Time for a turkey hunt!

I was able to check another box on my bourbon bucket list recently when I traveled to Kentucky for a set of picks with the Bourbon Crusaders. Our three-day tour was packed with memorable experiences, the highlight of which (for me) was a visit to Wild Turkey to select a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel for the group.

As longtime readers of this site will know, Wild Turkey tops my personal league table of the large Kentucky distilleries. While their mainstay expressions remain reliable standbys at affordable prices, I’ve always been enamored of the single barrels in their private selection program. I’ve enjoyed a great many of them – a few of which I have reviewed here on Malt – but had heretofore not had the pleasure of picking one myself.

I felt an excited anticipation as our bus pulled up to Wild Turkey’s Tyrone campus on a balmy Tuesday morning. Five of us were joined by David Jennings (himself recently welcomed as a member of the Crusaders) but, as the distillery was otherwise closed to visitors that day, we had the place entirely to ourselves.

We were soon met by Bruce Russell and Grant Wheeler. For those who don’t know: Bruce is the grandson of legendary Wild Turkey master distiller emeritus Jimmy Russell and son of current master distiller Eddie Russell. Throughout our visit, Bruce sprinkled in numerous fascinating tidbits about the history of Wild Turkey, its whiskeys, and the people behind them. Before I get into the tasting, though: sincerest of thanks to Bruce and Grant for a great day at Wild Turkey.

The smell of fermentation permeated the humid air as we hiked up a short road to Rickhouse A. On entering its dark confines, we were met with the characteristically musty scent that indicates whiskey maturing inside. Oh, how much whiskey! I craned my neck to peer between the ricks, marveling at the patina on the barrels slumbering upon them. The floor below the bottom rick was raw dirt; we were advised to pitch our unwanted whiskey down into it.

My reverie was broken by a loud thud as Bruce began hammering the bung out of the first of eight barrels lined up for our consideration. As is custom among the Crusaders, we tasted all the barrels blind, eliminating all but three. These were then re-blinded by Bruce and Grant, followed by a second tasting to select a winner by popular vote.

Before I get into my impressions of the barrels, a note on this tasting format: unlike other distilleries that roll out only a handful of barrels for consideration, a field this broad presents special challenges for those of us tasked with choosing between them. It takes a concentrated discipline to avoid palate burnout after sipping so much bourbon straight from the barrel; often, a judgment is rendered after just a sip or two. The aforementioned ambiance of the rickhouse also bears influence on our perception of the whiskey. Fortunately, I was the least experienced hand among all those on the team, so recipients of bottles of the eventual victor can be assured that at least a majority of the tasters were qualified to make their best objective assessment of our options.

Due to the exigencies of this format, my notes are sketchy. I jotted down a few aromas and flavors for each barrel, gave it a rough score corresponding to where I thought it might sit on the Malt scale, and then moved along to the next barrel. My intention in reproducing them below is not to pretend to make a full and fair evaluation of each of these barrels, but rather to convey a general sense of my experience that day.

I don’t mean to impugn any of these barrels; a consensus quickly emerged that we had a very strong set from which to choose. In all honesty, I would have been satisfied with any of them had they been acquired as store pick bottles. I am grateful to have been able to taste them side by side, and even more grateful for the chance to pick the best (to our tastes) of the bunch.

Barrel 1

Notes: Lighter, sweet berries, floral.
Votes: 0
Result: Eliminated
Reveal: Tyrone T, 114.8 proof

Barrel 2

Notes: Nuttier, herbal aromatics, salt water taffy, pine, rounded and rich mouthfeel. One of my top three of the group.
Votes: 4
Result: Finalist

Barrel 3

Notes: Rounder nose, but lighter, flowers and pine, palate tacks toward the median, if a little light.
Votes: 6.
Result: Finalist

Barrel 4

Notes: Candied nuts, intense perfume, ripe raspberries, cream, slightly woody aftertaste. My second favorite.
Votes: 1 (mine)
Result: Eliminated (what a pity!)
Reveal: Camp Nelson B, 121 proof (curses!)

Barrel 5

Notes: Roundest so far, stone notes, salutary wood accents, full bodied with a long, warm finish that never ends. My favorite in the first round.
Votes: 3
Result: Eliminated (so close!)
Reveal: Tyrone M, 116.8 proof.

Barrel 6

Notes: Subtle nose, slight cinnamon, ash, mouthfeel starts sow but blooms with cinnamon at midpalate.
Votes: 1
Result: Eliminated
Reveal: Camp Nelson B, 120.8 proof

An interesting aside about this barrel: David returned to it after our final selection, and I joined him for another taste. I was surprised to find it was significantly improved from my initial impressions. Though I doubted my palate after a full round of tasting, David clearly felt no such qualms, deciding to pick the barrel for himself and his Patreon supporters. As I count myself among them, I look forward to hopefully getting a bottle of this for myself once they become available. At the least, it’s a cautionary tale about tasting and first impressions.

Barrel 7

Notes: Acetone, young and hot smelling, some ash, palate starts with nuts but fades into a dry ashiness; time in the glass reveals intense forest aromas on the nose.
Votes: 0
Result: Eliminated
Reveal: Tyrone T, 115.9 proof

Barrel 8

Notes: Exotic fruit and ginger, celery, cinnamon, palate is more middle-of-the-road, subtle cinnamon burn on the finish, cinnamon red hots on the nose with time.
Votes: 5
Result: Finalist

At this point, we stepped outside to refresh our palates and clear our heads. Bruce and Grant emerged a few minutes later, having shuffled our three finalists, which were re-Christened A, B, and C for our final round.

Barrel A

Notes: Warm, spicy apple cider, subtle fruit with intense perfume, cinnamon candy, very subtle on the palate, sweet with a medium finish
Votes: 2
Result: Eliminated
Reveal: Tyrone D, 116.2 proof, barrel #8 from above.

Barrel B

Notes: Peppermint candy, yeast, butterscotch, palate is round tending toward tight and slightly woody, finish has a lingering fade.
Votes: 0
Result: Eliminated.
Reveal: Tyrone M, 117.3 proof, barrel #2 from above.

Barrel C

Notes: Pine, ethanol, subtly meaty, starts gentle and soft and then blooms hot, finishes somewhat astringent.
Votes: 5
Result: Winner
Reveal: Tyrone Q, 118.7 proof, barrel #3 from above.

We’ve got a winner! No surprises, in this case; though the barrel we picked wasn’t my personal choice from either the first or second round, it was the consensus favorite from the first round and got another resounding endorsement from the group in round two.

I’m not feeling too bad about it, though. As I said before, I would have been happy with any of the options initially presented to us. The entire group of barrels was solid throughout, and I’m excited to get a few bottles of our pick. Hopefully the wisdom of the crowd is better than my own predilections.

As we headed back to the bus, there was a palpable sense of awe and amazement among the five of us. For whatever results the process produces, a barrel pick is an incredible experience. Thanks again to Bruce, Grant, and all my fellow tasters for making it a day I won’t soon forget!

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