 to 11 years. As we’ve not yet discussed the rye mash bill on Malt, I’ll put it down here: 52% rye, 36% corn, 12% barley (compared with the bourbon mash bill of 75/13/12, with the corn and rye inverted).
We’ve got a bottle code of LL/HF060733, indicating a bottling date of June 6, 2019. This Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey is presented at a strength of 109 proof (54.5% ABV). MSRP for this release was $175, the highest yet of the Master’s Keep series.
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Cornerstone – Review
Color: Cheery golden orange.
On the nose: Least expressive Wild Turkey I can recall on the nose, and that includes the underpowered Kentucky Spirit bourbons. Some lemon pound cake, honey, and tarragon aromas here and then… not much else. Weirdly, this has the aroma of Mike and Ike candies. Christmas pudding, maybe? Perhaps a warming heat and some cinnamon stick? This is really a tough customer.
In the mouth: Similarly reserved in the mouth. This starts with an austere texture, with only a faint nip of citrus fruit. There’s a slightly chemical note of vanilla marking the transition to the midpalate. A strange sweetness emerges in the middle of the mouth, accented by the bite of ground cinnamon. Through the finish, there’s a bitterness to this that is only partially offset by the warming, spiced note of hot toddy and a faint residual flavor of salted peanuts.
I would have docked this a point at $75, being insufficiently flavorful and altogether a bit weak in body. At $175 this is a shocker, and I’m docking double points in response.
“But wait, there’s more!” as the informercials went. Alpay included an anonymous bonus dram for my enjoyment. I’m tasting it blind – honest – before I reveal to you (and myself) what it is.
Blind Dram – Review
Color: Dirty orange-brown.
On the nose: At first, vanilla-inflected pastry abounds. I get buttercream, French Vanilla ice cream, and the baked richness of chess pie. A whiff of nail polish and a faint note of celery is all this leaves in terms of diversity.
I revisited this after some time, at which point it had improved significantly. Dusty cherry smells mingled with the aroma of orange creamsicle. There are some airy sweet notes of cotton candy and a bit more buttery richness in here as well. I’m also getting the addition of a sous bois note of dried twigs on a dusty forest trail crunching underfoot.
In the mouth: Again, a thick wash of vanilla oak overlays the entirety of this. There’s a little concentrated nuttiness of almond extract and a peppery inflection as this finishes, but overall the effect is mostly of heavy-handed oak.
After time this evened out, with the vanilla becoming less domineering. The nutty notes increase in the middle of the mouth, where this tastes a little bit like some of the better Japanese single malts (Chichibu, Hanyu, Yamazaki). The finish is a bit truncated; there’s drily woodsy flavors of dead trees and fallen leaves, as well as the faintest bite of black pepper before this fades entirely.
Peeling back the label on the sample bottle, I was shocked to see this is Wild Turkey 101. The bottle code of LO453043 indicates that this was a 2003-era batch of 101. Whereas the contemporary bottle of 101 I tried was exceedingly well-balanced and comprised of interesting flavors, this was a cruise on the S.S. Oak across the Vanilla Sea. I was getting a bellyache from all the sweetness. Some time made this better, but it was still essentially off-kilter. I wouldn’t be pleased if I bought a contemporary bottle of 101 that tasted like this, and I certainly wouldn’t advise you to go hunting or to pay up in the hopes of locating this profile.
Setting aside the older 101: Seldom is an expression without its flaws, and I’m usually pretty clement when it comes to unique profiles with some challenges. That’s what I tasted in the Revival, but it’s not what I’m tasting here. These are meant to be conventional whiskeys but, by virtue of the additional price, we should be getting some increased flavor and texture… except, we’re not. I’d buy Rare Breed or a random store pick of Russell’s Reserve before I purchased any of these.
In summary, I can’t tell any of our readers to go out and pay retail price for anything I tasted here. That’s great news, in a way; for $20 to $60, you’re able to go out and get yourselves some really good Wild Turkey.
What could Wild Turkey do next time in order to ensure a more enthusiastic reception? To start with, give us something truly unique. What would that mean, in practice? I’d love to see a set of single barrels at barrel proof. The funkier, the better. Eddie Russell knows his warehouses like the back of his hand. Why not release 150 bottles of a 10-year-old “6th floor of Camp Nelson F” or whatever, and others, and sell them as individual bottles? I could go on but, as always, I’ll defer to my betters. David has already provided his wish list of Wild Turkey expressions. Maybe Buffalo Trace has provided a template with their Antique Collection: give the world hyper-aged and full-proof versions of your core expressions. That alone would be an improvement over what we’ve got here.
There are few gents as deserving of proper acclaim in the world of bourbon whiskey as Jimmy and Eddie Russell. I hope that some day soon Campari will see fit to release tributary bottles that will be the equals in quality to their honorees.
There are commission links within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement. Lead image and Master’s Keep Decades provided by The Whisky Exchange. Cornerstone image from Acquiremag.