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.
This was bottled at 104 proof (52% ABV). MSRP is $150.
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.
You’ve written some insightful articles which I’ve enjoyed. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them. Great advise you provide – leave the bourbon to those that appreciate and cherish world-class Kentucky bourbon.
Manfred, sorry to hear you didn’t like this one. I’ve no intention of leaving bourbon alone, and hopefully you’ll better enjoy some of the articles to come.
This is a shame, I’ve had the 81,101, Rare Breed and Kentucky Spirit single barrel and they have all been great and a reasonable price. I’ve been looking out for other expressions and this doesn’t give me any hope.
Anthony, looked at another way: you don’t have to pay $100+ to get great bourbon from Wild Turkey. If you are in the mood to splurge, though, I can recommend Revival. Please see my review elsewhere on this site. Happy Turkey Hunting!
This article pretty much reflects my opinion on Wild Turkey. I’ve had quite a few Austin Nichols WT which I think is a clear mile better than Campari WT. The new ones just don’t agree with my palate.
Agree with Manfred, decades is an outstanding pour!
I’ve not had any of these…that price point for me, as good as this is, just didn’t make sense, especially when I can get a really good EC barrel proof or Four Roses single barrel…or even better, a really good Islay or Cambeltown. Interesting read…more of a reason to not pick up
PB, thanks as always for the constructive engagement. That was the point of this piece: none of these are really bad in the way that you’d typically associate with scores these low. However, they all fell way short of justifying the high price tag *in my opinion*, which is all these reviews ultimately are. As you note, there are comparably good options out there for a fraction of the price of these. Cheers and GO BLUE!
Mr Taylor – Thank you for the encouragement. I probably should have pointed out that any beverage could/should be evaluated (rated) for the juice in the bottle itself.
When you introduce price and what you would personally would pay for it (leave that to us) – it tarnishes the assessment. Good day sir
Manfred, you might want to be aware that the Malt scoring bands are what I describe as “gently price-sensitive.” I, and every other writer on this site, implicitly take price into consideration when scoring. Based on feedback, our assessment of value for money is appreciated by at least some portion of the readership.
While I find bourbons generally as being a step below many single malts in terms of complexity, they also generally come in at a far lower price point so that is often a fair trade-off. A good bourbon is still a very pleasant thing, but many lower-priced ones are best avoided. What makes WT interesting is that some of their reasonably-priced offerings can be quite interesting, but with a caveat. That being, some of their other lower-priced offerings are not particularly interesting (or even all that good) at all, and are more for the rootin’-tootin’, “let’s have a party and see how many shots we can consume before we pass out” segment. So let’s not talk about those, except to note that they can have an affect on the brand image, and can show that not everything with the WT brand on it is worthy of worship.
When you get into the rarefied air of some of the offerings with 3-digit price tags, I have no issue with expecting more from the whisky in order to justify that tab. In the overheated market of the last while, as we have seen with Macallan and some other producers, the corporate demand to exploit that profitable market has meant that price is not directly correlated with product goodness. I think that is particularly true in cases like WT where the brand was purchased by a new corporate master not all that long ago and there is likely considerable debt that needs servicing and internal rates of return on investment that need to be reached. That can result in pressure on those running the newly-purchased asset to increase profitability by churning out more new higher-priced offerings, meeting the demands of those wealthier buyers, but perhaps not with product of correspondingly high quality.
I am no expert on WT as I have only had 3 examples: their baseline 81, which I had once and won’t buy again; the 101, which is not bad value at all for the price and which I will buy again, and Rare Breed, which disappointed me for the price paid – a good whisky but for the money charged (at least here) I would rather buy something more to my tastes. When you get into the price range of those reviewed here, I think Taylor is completely justified in holding them to a higher standard and marking them down if they do not meet the expectations that price point brings. The fandom related to any number of products lately, be it whisky or artisanal locally-sourced craft ketchup – means that people not only can take an inordinate interest in knowing the most minute details about a product in determining whether or not they believe it is “good”, but also, it seems to me, tend to defend to the death their love of same in the face of questioning. Sometimes it is necessary to take a step back and ask one’s self whether knowing all that sourcing detail adds much good to what is essentially a tasting experience. We should have learned by now that price is not necessarily related to whether that experience is “good” on the palate.
Greg, an exceedingly well-reasoned and well-written response. I can’t add anything other than to say a very sincere “thanks” for your continued support.
Great review which paints a rather depressing picture. BOURBON’S GOING BIG! Yep, bourbon’s great these days. I watch and read a lot of reviews about how wonderful it all is and all these new guys coming out and the old boys like Wild Turkey showing them they have the stock and experience. Jeez, can we put a brake on it.
The price of bourbon, particularly in the U.K, is so out of sync with what’s going on in my glass I can’t think straight. Just in case anyone wants to tell me to leave poor old bourbon alone for those that appreciate it I have to tell them that I’ve been drinking bourbon for 30+ years and it’s a beverage I enjoy. However, I have a major issue with any bourbon that costs more than £75 a bottle and I wont touch any over £100. Much as I like bourbon the flavour profile is extremely narrow compared to malt whisky. A £40 bourbon can be just as good, or better, than a Scotch for the same price but I’ll still be using the same flavour descriptors for a £100 bottle at 67% abv. The same, but intensified.
So, Wild Turkey. I like Wild Turkey and I often come to their support. The 101 is great value bourbon and certainly a notch above bottom shelf. The latest round of Rare Breed is also very good and good value. Good value for money is a concept I think particularly appropriate for bourbon. It’s a working man’s drink. Single malt whisky was never that. It’s why I think a company as old and family orientated as Wild Turkey are barking up the wrong tree when they do fancy, expensive, expressions like these. They do what they do very well and there’e no need for them to keep up with the young guns of the Bourbon rush. If they want to dip their toes into those waters they better produce a damn fine poor to charge top dollar.
Really enjoyed the piece Taylor and I completely approve of adding and deducting points for price value. We really need to be far more critical of this element of the market particularly in this insane whisk(e)y boom. I actually think we’re hitting a critical mass. I see more and more overpriced expressions in ‘Flash Sales’ recently. Cheers.WT
WT, thanks as always for your kind words and support. I’m glad you found the review informative, and agree with several of the points you made. I’m not opposed to paying up for a special bourbon, but it needs to deliver the goods in terms of extra flavor. None of these got there for me, however the comparably-priced Master’s Keep Revival was quite pleasing. So I’m not writing off high-priced Turkey expressions, but I’ll try to get a sample or a trusted recommendation before purchasing a full bottle.
That said, and as you point out, you can get some delicious whiskey (from Wild Turkey, as well as others) for $20, $30, $40, or $50. This is mature, high proof, full-flavor whiskey that doesn’t break the bank. While others are out chasing collectibles, we can get a perfectly satisfying bottle of 101 or Evan William BiB from the grocery store and be well contented. In that regard, I’m happy to say that I view the glass of whiskey as being very much half-full. Cheers!