“It’s refreshing to be reminded to seek out the positives rather than negatives of this hobby.” – Graham
It is remarkable that this needed to be said. I mean, it’s a hobby, right? Whiskey is something that is supposed to bring us joy, and to take our mind off our cares for a while. Yet, spend enough time in the whiskeyverse (particularly online) and it’s easy to turn into the type of person that needs to be reminded that whiskey is for enjoying.
I’m not blameless myself; my whole online schtick consists mostly of Juvenalian satire and snarky memes, leavened by the occasional expression of gratitude for the generosity of other fine folks in the community. On the whole, however, it feels easier to find things to dislike than to like. Why is that, though?
Periodically, writers for this site are scolded with some variation of the phrase “you need to stop being so cynical,” typically in response to a negative review. My stock comeback is “I’ll stop being so cynical when the industry stops giving me things to be cynical about.” Since I started writing here – nearly four years ago, now – the whiskey consumer (both in America as well as elsewhere) has seen a dwindling supply of desirable bottles, replaced by substitutes of lower quality, higher price, or indeed both.
Resentment at being asked to pay more for less became a thread through many of the reviews featured here. To some extent, it felt like negativity was part of the Malt “brand.” It was as though pessimism was a feature, not a bug. In the way that the entire world looks like a nail to the person holding a hammer, each bottle of whiskey starts to seem like an opportunity to bang out an ill-tempered screed about the rapacity of the mendacious whiskey industry.
For someone looking to hold the attention of readers over a long period of time, it is perilous to be an incorrigible crank. A few deftly executed takedowns can be entertaining, but banging the same drum without variation quickly becomes dull. I’ve seen whisky critics lapse into self-parody; at times, it felt like an AI “bot” could write their reviews for them, so formulaic had their approaches become.
How, then, to break out of the crotchety doldrums? Going back to Graham’s initial revelation, I’ve chosen to review some whiskey I really like, made by people I respect, at a distillery that continues to offer good-to-great whiskey for a reasonable outlay at many price points. I’m talking, of course, about Wild Turkey.
Wild Turkey sits atop my personal league table of the larger Kentucky distilleries. The brand has grown in prestige since my first sampling of their wares, aided in no small part by the indefatigable evangelism of their #1 fan (and personal friend of mine) David Jennings, who you may know as Rare Bird 101. Despite this burnished reputation, I am happy to tempt fate by reminding you that – bar a handful of limited editions – bottles of Wild Turkey whiskey from 101 up to Russel’s Reserve Single Barrel remain easy to find at competitive prices (cue comments to the effect of “Shut up! haha j/k lol but seriously: shut up.”).
This shouldn’t be remarkable, but that’s whiskey in 2022 for you. Each time a correspondent tells me that standard Buffalo Trace bourbon is impossible to find in their area, or that Weller Special Reserve has been marked up with a triple-digit price tag, I thank the good Lord for the persistently plentiful offerings from the House that Jimmy Built.
And yet, I can’t help but worry. Like that straw man above, I fear that it’s only a matter of time before the same insanity which has put the “Rare” in Eagle Rare starts to impact the availability of Wild Turkey. With this paranoia lurking in the back of my mind, I recently began to notice something missing as I perused the shelves of local grocery and liquor stores.
101? Check. Russell’s Reserve 10? Right there by its side. Rare Breed? Fortunately, not nearly as scarce as the moniker would suggest. But wait… where is Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel?
There was a time in the not-that-distant past where store picks of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel were plentiful. I recall a week when at least half a dozen of them hit the shelves in Chicago simultaneously, a smörgåsbord of Camp Nelson’s finest. For those that weren’t blessed to live in an urban area so saturated, there was always the standard retail version of Russell’s Reserve to fall back on. What this expression lacks in terms of the rickhouse and barrel age information of the private picks, it makes up for in that a purchaser is spared the dignity-eroding ordeal of asking a beleaguered liquor store clerk if there is “any in the back,” in contrast to another popular single barrel bourbon.
Or at least, it did. Usually, I don’t fret much over the periodic absence of a bottle on the shelf. The vicissitudes of distribution and inventory regularly mean that this-or-that whiskey will be unavailable for a short period of time before showing up again in short order. However, I hadn’t seen any Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel in quite some time.
My heart was therefore set aflutter when I dropped into She commented (without prompting) “Good choice. You got my last bottle. They’re allocated now.”
Allocated? Wild Turkey? Say it ain’t so! To investigate further, I got in touch with Bo Garrett, Wild Turkey brand ambassador (and Malt contributor), who had this to say:
“To my knowledge, there has been nothing done to change Russell’s Reserve distribution. Each state gets an ‘allocated’ amount of product. If they sell all of that product, they won’t get more simply based on production amounts. Having said that, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel has seen a piggyback effect after the ridiculous success of the 13. It is no longer a secret that it’s a great bourbon.”
Cheers to Bo for providing this clarity. So, while not “allocated” in the sense that it might be understood by fans of the Buffalo Trace portfolio, it’s fair to say that demand for Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel has increased in excess of production quantities, in a way that explains the optical scarcity of bottles lately. I’m not breaking the glass and pulling the alarm, yet, but you’ve been warned.
Back to positivity: after a long break since my last taste, I’m absolutely elated to be cracking the seal on a new bottle. I’ll try not to let that enthusiasm infect my objective assessment of the quality of this bourbon, though. Some final specs before I get tasting: this is a single barrel bourbon bottle at 110 proof (55% ABV). The laser code of LL/KD19125 indicates that this was bottled in April 2022, a relatively recent one. I paid $70 for a 750 ml bottle.
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel – Review
Color: Medium-dark golden brown.
On the nose: Very similar to the Russell’s Reserve 10 Year, this has a very pleasant topnote of sweetly creamy cherries, in the manner of cherry ice cream. I have to concentrate to tease out additional nuances, but when they emerge they are delightful. Sarsaparilla, mesquite, oiled new leather, freshly cut tobacco leaves, and even a touch of fresh ginger round this out. It’s a nice combination of a dominant, charming core with some more varied, intriguing notes swirling around it.
In the mouth: The front of this is a very tart burst of orange citrus fruits (oranges, yes, but also tangerines and perhaps a spicy nip of grapefruit. Toward the center of the palate this becomes more lean, with an emphasis on lemongrass and piquant ginger, as well as a pronounced stoniness that, combined with the tart notes reaches a mouth-puckering dryness that crescendos in the middle of the tongue. The best moment comes, for me, as these notes recede, leaving in their place some subtly woody and earthy accents married to a reprise of that central creamy cherry note from the nose. The ABV is evident in a tingly heat that persists through the finish, with fading flavors of cherries, black coffee, and cacao.
This is good whiskey, though this particular single barrel tacks a bit austere compared to some of the more fulsome single barrels that Wild Turkey has released. Still, it’s got enough complexity on the nose and the palate to recommend it as worthy of standalone consideration, rather than being blended into one of the distillery’s batched products. It’s also full of Wild Turkey hallmark notes, which should be reassuring to longtime fans of the distillery’s signature profile. Taking all that into account and considering the price, I’m scoring it a notch above average.
So, after all that, what have I got? A nice, tasty bottle of whiskey, purchased at retail price, to enjoy (neat or in cocktails) on my own or with friends. Considering all the complications we layer on top of this hobby, it’s fun and refreshing to be able to go back to basics. If you find yourself in a pessimistic mood, I’d encourage you to seek out this bottle – or any other that suits your tastes – and try to reclaim some joy and positivity for yourself.