I shouldn’t have these whiskeys.
That’s not to say I regret buying them, nor that I am unworthy of the privilege of their enjoyment. Rather, there is a prevailing school of thought that the conditions which brought them into my possession should not have occurred in the current environment of frenzied whiskey demand.
Let’s back up a second…
Much has been said and written about the last two decades’ transformation of the American whiskey landscape. Though most consumers started the millennium with an apathetic indifference to our indigenous brown spirit, the resurgence of whiskey’s popularity has proceeded basically without interruption for 20 years. Events that might have derailed demand for other products – such as a global financial crisis – didn’t seem to dent the desire for more whiskey.
Even the worldwide viral pandemic, which sent U.S. GDP plummeting by more than -30% in early 2020, seems (paradoxically) to only have inflated markets for assets and collectibles of all types. In the lowest depths of lockdown, most liquor stores were able to remain open as “essential businesses.” Folks who remained employed had discretionary income that they weren’t able to spend on travel, dining out, or other forms of entertainment. Wearing masks and maintaining proper social distancing protocols, though, they (and I am included in the census of such hobbyists) could still hunt for bourbon… and hunt they did.
Like so many other long-term trends (the shift away from brick-and-mortar retail toward eCommerce, to name but one), whiskey consumption and collecting seemed accelerated by the strictures imposed in the name of public health. The bottles that were already rare stayed so; brands that had languished for years suddenly started to capture drinkers’ interest, with a visible impact on availability of their more desirable expressions.
I myself abandoned the fanciful notion of locating a member of the Antique Collection or one of the Van Winkle whiskeys at retail price many years ago. The dwindling allocations of these bottles went to the stores that spent their remaining 364 days pushing Wheatley Vodka and Fireball with verve. Those stores are run by people who they have something golden and aren’t going to give it up for nothing, to paraphrase a former Governor of Illinois.
Though I knew it was unlikely that I’d score a trophy bottle from the current year’s allocated outturn, I was still able to amuse myself by trying to find forgotten and neglected bottles from a few years back. I had luck locating Wild Turkey back to 2017 and Maker’s Mark back to 2015, which – despite being just six years ago in calendar terms – may as well be an eon past in whiskey market time.
However, among those who search for older expressions (even those falling well short of the vaunted “dusty” status), I have heard despondent lamentations with increased frequency of late. Whereas backroads liquor stores used to be fertile ground for finding epic bottles of yore as recently as a couple years ago, the influx of collectors and flippers has now reduced the “wild” supply of these bottles to nothing.
Well, almost nothing…
I recently stopped into an unassuming-looking “Party Store” on the main drag of the medium-ish-sized Western Michigan town where I live. In addition to the standard assortment of bottom shelf budget whiskey, this shop boasts a selection of higher-end Scotch, Irish whiskey, bourbon, and rye that is sprawling and haphazard in both its arrangement and its composition. Peering through dusty showcases with squinted eyes, I noticed something I had never seen before.
A crudely fashioned pine box contained a set of three single barrel Wild Turkey expressions: Russell’s Reserve Rye, Kentucky Spirit, and Russell’s Reserve Bourbon. I could tell from the former (and much-missed) “fantail” bottle on the Kentucky Spirit that these were at least a few years old. At $170 for the trio, this represented a small discount to the combined $70+$60+$60 that these respectively retail for individually, even without the intrigue of being a few years old.
It was only on removing another set of bottles from the case that I noticed the second group had hang tags around their necks, denoting that these were single barrel picks rather than the standard retail equivalent. Feeling a thrill of excitement, I purchased both sets and gleefully informed friends that samples would soon be coming their way.
Back to my original premise: this was never supposed to be possible. More than once, I have been told that every “honey hole” has been discovered, every backwater bodega has been scoured, every last bottle of anything remotely collectible has already been scooped up by waves of more assiduous bourbon bird dogs. There wasn’t the remotest possibility that a liquor store on a busy road in a populous beach town would have any bottles of interest on the shelves…
Yet, there they sat.
