Serious Eats: Drinks
New Wild Turkey Bourbon: Russell's Reserve Small Batch Single Barrel
Being the Master Distiller of a mega-brand of bourbon has its perks. Jimmy Russell, the steady hand behind Wild Turkey, not only has the distinct pleasure of working with his son, Eddie (Associate Master Distiller), but also has the chance to stake his territory on the bourbon landscape. His latest release, Russell's Reserve Small Batch Single Barrel, brings to the market one authoritative vision of what bourbon ought to be. And it's a vision we can get behind.
This release's name is a mouthful, and a confusing one at that. You can't get any smaller batch than a single barrel, so why not call it the single barrel and leave it at that? The acronym RRSBSB won't do anyone any favors either, so let's just call it the Single Barrel for the sake of this review, shall we?
Taking position as the top shelf Wild Turkey product, this bottling surpasses the Russell's Reserve Small Batch 10 year in both proof and price. But there are a few important decisions that were made in the production of this bourbon that are a bit unusual. Aged in very heavily charred barrels (char #4, or alligator char), the Single Barrel is released without any age statement. One could cynically approach this decision as a means to cover a distillery's lack of aged stocks, but an added benefit of going NAS (No Age Statement) with a single barrel program is the ability to pull individual barrels at their prime and not be restricted by the age of a truly special barrel. However, the best of both worlds would be putting barreling and bottling dates on individual bottles, which they've chosen not to do. Another interesting decision is the high-proof of this release—at 110 proof, it fulfills a lot of drinker's demands to keep triple-digit Turkey on the market. Most importantly, this whiskey is not chilled filtered.
Understanding Chill Filtration
What is chill filtration, and why does it matter to you, the whiskey drinker? The process is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Chill filtration, a standard practice in the industry, is when whiskey is chilled to temperatures below freezing and filtered to remove fatty acids and other "impurities," such as proteins and esters. It's done to create a stable whiskey that won't cloud when chilled, say with the addition of a few ice cubes. But chill filtration also has the unfortunate side effect of robbing the spirit of some of its body and complexity of flavor. Many Scotch distillers and some new bourbon distillers are beginning to release non-chill filtered whiskeys, but it's always exciting to see more releases, especially from influential sources.
Russell's Reserve Small Batch Single Barrel
Good decisions like skipping the chill filtration are one thing, but great whiskeys are another thing. Will the Single Barrel make its makers proud?
Pouring a deep, dark bronze, the immediate aroma of this bourbon is full of charred oak, with subtle cinnamon and baking spices. The taste is surprisingly smooth considering the high proof, with typical Wild Turkey cinnamon up front, just enough wood to balance the caramel sweetness, and hints of mint and rye spices a welcome addition to the complexity. The finish is sweet and lingering, with pineapple and licorice. The bourbon opens up with a tiny splash of water and becomes richer, deeper, chewier, and the sweetness and bitter wood blend even more harmoniously. It's a high class effort.
The only downside on this release is the pricing: at MSRP of $50 a bottle, you could buy almost two and a half bottles of the benchmark Wild Turkey 101. But as a reasonable splurge bourbon, the Single Barrel is in a class all its own.
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distilleries and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films for an independent production company in Brooklyn.
Whiskey sample provided for review consideration.