Sitting atop Wild Turkey Hill in Lawrenceburg, KY, the Wild Turkey Distillery produces one of the most iconic bourbon whiskey brands ever made. Coming from a long history of distillation pedigree that began with Irish immigrant brothers James and John Ripy, the Wild Turkey brand wasn’t introduced until 1942 and has followed the same recipe since 1869. According to Wild Turkey, the brand was so named after then-Austin Nicholls president Thomas McCarthy took some friends out on a turkey hunt and brought with him some sourced 101 proof 8 year old bourbon. The following year they asked him to bring some more of ‘that wild turkey whiskey’ and the brand was born. Originally the whiskey was sourced and sold by the Austin Nicholls Co. as their in-house brand and Wild Turkey came from many distilleries over the years including the Ripy Brother’s Distillery (via Schenley Distillers), and the Anderson County Distilling Co. (which later became the J.T.S Brown and Sons Distillery). Since 1954 the Anderson County Distilling Co. (later becoming the J.T.S Brown and sons Distillery) was the sole producer of bourbon for the brand and in the same year hired future bourbon rockstar James ‘Jimmy’ Russell as a still room worker. In 1967 Jimmy was promoted to Master Distiller at the then J.T.S Brown and sons Distillery, so when the distillery was purchased by Austin Nicholls in 1972 he became the first Master Distiller of Wild Turkey bourbon. After several more decades of ownership changes, distillery name changes, a bourbon glut, and Jimmy’s son Eddie joining the distillery and progressing through the ranks, in 2011 the new Wild Turkey Distillery began operations on Wild Turkey Hill. Since then the brand has seen continued growth internationally and to date has 11 permanent releases and several annual and once off releases of both their bourbon and rye whiskey; including their very popular 81 and 101 proof variants of bourbon and rye, Wild Turkey Rare Breed, their American Honey Liqueur, Longbranch bourbon, Russell’s Reserve Bourbon and rye, Kentucky Spirit bourbon, and Master’s Keep series.
As America’s true native spirit, Rye Whiskey has enjoyed a 10 year surge in popularity that has seen the revenue from sales jump a full 1,098% since 2009. Originally coming into favour following the War of Independence, rye continued to be popular until the period after World War I and into Prohibition. Following Repeal, bourbon became the nation’s drink with clever marketing turning the attention away from rye which then became thought of as a blue collar drinker’s whiskey. Jump forward to today and rye whiskey has successfully ridden the coattails of the last decades’ cocktail revolution as bartenders started looking to pre-prohibition cocktail recipes and finding rye an essential ingredient. As consumer knowledge spread and demand followed, long-time producers of rye whiskey and those who had not previously dabbled in the style began to scrabble to meet this demand and provide consumers with a versatile range of rye whiskies covering both historic and modern styles.
A long term-producer of rye whiskey, Wild Turkey took the opportunity of growing consumer demand to expand their range of rye whiskey offerings. Having previously exclusively produced a 101 proof straight rye, 2007 saw the first expansion in their rye portfolio when Russell’s Reserve 6y.o. rye hit the market. This was followed by Wild Turkey 81 proof Straight Rye in 2012, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel rye in 2015, and the historic moments in 2019 and 2020 when a rye whiskey was added for the first time to Wild Turkey’s exclusive Master’s Keep series with Cornerstone Rye, as well as the limited release of Wild Turkey’s first barrel proof rye whiskey, Rare Breed Rye.
Produced from a mashbill rumoured to be 51% rye, 37% corn, 12% malted barley, Wild Turkey’s rye is a ‘Kentucky-style’ rye whiskey meaning it’s made with a lower % of rye grain and a higher % of corn to produce a style of rye whiskey that borrows some of the better characteristics of bourbon and combines them with the earthy and spicy profile of rye – without too much rye-driven spice. Although having a long history of producing rye whiskey as far back as the 40s, another important driver for Wild Turkey’s recent interest in rye is their second-generation Master Distiller Eddie Russell. Eddie’s father Jimmy had very little interest in rye but produced it to meet the limited demand when he was Master Distiller. As times changed and Eddie saw the demand for rye growing consistently, he embraced the style and has been responsible for all the new expressions we have seen come to market and establish Wild Turkey as a serious rye whiskey producer.
Today I’ll be taking a look at Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye. Named in honour of Master Distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell’s combined experience of over 100 years, Russell’s Reserve is a super-premium line of whiskies from Wild Turkey covering four core and several limited-release expressions. The core expressions are Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Rye, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye, Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old Bourbon, and Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, whereas the limited release expressions are Russel’s Reserve 1998, 2002, and 2003 bourbons. According to the labels of Russell’s Reserve whiskies the barrels in both the small batch and single barrel offerings are hand picked by Jimmy and Eddie Russel and bear the signatures of both as an indicator of the quality they contain. On top of this the Single Barrel offerings are non-chill filtered and bottled at 110 proof (55%ABV) for the SB bourbon and 104 proof (52% ABV) for the SB rye whiskey. From deciphering the date code on this bottle this was bottled on the 30th of June 2016.