Excuse the lengthy preamble, but I felt it necessary to set the scene before arriving at this conclusion: there’s still plenty of whiskey out there that is worth the time and energy to seek out. Some of this is hidden in plain sight; the rest can be located with some patience, a bit of mild exertion, and a hawkeye.
Why is it necessary to say this? I have heard from folks who are getting turned off this hobby shortly after they begin. They go online, see or read about bottles they’re told they’ll never get, and become discouraged immediately. Resigned to the idea that the good stuff will forever remain out of reach, they throw up their hands. If you’ve felt this way (no matter how long you’ve been interested in whiskey) I’m here to tell you: Don’t give up hope; the thrill of the chase is not gone entirely, and there are great bottles of whiskey out there waiting for you to find, open, enjoy, and (most importantly) share.
On to the whiskeys: these are all selections from Liquor Barn, a retailer that bills itself as the place “Where Kentuckians go to celebrate life!™” At the conclusion of a period where the specter of death floated above us all, I can think of no better toast with which to kick off this tasting. Here’s to life!
I’m reviewing these in the order they were presented, from left to right. Let’s start with the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye. As with all things Wild Turkey, a superlative exploration of this expression has already been produced by our friend David Jennings, a.k.a. Rare Bird 101. Instead of re-hashing his work, I’ll simply note his observation that store picks of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye are comparatively scarce, particularly in common with the more ubiquitous Single Barrel Bourbon picks.
This bottle is adorned with one of the old-style hang tags, informing us that this is Barrel 7 from Floor 2 of Rickhouse E. The “Personally Selected By:” line reads “Russell Family Collection Liquor Barn Series #1.” The laser code on the bottle of LL/EH tells us that this was bottled in August of 2016. This comes to us at 104 proof (52% ABV). As noted above, I paid $170 for the set of three bottles, so I’ll be scoring each of these as though retail price was $57 or thereabouts.
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye Liquor Barn Series #1 – Review
Color: Medium-pale gold.
On the nose: Lemon taffy, aloe vera, and a yeasty note of freshly baked rye bread. The high proportion of corn in the mash bill lends this a rich sweetness which I usually don’t prefer in my rye whiskeys, but which is put to good effect here as a balancing note. Still, there’s enough of the rye showing through. With some time in the glass, I get a distinct and wonderful note of peppermint hard candies and another lemon note, this time a more piquant squeeze of lemon wedge.
In the mouth: Stern to start, this begins with a mouth-puckering kiss of limestone. A slightly peppery bite meets a subtle note of key lime as this migrates into the center of the mouth. That peppermint note from the note reemerges for an instant as the whiskey reaches the top of the tongue. I get a textural bloom of tannic oakiness progressing toward the finish, which goes a bit mute, showing only a faint aftertaste of confectioners’ sugar and some subtly woody influence.
For my tastes, this whiskey is the most rye-like of any Wild Turkey rye I have ever tried. The corny sweetness is held in check by the forcefulness of the classic rye elements (pepper, aloe, lime), creating an overall more harmoniously balanced presentation than the other rye expressions from this distillery. I like this better than the Rare Breed rye and – assuming a similar price – would score this a point above that bottle, in comfortably positive territory.
Next in line is the Kentucky Spirit bottling. Those of you who have read my prior reviews may recall that few bottles of this expression have yet to really grab my interest, which I attribute to the comparatively lower proof versus the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel. A few items to note: the hang tag on this bottle reads “Russell Family Collection Liquor Barn Series #3.” The neck label informs us that this is from Barrel 134, from Rick 5 of Warehouse G. Bottled on 7/13/16, this is presented at the standard strength of 101 proof (50.5% ABV). As mentioned above, this is packaged in the old-style bottle, which – despite its aesthetic superiority – does not make this better, more interesting, a “dusty,” or anything else in particular.
Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel Bourbon Liquor Barn Series #3 – Review
Color: Mellow gold.
On the nose: Honey and lemon intermingle in an incredibly rich first impression; this smells like what I’d imagine mead tastes like. A gently woody accent of cedar and the buttery richness of moist cornbread meet an exceedingly subtle touch of mint leaf. Overall, though, the aromatic profile keeps tacking toward that initial richness.
