When you sample as many whiskeys as I do, it becomes more and more rare that something comes along leaving you entirely unsure of how you feel about it because it’s just so unique. The more flavor profiles you experience, the harder it is to get left in the lurch, not knowing quite how to process what you’re tasting. Suffice to say, it’s something that almost never happens to me these days.
This Wild Turkey release? It threw me for a loop. It’s one of the most fiercely individualistic bourbons I’ve tasted in recent memory, staking out a dimension of the classic bourbon flavor profile that is all its own. Every sip I take of it brings an evolving opinion. And after several revisits to the bottle? I think this is pretty damn good.
The Master’s Keep lineup is a sporadic series of limited releases from Wild Turkey, which have been yearly most recently, but haven’t always held to a once-a-year release schedule. Previous releases have included the original, eponymous Master’s Keep, a 17-year-old bourbon with an unexpectedly low 87 proof point, which was followed by Master’s Keep Decades, Master’s Keep Revival and Master’s Keep Cornerstone Rye, the first rye whiskey in the series. All have been highly sought after, but they haven’t always received unanimous acclaim—this series has often been marked by its divisiveness, garnering some superfans and some detractors.
Of course, that’s nothing new for Wild Turkey, a distillery that still tends to get ignored by some members of the bourbon hive mind chasing after inflated Buffalo Trace brands. The true Turkey purists, meanwhile, are often crazy dedicated to the brand and its signature flavor profiles, to the point that there are cults of fandom for specific Wild Turkey rickhouses and the bourbons matured in those locations. This is a deep rabbit hole, and there are some seriously geeky communities that have been built up around Turkey, even compared with most of the storied Kentucky distilleries. And this Master’s Keep release is exactly the sort of thing that is likely to make them very excited.
This particular Master’s Keep is simply designated as Master’s Keep Bottled-in-Bond, which is only the second bottled-in-bond whiskey in the history of the company, after 2007’s well-remembered American Spirit, a 15-year-old bourbon that is frequently cited as Master Distiller Jimmy Russell’s favorite that the distillery has ever produced. We won’t get into all the details of the bottled-in-bond designation; if you want to read more about it check out our primer here. What’s important here is the fact that this is extra-aged, 17-year-old bourbon, bottled at the 100 proof necessary for bottled-in-bond, and aged at Wild Turkey’s Camp Nelson rickhouses. These rickhouses in particular have a reputation for producing some of WT’s most unique and unusual bourbons, which means a lot of excitement from the brand’s boosters. Enough excitement, even, to look past a very steep $175 MSRP, which is sure to mean some sky-high prices on the secondary market as well.
With all that said, let’s get into it: What makes Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond such an odd, unique bird?
On the nose, without having let this bourbon rest, my immediate impressions were of dense char, oak and smoke—this is quite smoky for bourbon, and I was immediately afraid the result might be something over-oaked and unpleasantly tannic. Letting it rest, however, it’s clear that this bourbon takes a little while to open up. With time, other notes start emerging from the oak profile—roasted almonds, honey, rich caramel and graham cracker, along with just a touch of peanut butter. Cherry compote is the big fruit note, which segues into molasses cookie and something funkier and earthier—old leather.
The palate proves to be even more tricky to get a hold on, but one thing it’s not lacking is assertiveness. There are Turkey geeks out there, I’m sure, who would be displeased that this was released at “only” 100 proof due to its bottled-in-bond designation, but this is one of the most densely flavored 100 proof bourbons I’ve ever come across. Tasting blind, I’m quite certain that almost anyone would peg the proof around 10-15 higher at least. The initial sip hits hard, with mesquite bbq smokiness and cherry cola fruitiness, into clove, pepper and rye spice. The oak is a force to be reckoned with, but it has an odd way of being far more present on some sips than on others. That becomes a running theme with this bourbon—each time I take a sip, my impression of it is considerably different. Sometimes it seems a touch bitter, with an oaky funkiness that threatens to overwhelm it. But then I come back again, only to find creamy orange vanilla notes, paired with mocha and big crunchy toffee. One thing that is consistent is a certain earthiness that continues to grow in strength, with a pipe tobacco quality that is on the more savory side. You can certainly see why they chose to keep this at 100 proof, because even the low Wild Turkey barrel entry proof might have been overwhelming on this particular 17-year-old juice.
Suffice to say, this is a very complex bourbon, and one that really rewards continued introspection and mindful tasting. This isn’t what you’d call a “crowd pleaser.” There are flavors here that will challenge a lot of palates, confuse others, and delight many of those Turkey purists. And after tasting repeatedly, I think I might be one step closer to counting myself among those people. Regardless, it’s one of the most interesting whiskeys I’ve tasted in 2020, and I look forward to returning to it again soon.
Distillery: Wild Turkey
City: Lawrenceburg, KY
Style: Bottled-in-bond bourbon
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $175 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.