“It is more honorable to be raised to a throne than to be born to one. Fortune bestows the one, merit obtains the other.” – Francesco Petrarch
We begin this review of Russell’s Reserve Single Rickhouse Camp Nelson F with a quote from the Italian poet Petrarch for the simple fact that Edward Freeman Russell is a man of both good fortune and established merit. Having been born a Russell offered no guarantee that he would ascend to the post of Master Distiller for Wild Turkey. No, as the youngest of three children Eddie had to earn that title through sweat equity, and earn it he did.
After starting at the bottom of the totem pole and working every job imaginable for the distillery, his father Jimmy asked him a simple question, “What do you want to do?” It was an earnest inquiry, as Eddie had proven capable of wearing a number of hats and took pride in everything from running the bottling line to serving as warehouse supervisor. Eddie had a simple answer, “I want to do what you do.”
What Jimmy Russell did is the stuff of legend. While he prefers to be known as “plain old Jimmy from Kentucky” his peers know him as “The Master Distiller’s Master Distiller.” There is no longer tenured Master Distiller roaming rickhouses today and, in my personal opinion, there is no Master Distiller who stewarded a brand more successfully than James C. Russell.
Jimmy introduced innovations when necessary, proving himself to be a forward-thinking forecaster, and he’s quarterbacked some come-from-behind victories as well, with Rare Breed hitting the market at a later date than other barrel-proof bourbons but remaining among the most superlative (and affordably priced) of them all since its debut in 1991.
It’s hard to believe today, but in 1998 there were some who thought that Jimmy Russell would soon retire. To honor his father’s legacy, Eddie Russell crafted a special small-batch bourbon that we now know as Russell’s Reserve. “Plain old Jimmy” was adamant that he didn’t want the expression to bear his name, not because he didn’t love Wild Turkey, but because he never saw himself as more important than the liquid in the bottle. The compromise was to call it “Russell’s Reserve” so that it could become a family legacy rather than a personal one. In 2001 the brand finally launched and since then it’s expanded to include two rye expressions, a single barrel bourbon, a 13-year-old batched product, and the subject of today’s review: Russell’s Reserve Single Rickhouse Camp Nelson F.
Having launched in 2022, the Russell’s Reserve Single Rickhouse series was immediately a hit. The idea to release whiskey from a single rickhouse isn’t in itself groundbreaking, but when you have rickhouses loaded with as much history as those at Wild Turkey it is a highly enticing prospect. After all, thanks to the Russell’s Reserve single barrel program, there were already certain aging locations holding space in the hearts of adoring Wild Turkey fans.
With plans to dismantle Camp Nelson rickhouse C already in the works due to an irreparable sinkhole, it made perfect sense to devote the whiskey aged in that location to the inaugural release. Now in its second year, Russell’s Reserve Single Rickhouse 2023 features bourbon from Camp Nelson F, one of the most sought-after aging locations in the single barrel program.
Is it the fact that Camp Nelson F, which was built in the 1940s, sits lower than its peers allowing increased airflow that elevates the barrels there? Perhaps it’s the tier they’re on with Eddie insisting his favorites are stored no lower than the third floor and typically no higher than the fifth.
Whatever the case, when I had a chance to join both Eddie and Bruce for an advanced tasting of their latest effort, it turned out that “effort” was the last word on their minds. Eddie shared that the barrels they were sampling during the creation of this year’s Single Rickhouse expression were so good that it was far more pleasure than work for him while finalizing the end product. Bruce intimated that Camp Nelson F, which entered the single barrel program in 2018, is on a hot streak at the moment. He added that it’s one he doesn’t anticipate ending anytime soon.
It’s thanks to the Campari team that I was able to give this whiskey a try before its general release and, having had it side by side with several others in the Russell’s Reserve lineup, I feel well and ready to judge it.
But first, let’s cover all of the specs: Russell’s Reserve Single Rickhouse Camp Nelson F features barrels from the center cut of floors 4 and 5, aged for at least 10 years, non-chill filtered, and bottled at barrel proof which is 117.6 (58.8% ABV). Today I’ll be trying a sample that was provided to me free of charge, though that will not impact my judging as I will be scoring the whiskey as though I paid the whopping $300 asking price for it. Lastly, for those unfamiliar this whiskey is produced with Wild Turkey’s lone bourbon mash bill of 75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% malted barley. Time to give it a try!
Russell’s Reserve Single Rickhouse Camp Nelson F – Review
Color: Amber and auburn.
On the nose: Immediately the preponderance of well-worn leather and sweet oak aromas dominate the nose. I’ve often found that those notes are joined by rich vanilla cream and that remains the case here, though a drizzle of honey serves to lighten the affair. There are jammy, nondescript berry aromas to be found as well as a brioche-like doughy quality that allows the synergy of sweetness and well-aged leatheriness to blossom. Over time, cacao nibs and nutmeg develop and form a somewhat earthier backbone for the aforementioned sweeter notes. This is exceedingly balanced and entrancingly beautiful on the nose.
In the mouth: The sweetness of a berry tart and some cinnamon-dusted cherry float across the palate as this enters the mouth more gently than the nose indicated it would. On the second sip, I noticed that my choice of words in that opening sentence was prescient as I get a lot of cherry cola float notes along with a healthy dose of spice that flits around the edges of the tongue. Again there is dark chocolate and brioche, but interestingly I also got a bit of mustard seed and nutmeg. While every layer isn’t immediately well-defined, this is an exceptionally complex whiskey that rewards multiple sips. I find that it’s perfectly proofed with a lengthy finish that skews toward vanilla bean, berry tart, black pepper, and barrel char.
I mean, wow. Having initially tried this whiskey next to last year’s Camp Nelson C, I knew it was going to blow that well-received release out of the water. Trying it again on its own has produced similar results as this stands as perhaps the most balanced bourbon I’ve had all year. Eddie and Bruce were not kidding when they said there’s some magic coming out of Camp Nelson F.
Surely there are those who will want to know how this compares to Russell’s Reserve 13, and to them, I’d say the vanilla and spice notes grant this year’s Single Rickhouse an added level of complexity and balance. For those who wish to know how this compares to a standard Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, the bump in proof provides amped-up flavors while retaining the deftness across the palate of its 110 proof counterpart.
In short, Russell’s Reserve Single Rickhouse Camp Nelson F not only showcases the best of that aging location, but it may also represent the best of contemporary Wild Turkey whiskey. During our dinner, Eddie reversed a quip that his father liked to deploy, saying, “If anyone doesn’t like a certain expression, Jimmy made it, and if they like it then I made it.” Knowing that Eddie made this bourbon goes to show that fortune may have bestowed him the opportunity to be called a Master Distiller, but merit is how he obtained it.