In the mouth: Far more restrained on the palate, this starts with a thin texture and a dilute flavor. Watery wood notes perk up into a drying mineralic note that meets with a tannic astringency, but there is none of the nose’s ample sweetness to round out what ends up being a surprisingly austere palate. There’s a faintly lemony aftertaste and a floral soapiness rounding out of the texture, albeit with the slight return of a bitter woody note late into the finish.
This perfectly illustrates the pitfalls of Kentucky Spirit for me: the enticing aromas that are unlocked through dilution to lower proof get no follow-through on the palate, which comes across as texturally thin and overly woody in places. If this had been able to deliver on even some of that honeyed richness, I would have been happy to score this average or better. As it is, I’m docking this a point.
Rounding off the trio, we have the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon. Again, working off the hang tag: this is Barrel 3070 from Floor 5 of Rickhouse O. The “Personally Selected By:” line reads “Russell Family Collection Liquor Barn Series #3.” The laser code on the bottle of LL/EG indicates bottling in July of 2016. As is customary for this expression, bottling strength is 110 proof (55% ABV).
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon Liquor Barn Series #3 – Review
Color: Medium-light golden orange.
On the nose: Quintessentially Turkey nose of new, oiled leather, ripe cherries, and a big, oaky dollop of vanilla. Some more exotic scents of sandalwood and tarragon creep in here to add intrigue. With attentive sniffing, I tease out a subtle stoniness underpinning all this. Overall, this works on three levels: the immediately recognizable Turkey notes, the herbal and spicy aromas, and the mineralic foundation. I will be interested to see if the palate progresses similarly.
In the mouth: Starts sedately, with a more constricted mouthfeel than is common in the typically generous Wild Turkey house style. The mineral elements take center stage, with a limestone note married to a stone-inflected fruitiness, like flavored fluoride from the dentist. Remaining tightly wound through midpalate, I get some sharply floral notes as well as another exotic flavor, this time of jasmine and saffron. The flavors recede as this moves toward the back of the mouth; a more faint vanilla taste and some astringency that tips over into bitterness punctuate the otherwise sedate finish. A persistent heat continues to tingle on the lips and gums.
This smells like good Wild Turkey. Based on the nose alone: if I had picked up this bottle as a normal retail version of the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon (as opposed to a store pick) I would feel that I had gotten what I expected, plus maybe a little bit extra. However, the palate veers sharply in an unanticipated direction, being altogether quite lean and stern in comparison with other examples from this distillery. It doesn’t want for intensity (except, perhaps, for the finish), but I’m not sure that it would be to the tastes of most Wild Turkey fans. While off-profile barrels are the ambition of many a picker, emphasizing these unconventional aromas or flavors can sometimes result in an overall drinking experience that is less than that delivered by a mainstay expression. All that to say: I am shaving a point off this one as well.
In yet another surprising turn: not only did I find some relative rarities from years back, but two out of three of them weren’t appreciably better than the currently available equivalent versions! It just goes to show you: even those successful at locating a coveted bottle may find themselves no better off than if they had picked up something off the grocery store shelf. Yet one more reason to resist the temptation to overpay, to avoid FOMO, and to not believe the hype.
As I was able to procure two sets of these bottles, it felt only right and fitting to send the second set to David. He has far more knowledge about and appreciation for Wild Turkey whiskey than I ever will, and these rarities are far better off in his hands than my own. He has here provided his tasting notes for the Russell’s Reserve Bourbon in his own style:
David’s Tasting Notes: Caramel, butter toffee, cherry bubblegum, citrus zest; candy-esque fruit, vanilla creme, orange peel, sweet oak, light baking spice; medium-long finish w/ brown sugar, orange-grape soda mix, hints of leather & boozy grapefruit.
David’s Conclusions: I like it. I forgot how some of those early RRSiB selections can taste. This one has more well-rounded fruit than you find in 2018-2020 selections (though the 2021 McBrayer B profile comes close). I particularly love the cherry bubblegum on the nose. As for a rating, I’d rather taste it a few more times before committing it to a rank/number, but it certainly won’t score below average.
Though we’ll agree to disagree on this whiskey: cheers, as always, to David for his consistent support and constant friendship.