Name: Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye whiskey
Proof: 104 Proof (54% ABV)
Type: Kentucky straight rye whiskey
Mashbill: Rumoured to be 51% rye, 37% corn, and 12% malted barley
Producer: Wild Turkey Distillery
Nose: The nose opens sweet with soft caramel, earthy rye grains, and faint herbaceous notes bordering on dill, before stewed red fruit, citrus peel, and charred oak emerge from the back.
Palate: The palate opens viscous with black stone fruit stewed in brown sugar and dusted with earthy baking spices. This is followed by herbaceous rye, dark chocolate, and faint citrus oil notes as the rye spice builds on the palate and cuts through the viscosity. The longer you chew this the more prominent the barrel influence becomes; however, this is kept in check by the viscosity.
Finish: The finish opens with bright rye spice notes and a warm ‘Kentucky Hug’ that moves down the throat. This is followed by tannic herbaceous notes which fade into a warm aftertaste of cinnamon, dark chocolate, cherries and faint herbaceous spice.
This is a stunning rye whiskey. It ticks all the boxes of a Kentucky-style rye whiskey with ample rye spice, sweet deep caramel notes, earthy baking spice notes, that signature Wild Turkey citrus peel note, and a thick viscosity that makes for a long warming finish. Although this doesn’t have an age statement, the colour and profile of this barrel seem to indicate that it’s a fully mature rye whiskey and has achieved the perfect balance between barrel and rye driven notes. Until this year Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel rye was the highest proof rye whiskey produced by Wild Turkey (with the first batch of Rare Breed Rye clocking in at an impressive 112.2 Proof) and offered fans of Wild Turkey bourbon an insight into what their rye whiskey tastes like at a proper proof without any chill filtration. Although it is a single barrel product and there are bound to be several differences between barrels, the fact that these barrels are personally picked by the Russells for this release no doubt means you’re getting a carefully curated whiskey which perfectly demonstrates all the best parts of Wild Turkeys rye whiskey. As an example of this, I recently drank this side by side with a sample of Rare Breed Rye which a friend had sent me. Although the Rare Breed is also non-chill filtered and a full 8.2 proof points higher, the Russell’s rye outshone it in every way with a more robust and complex palate filled with sweet red fruit, caramels bordering on butterscotch, and a touch of those sweet perfumey notes Wild Turkey dusties are known for in comparison. That’s not to say that the Rare Breed was bad in any way it just couldn’t compare with this bottling of Russel’s Reserve SB rye and was left straggling.
It’s great to finally see Wild Turkey turn their interest towards the untapped potential of their rye whiskey. As I said earlier, Master Distiller Eddie Russel has embraced rye whiskey and (no doubt with some encouraging from his son Bruce) has continued to experiment with, and pursue it as an important avenue for future expansion within the products offered by Wild Turkey. Whilst speaking of Eddie’s son and potential future Master Distiller Bruce Russel, this article would be lacking without acknowledging the vital role he has played in leading the conversation in Wild Turkey when it comes to rye. In fact, it can be said Bruce is about as passionate about rye whiskey as his grandfather is about bourbon with his father acting as the bridge between the traditional bourbon-led approach and the modern diversity-led approach. That’s not to say he doesn’t care for the bourbon end of things, just that he sees the potential and future prospects for exploring the style further, as well as being an avid rye drinker (something his grandfather is not).
The future looks bright for Wild Turkey rye whiskey and hopefully we will continue to see an increase in the availability as well as the diversity of rye whiskey products they offer. I am definitely a Wild Turkey bourbon fan first and foremost but the rye has definitely also caught my attention!
Try or Buy?
Although the UK’s rye whiskey offerings are growing steadily this remains one of the few limited-release single barrel rye whiskies with an ABV of 50%+ that you can pick up for under £100. It also helps that this particular barrel is excellent and still in stock at the Whisky Exchange. In my opinion this is definitely worth adding to your collection, however, if the price runs a bit high you can always source a dram of this online to try before you buy. For US readers this whiskey is but another bottle in the tsunami that is the rye whiskey market. Yes it costs a bit more than most rye whiskies but despite this I would argue that the limited nature and the pedigree of those behind it necessitate everyone to have at least 1 bottle in their collection. If you can source a single barrel store pick of this then even better!