“Oops, I did it again.”
I know, I know, I know. I promise you I wasn’t intending to review this bottle. I saw the promo photos when news of its arrival broke, followed by those amateur snapshots posted by gleeful Instagrammers who were fortunate enough to locate bottles in the initial retail release. “Good for them,” I thought, but I did not feel the invisible claws of jealousy scraping down my neck. Even after I read our friend David Jennings’ review bestowing a perfect 5/5 score on this (only the second time he’s done that for a modern Wild Turkey expression), I demurred. I respect David immensely, but our tastes don’t always correspond perfectly.
After all, there are plenty of reasons to shy away from a bottle such as this. Given the age of the whiskey and Wild Turkey’s rye mash bill, there’s the risk that this could have fallen over into acrid wood crowding out the remainder of the balancing flavors. There’s also the (in my experience) spotty track record of the Wild Turkey Master’s Keep range; barring the delightful Revival, I have struggled to see good value for money in the other Master’s Keep expressions.
In addition, I have more general misgivings about bourbon in the $100-and-up zone, which should be well known to frequent readers. So many of these whiskeys aspire to a price not justified by their quality, resulting in the phenomenon of the “shelf turd.” This is particularly so in comparison to the many wonderful bourbon options we have below $100, a few of which are brought to us by the fine folks at Wild Turkey.
In consideration of the aforementioned factors, this one seemed like it would be an easy “pass” for me. I thought this an especially likely outcome given I was unwilling to spend the extra effort to hunt down such a coveted bottle “in the wild” (a bourbon bro term for bottles appearing on ordinary retail store shelves at a cost close to MSRP).
What changed my mind and incentivized this purchase? In self-defense, I can at least report that it wasn’t FOMO, or the desire to crow about my quarry on social media before flipping the bottle at a profit. Rather, this whiskey came into my hands as a consequence of good luck and the spontaneous need to celebrate.
My family recently took a short road trip to visit with friends who were on holiday near us. This is the first time we’ve seen them (or, indeed, anyone) socially since lockdown began for us back in mid-March. On arrival I was sent out to a local supermarket to fetch more beer. The grocery store I visited has a nice selection of liquor, but I wasn’t expecting to find any treasures. Imagine my surprise when I noticed a bottle of this coveted new release sitting inconspicuously on a display shelf!
I immediately flashed back to the recent Bourbon Pursuit episode (#258, for your reference) where Fred Minnick interviews longtime Buffalo Trace tour guide Freddie Johnson. The complete episode is well worth your time, but I recalled one of the many shared anecdotes in that moment. Freddie talks about opening a rare and expensive bottle with his (soon-to-be-departed) father and brother, and the resultant passing of three hours spent sipping and reminiscing. He could have cut the session short and saved some of the bourbon, but that would have left him with more whiskey and less memories of two people he loved. Obviously, he made the right trade and, in doing so, captured the essence of what whiskey really is (or should be) about.
So, sensing the opportunity to make this a night to remember, I splurged for this new and exciting expression. I also grabbed a bottle of the standard Russell’s Reserve 10 Years Old in order to have material for comparison. I’ll save you a recounting of the head-to-head, as I wasn’t taking notes. Rather, I was staying up all night cracking jokes, playing Street Fighter, sipping bourbon, and getting destroyed in ping pong alongside a pair of good buddies. Because of that, I will never regret having purchased this one, no matter how the review turns out.
Fortunately, we were able to moderate ourselves well enough that a significant portion of this bottle was saved for later consideration. Warmed by the happy memory of that night but, with space and time to give this a proper evaluation, I’ll now be glad to assess it for you in a more clear-eyed fashion.
As for the particulars: the packaging materials for this (a handsome presentation box, in keeping with the previous Master’s Keep releases) inform me that this is aged 17 years in Wild Turkey’s Camp Nelson rickhouses. About the worst part of the experience comes when considering the verso of the box’s lid. Affixed there is a label with a logorrheic slew of superlatives that would give Macallan’s notoriously profligate wordsmiths a run for their money. In order of appearance: “extraordinary,” “fine,” “incomparable,” “highest quality,” “artfully bottled,” “unmatched flavor,” “unique,” “bold,” “inspired,” “enticing,” “enjoyable,” “unrivaled.”
Setting aside that literary dog-and-turkey show, we are provided some facts that allow us to place this within the Wild Tukey rafter, as well as the broader landscape of bourbon whiskey. The label states that this is only the second Wild Turkey Bottled in Bond expression (the prior, dubbed “American Spirit,” was a 15-year-old Bottled in Bond released in 2007). Those of you unfamiliar with the rules pertaining to Bottled in Bond whiskey can read about them here.
This edition is said to number 14,400 bottles. It comes to us at the statutory 100 proof (50% ABV). MSRP is $175; I paid $180 (prior to sales tax) for this bottle.
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond – Review
Color: Amber with lightly brownish hues.
On the nose: Immediately, a sticky-sweet note of cherries jubilee jumps from the glass. After a minute, this shifts into a root beer float with a heaping scoop of vanilla ice cream. There’s sweetly spicy notes of nutmeg and cinnamon-sugar. With some patient sniffing, I begin to sense a smoky and meaty aroma of grilled chicken breasts slathered in Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce. This continues to evolve in the glass, taking on some gently woodsy aromas, a nutty scent of cashews, the uncanny smell of Green River soda, and the honeyed baked note of graham crackers.
In the mouth: Pert and acidic to start, the whiskey enters the mouth with a citric flavor of canned orange slices before it hits the sweet-and-salty kiss of candied nuts. There’s another root beer note in here, but this time it’s hard candies with a root beer flavoring. More woodland flavors begin to emerge at midpalate, before this reaches a piquantly woody crescendo at the top of the tongue that is accented by a nip of black licorice. The mouthfeel turns mineralic through the finish, with a fluoride note that transitions quickly into the flavor of Meyer lemon. This ends with a final woody kick before lingering gently, with a residual heat around the lips and top of the mouth, and stone-inflected woody notes persisting at the back of the throat. As an aftertaste, this leaves the disappearing flavors of cashews and fresh leather.
This is gorgeous in so many ways. That introductory cherry scent is a sheer delight, but this remains really fun to nose as time goes by. In the mouth this is a shapeshifter; I tasted this repeatedly over several days and was never sure I was pinning down the same flavors twice.
Unlike Revival, which took a good long while to shed its initial awkwardness, this Bottled in Bond is ready to rock straightaway. Also unlike Revival, this is less a one-off curiosity and more an exemplar of the heights that patiently-attended bourbon can attain. I’d argue that it is bottled at the point of optimal maturity, in which the wood is integrated subtly and harmoniously but never overpowers the many other nuances this whiskey contains.
In total, this is a delicious and engaging bourbon that warrants the special consideration begged by its distinguished presentation. Does it provide ten times the drinking pleasure of 101, or five times the pleasure of Rare Breed? Not really, but I’m not sure that such a linear extrapolation is the point. The price of this demands something distinctive and – unlike most of its siblings in the Master’s Keep range – this argues comprehensively in terms of delivering a “unique” (to use but one of many of the adjectives provided by the packaging) drinking experience.
While I believe that my misgivings about most bourbon presented at a triple-digit price are still valid, this feels like the rare exception that proves the generally applicable rule.
Image kindly provided by Wild Turkey.