Have we reached the bottom of the barrel?
I am asking this question with respect to barrel picks. You can find plenty of them reviewed on this site; they range from questionable to pedestrian to (rarely, but not never) sublime. The really good ones are so excellent, so novel and surprising, that they can entirely change one’s preconceptions about what whiskey can or should taste like.
The hope of finding one of these life-altering barrels is what keeps whiskey enthusiasts – even those jaded from having been burned on the purchase of weaker examples of the genre – hunting down picks. That said, I am beginning to get the sense that barrel pick fever may be breaking, at least in part.
What makes me surmise this? An entirely nonscientific survey of retailers in my area, as well as virtual monitoring of inventories at other stores farther afield. I noticed a big local chain with a steady stream – or, more accurately, a raging river – of picks recently cutting prices to move excess inventory. To take one example: Rebel Cask Strength, with – no shit – 35(!) separate barrels listed for sale on their website, with the price reduced from $40 to $30.
When not being put on clearance sale, barrel picks are being pushed as a way to get access to allocated bottles. Another shop here in Chicago holds monthly raffles for the coveted bottles it receives (limited editions, BTAC, the Van Winkle and Weller lineups, etc), with raffle tickets available to those who purchase bottles from the store’s pick program. This would suggest that these bottles are not enticing enough on their own and require the sweetener of a prize to justify their purchase.
Anecdotal evidence has also come from conversations I have had with whiskey-loving pals. Some formerly adventurous drinkers told me that they have sworn off purchasing more barrel picks, or have become more selective in their buying. Most sourced and craft distilled whiskey is now aqua vitae non grata, with limited budgets allotted to a handful of expressions from established distilleries such as Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey.
That brings us to today’s bottle, a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel from Wild Turkey. Another golden rule followed by the types of reformed consumers I mentioned earlier is “know your picker.” Of course, not all palates are copacetic, and it’s better to buy a pick made by someone whose tastes and preferences align with your own. However, there’s another reason to trust in some selectors more than others.
I’m going to let you in on what might be a secret to part of our readership: the barrel pick “game” is not being played on a level field. Distilleries pull special barrels for some individuals or groups, while others are offered more average (sorry: “on profile”) fare. Someone prominent, or someone who has a close relationship with a distillery and its employees, is more likely to come away with an exceptional barrel than Jane Q. Liquor Store Owner from Scranton who showed up to the pick with a half dozen of her buddies, already a few whiskies deep into their morning.
I’m fortunate to be friends with a guy that I would put in the former category of well-known and well-liked whiskey personalities: David Jennings, a.k.a. Rare Bird 101. He has tasted more Wild Turkey than me by a wide margin, and probably more than 99.999% of the population. Thus, when I saw that a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel pick of his was going on sale, I made it my business to snag a bottle. Did you know that you can order whiskey from your phone on an airport runway in Iceland, in the final moments before the plane departs, while the flight attendant is imploring you to put it into airplane mode? You can; I did; I’ll be happy to review that bottle for you today.
David wrote about his experience picking this barrel on his blog. With respect to this particular barrel, he wrote, “Most private barrel selections have an ‘ah-ha’ moment. Barrel #22-2148 from Tyrone A was ours. The second we nosed it, we knew… a damn fine bourbon, signature Wild Turkey, with a level up in vibrancy and sweetness. Undoubtedly, we had our second selection.” I pressed him for more color on it, and he said “It was our favorite barrel that day. It was sitting in the corner. We called it ‘the stunner’ at first. It became Corner Barrel.”
The sticker designed for this bottle, seen above, depicts Jimmy Russell in the style of the logo for the Cracker Barrel chain of restaurants. For those of you outside the U.S., I insist that you visit Cracker Barrel if you ever make it stateside. Forget about spacious skies and amber waves of grain. The devil can have our purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain. The home cookin’ and the junk shop full of bric-a-brac to be found at Cracker Barrel are quintessentially American and universally beloved.
Perhaps the only thing I love more than a trip to Cracker Barrel is sharing whiskey with friends. To that end, I gave a sample of this to Malt’s own Matt Kusek. We tasted this independently and without seeing each other’s notes; his review will immediately follow my own.
Before we render our respective judgments, specifics on this barrel are as follows: this is barrel #22-2148, from the fourth floor of Tyone Rickhouse A. This was distilled 10/28/13, dumped 7/18/22, and bottled on 7/21/22, at an age of eight years, eight months, and 20 days. It comes to us at the standard Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel proof of 110 (55% ABV). I paid $72.99 plus shipping for my bottle.
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel “Corner Barrel” – Taylor’s Review
Color: Golden orange.
On the nose: Charmingly round and rich to start, this has some delicious aromas of super ripe apricots and a toasty and gooey note reminiscent of a grilled American cheese sandwich. Just beneath this are layers of more complex, nuanced scents such as cut flowers, leather, freshly planed cedar wood, pencil sharpener, tobacco leaf, and a chalky, stony note. Some time in the glass reveals a roasted meaty note redolent of leg of lamb seasoned with thyme.
In the mouth: As with the nose, this starts in very appealing fashion with an exuberant fruitiness as it meets the lips and tip of the tongue. The whisky leans out slightly as it moves toward the midpalate, tacking toward the more austere stoniness of the nose. However, it sings out again at in the middle of that mouth, where a juicy burst of orange is accented by a peppery spiciness and the flavor of eucalyptus. That spiciness turns into a tingly texture that guides this toward the finish, where a lingering note of citrus fruit persists alongside some “darker” flavors of tar, ash, and charcoal.
When discussing this barrel with David, he noted, “My favorite thing about Corner Barrel is how core Turkey it is. Like if someone asked me what Wild Turkey tasted like, it’s the perfect example.” I’ll agree in part; this certainly has some of the elements that I consider to be hallmarks of Wild Turkey, among them the leather and tobacco notes on the nose and finish.
That said, this isn’t likely to be confused for a bottle of 101 or Rare Breed. It’s an obvious step up from the standard retail version of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, therefore justifying the slightly higher price and shipping expense. The fruit really sets this apart for me. I wish it were a little more rotund in the mouth to match that initial impression from the nose, but I’m picking nits here. I like this a great deal; if there were more bottles available for purchase (there aren’t) I’d be buying another one for myself, as well as encouraging you to secure your own.
All in, I’m scoring this as “Superb” in accordance with our price-sensitive scoring bands.
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel “Corner Barrel” – Matt’s Review
On the nose: Caramel abounds. A touchy of minty vanilla on the back end.
In the mouth: This is what classic whiskey does… the first sip almost pulls a “gotcha!” It dips away on the front end as it travels towards the back. The sweet honey bun turns and rolls towards the back. The sweetness never leaves but caramel stays prominent as a grassy blend of tree bark and ethanol take over. The finish isn’t the longest but what does stay in that fresh cut lawn and alcohol.
This one takes me back to days of whiskeys past. I’ve become so entrenched in the world of finished whiskies I forgot what well-made simple Turkey/whiskey can taste like. A pick from the Rare Bird is always a special one.