What if everything I know is wrong?

Taste enough whiskey (and I’ve certainly had my fair share) and you’re bound to develop some preconceptions. Biases and heuristics are intrinsic to human nature, derived from the evolutionary necessities of knowing that antelopes are worth chasing and lions are worth fleeing. Applying this to whiskey, in my case, has generated some rules of thumb that guide my reviews in this space, as well as my purchases and consumption in reality.

A simplified list might include the following: The higher proof barrels from the hotter and drier parts of the rickhouse deliver superior flavors. Bourbon is best in the eight-to-twelve-year age range; getting into the mid-teens and upwards skews risk/reward negatively. Special releases and limited editions are mostly tater bait; there’s very little bourbon over $100 that justifies the price tag.

With all this in mind, I’d be very surprised if I were to award a good score to a whiskey whose components came from the cooler parts of the rickhouse (resulting in a nearly 20-point decline in barrel proof), that was matured for 16 years, and released in a limited edition with a price tag north of $200. However, being a free-thinking type of fellow, I’d be delighted to have my prejudices dashed by an outstanding whiskey with these contours.

As luck would have it, that’s precisely what I’ll be reviewing for you today. We have here the Russell’s Reserve 2003. This is the third in a trilogy of similar releases, with the prior iteration 2002 (15 years at 114.6 proof/57.3% ABV) being the first barrel proof release from Wild Turkey without chill filtration. The original in the series, 1998 (15 years at 102.2 proof/51.5% ABV), was initially set aside as a commemoration of Jimmy Russell’s 45th anniversary and presumed retirement. You’ll note that Jimmy is still regularly delighting visitors to the Wild Turkey visitor’s center, with nary a sign of impending retirement.

Back to the whiskey at hand: said to be “[r]eminiscent of Wild Turkey releases from the mid-1980s to early 1990s” per the press release, this 2003 was matured inside Wild Turkey’s Tyrone rickhouses. Our friend David Jennings, a.k.a. Rare Bird 101, points out that this is a batch of the remaining whiskey from the old barrel entry proof of 107. However, unlike the prior releases in this series – both of which were above 100 proof – the 2003 bottling is a fair deal lower in bottling strength, as noted above.

Returning to my initial conceit: I wouldn’t normally be running right out to grab this one, given my predilection for Wild Turkey expressions at or above the brand’s hallmark 101 proof. However, I trust Eddie Russell more than almost anybody else in whiskey. He’s famous for his occasional but steadfast refusals to put his name on a product that doesn’t meet his standards. The fact that the company has positioned this in print as reminiscent of dusty Turkey is a further temptation. In total, I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic about this one.

Some more specifics, before the fun begins: this is 16-year-old Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, coming to us at 89.5 proof (44.75% ABV). Released in 2020 in a run of 3,600 bottles, this carried a SRP of $250 (in a feat of inflation defiance, this is in-line with the prior entrants in the series). Lucky ducky that I am, I was the recipient of two samples of this: one from David (who also furnished the photo) and one from Brian, both of whom have my grateful acknowledgement.

Russell’s Reserve 2003 – Review

Color: Medium-pale yellow-hued orange.

On the nose: Immediately, there are gorgeously rich aromas of apricot marmalade, La Vie de la Vosgienne cerise candy, and sticky-sweet maple syrup notes that play against pert stony scents and a whiff of mint sprigs. Seamlessly integrated is a faint suggestion of the funkiness for which dusty Turkey is coveted, though this is less expressively manifest than in other whiskeys I have tried. Some time in the glass allows this to evolve another delicious smelling aroma of chocolate covered cherries, abundant notes of oiled leather, and a surprising nuance of spicy grapefruit.

In the mouth: Mostly mute on the entrance, this has some dilute notes of wood as it meets the tip of the tongue. This blooms toward the middle of the palate with a floral flavor of rosewater that becomes momentarily bitter before subsiding. Hiding underneath that are some classic Turkey flavors of leather, as well as the off-bitter fruitiness of espresso beans. This finishes with a lingering stony note and a tingly heat that coats the gums and the roof of the mouth. Long after the last taste, I sense a recurrent reprise of the candied cherry note from the nose; this is immobile in its endurance.

Conclusions

Throughout the mouth, I am continually reminded of the low bottling strength by the texture of this whiskey, which feels slightly brittle in places. Writing it off on that count would be a mistake, however. While this may be quieter than the full strength Rare Breed and high proof Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel expressions from Wild Turkey, that certainly doesn’t mean it’s not good whiskey. I was particularly impressed by the persistence of some of the flavors and textures here.

This is an intellectual more than hedonistic exercise; the whiskey demands attention and analytical unpacking, asking as many questions as it answers. It’s challenging whiskey that defies easy categorization. This wouldn’t be a crowd pleaser at a party, or a showstopper in a tasting flight, but if you can find a solitary moment it becomes mesmerizing.

How to score this seems like a dilemma. It’s certainly not for everybody; I can easily imagine someone shelling out the not-insignificant sum of $250 and being bitterly disappointed at their first sip. Depending on their level of open-mindedness, I could see that desultory attitude persisting down to the last drop in the bottle. Even those chasing the endless delights of sister expression Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond will likely find this more myopically focused in its scope.

It’s worth reconsidering – yet again – what this is: we’ve got the remaining barrels from the 107-entry-proof era which – having been stored in the cooler parts of the rickhouse – have dropped in proof. The aromas and flavors are therefore coming to us at a lower volume than we might be accustomed to, relative to higher strength barrel proof offerings. Again, this doesn’t mean they’re not present, but rather that their intensity differs compared with the higher-octane releases from this distillery, as well as others.

If you’ve read all of the above and are still intrigued, then I can recommend a purchase of Russell’s Reserve 2003 for SRP. It’s not my favorite of the premium offerings from the House that Jimmy Built (I’d put both the Bottled-in-Bond and Revival expressions from the Master’s Keep line above this one), but it doesn’t fail to deliver in the ways that others have fallen short. Taking all that into account, I’m awarding this an above-average mark.

Score: 6/10

Image courtesy of David Jennings.

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