Let’s play pretend for a minute. Imagine Wild Turkey gave you the keys to one of their legendary rickhouses—the Lawrenceburg, Kentucky warehouses where some of the most iconic bourbon in the world is aged. First, you’d have a giggle fit (admit it, you would) and second, if you know your way around a rickhouse, you’d head straight for the center floors where the climate is ideal for aging. Then you’d tap one of those beautiful oak barrels, and start filling bottles.
That’s basically what Wild Turkey’s Master Distiller Jimmy Russell and his son Eddie Russell have done with their Russell’s Reserve series. The dynamic duo has combed through the extensive barrels of whiskey that are aging in Wild Turkey’s warehouses, chosen casks from the premium locations inside said warehouses, and made three different small batch whiskies: a rye, a bourbon, and a single barrel bourbon.
I sat down for a night of sipping and comparing and dreaming about bathing inside a Wild Turkey barrel (what?!) and discovered that hitting each of these three bottles consecutively is like taking a crash course in American whiskey.
The country (and world) has gone ga-ga for bourbon once again, but whiskey drinkers have also rediscovered rye within the last few years. The difference between bourbon and rye? Bourbon is made from at least 51% corn and rye is made from at least 51% rye. If bourbon is sweet, then rye is spicy. That’s an oversimplification, but I like oversimplifications. They’re so, um, simple.
Drink the Russell’s Reserve Six Year Rye and 10 Year Bourbon back to back and you’ll get a sense for the subtle differences between the two styles of whiskey. Russell’s Reserve Rye is lighter in color, has a subtle nose with hints of roasted almonds, and delivers with the classic rye sharpness followed by a peppery spice. A pleasant heat lingers after the sip. It’s crisp and light, but packs a punch at 90 proof.
Move to the 10 Year Bourbon (also 90 proof), and you’ll notice that the drink is considerably smoother. Instead of the spiciness of rye, you get a bit of caramel and vanilla and a much rounder body. I think ryes work better in classic cocktails like Manhattans, while bourbons are better sippers, but that’s just me. I have plenty of friends who prefer rye neat.
Now, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel is a different beast altogether. It’s a bourbon, like the Russell’s 10 Year, but it’s a bourbon like Barry Bonds was a baseball player. This is bourbon amplified. While most bourbon is chill-filtered to remove fat compounds that make the liquor cloudy, Russell’s Single Barrel is unfiltered. Distillers typically blend several barrels to even out the character of a bottle of whiskey, but Russell’s Single Barrel is, well, bottled from a single barrel. All of this is designed to offer an intensity that you typically don’t find in bourbon.
Wild Turkey uses the world “explosive” when talking about the Single Barrel and this is one situation where the marketing speak is dead on. The Single Barrel smells like a damned candy bar, it’s so rich with caramel and vanilla notes.
It’s incredibly intense, with a significant amount of heat, even after dropping a massive ice cube in the glass (beginner bourbon drinkers beware, this is 110 proof hooch). But along with that big whiskey heat, you get huge sweet notes, and a big, round body. Altogether, this bourbon is unforgettable. My only concern is that the Single Barrel is so intense, it might ruin other, more tame bourbons for me in the future. Like when you binge watch The Walking Dead and then you go out into the real world and are kind of disappointed that the postman is just delivering your mail and not trying to eat you. Yeah, it’s like that.
Distillery Austin, Nichols Distilling Company (Wild Turkey)
City: Lawrenceburg, Kentucky