Toasting Jimmy Russell’s 65th Anniversary as Master Distiller at Wild Turkey

Jimmy Russell, one of the few truly legendary and living master distillers of this or any era, celebrates his 65th year with Wild Turkey this month. In honor to him, I uncorked a bottle of Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary, blended in 2014 to celebrate his then 60th year with Wild Turkey. Next to it I also revisited two vintages of Wild Turkey 101—from 2006 and 2001:

WILD TURKEY DIAMOND ANNIVERSARY (2014)

MASH BILL – 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% barley

PROOF – 91

AGE – Blend of 13 to 16-year barrels

DISTILLERY – Wild Turkey

PRICE – $136

WILD TURKEY 101 (2006)

MASH BILL – 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% barley

PROOF – 101

AGE – NAS (rumored 6 to 8 years)

DISTILLERY – Austin Nichols Distilling Company

PRICE – $33 for a 750ml bottle

WILD TURKEY 101 (2001)

MASH BILL – 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% barley

PROOF – 101

AGE – NAS (rumored 6 to 8 years)

DISTILLERY – Austin Nichols Distilling Company

PRICE – $60 for a 1L bottle from an acquaintance

All three feature bourbon made when the entry proof of the fresh distillate going into the barrels was still 107, lower entry proofs allowing for certain desirable flavors while also being more expensive. (The Wild Turkey entry proof was raised to 110 in 2004, then 115 in 2006, to accommodate a greater range for blending. For a good article on entry proof go here.) I sampled them in reverse chronological order. Here first are some comparison notes in brief:

COLOR

DIAMOND – lightly toasted honey-amber

WT101 2006 – slightly darker toasted honey-amber, with a touch of burnt orange

WT101 2001 – a nicely burnt orange, notably darker than the others


NOSE

DIAMOND – fresh and sweet autumn baking spices, dusty oak, lightly toasted caramel, cracked black pepper, a bit of juicy dried apricot, all layered nicely together

WT101 2006 – caramel, butterscotch, dusty oak barrel, a bit of candied ginger and lemon peel

WT101 2001 – butterscotch, cream, caramel, some oak, the autumn spices smooth and relaxed



TASTE

DIAMOND – mild fruit up front (apricot, peaches, apple) then light creamy caramel and a bloom of peppery autumnal spices

WT101 2006 – rich fruity caramel, butterscotch, a cooling peppery bloom at the end

WT101 2001 – the baking spices step forward a bit to lead the caramel, oak, and a subtler butterscotch than on the nose



FINISH

DIAMOND – almost cooling, with lingering pepper and that bright fruity caramel fading away fairly quickly, leaving a longer cool heat at the back of the throat

WT101 2006 – toasted caramel and a bit of butterscotch linger in a slowly cooling heat that coats the mouth

WT101 2001 – an almost brandied or boozy caramel, if that’s a thing, with the baking spices lingering amidst the slowly cooling heat that coats the back of the mouth

OVERALL

DIAMOND – Lovely on the nose, fine on the finish, okay in between

WT101 2006 – Enjoyable from start to finish, a solid vintage WT101

WT101 2001 – Easily my favorite WT101 vintage to date of those I’ve tried



BUY AGAIN?

DIAMOND – No

WT101 2006 – Yes

WT101 2001 – Absolutely!

In interviews, Eddie Russell—son of Jimmy and himself a key master distiller at Wild Turkey and in the bourbon world generally—has revealed that the unusually low 91 proof of the Diamond Anniversary blend is due to its bourbons having come out of their barrels at about 95 proof. So it was not possible to go with the classic 101 proofing, and 91 was determined to be the most pleasing proof for this blend.

In addition to not featuring the classic Wild Turkey 101 proof, it’s surprising that a tribute to Jimmy Russell features a blend of 13 to 16-year-old bourbons. Jimmy Russell is on record in innumerable interviews as having stated he favors bourbon around the 9 to 10-year mark.

All trivia aside, the experience in any given bottle is ultimately why one uncorks and shares it. For such well-aged bourbons, this blend shows a remarkably youthful freshness and brightness. The longer I nose it the more fruit cobbler flavors start to come out—gooey, doughy bread soaked in cooked stone fruit juices like peach and apricot. There is a rich and relaxed creaminess in contrast to the energetic pop of the autumnal baking spices. It all has a kind of spritely, twinkly-eyed, comfortable naiveté about it. It’s very surprising in that regard.

Maybe this sense of mixed-ages in the flavor profile indeed comes from the lower proof, tempering and brightening the more robust, darker flavor punch that might have come from these older bourbons at a higher proof. In any case, this combination of age and youth actually seems quite a fitting tribute to Jimmy Russell—still an active person in his eighties, clocking in to work, his keen and twinkling eye keeping the Wild Turkey flame steadily burning. He’s been nicknamed the “Buddha of Bourbon,” which for me conjures playfulness alongside thoughtfulness and insight. And that characterizes this Diamond blend.

Like many Wild Turkey limited edition bottlings, this too is not a mind-blower straying far from the Wild Turkey path. It is characteristic of Wild Turkey products to be immediately familiar in their flavor profile, with variations coming out in the fine details of careful blending. This quality is arguably a result of Jimmy Russell’s well-known commitment to upholding the time-honored processes he learned decades ago and has continued to hone. And when he does engage with change—like the 13-year process from 1984 to 1997 of gradually phasing out cypress fermentation tanks for stainless steel tanks—he goes about it very carefully and in detail so as to be certain the core qualities of the product are maintained. This gives all Wild Turkey products the feeling of a familiar friend whose personality—their humor, perspectives, and thinking—continues to reveal itself patiently over time, in layer after layer.

I poured some Wild Turkey 101 from 2006, and tried it next to the Diamond. Having just spent time on the Diamond, I tried the 2006 first.

Their noses reveal they are close family, with the 2006 leaning into the caramel and spice flavors and the Diamond into the fruit and caramel. There is a nice, easy heat on the pallet of the 2006, leaving the Diamond a bit watery by comparison, though without losing its flavors. Oak is also a stronger note in the 2006, which is interesting given it’s a younger blend.

From there I compared the Diamond to the Wild Turkey 101 bottled in 2001, which I’ve written about previously in another comparison.

This time I tasted the Diamond before the 101, so as not to have the two 101 vintages back to back. The Diamond is pretty and elegant, with the spices adding energy. The 2001 shows some campfire-roasted marshmallow as I nose it now, and then that fantastic quartet of butterscotch, caramel, oak, and autumn spice.

I could nose the 2001 forever. Its rich butterscotch note is so remarkably insistent, without obliterating the caramel, spices, and oak. Tasting the 2001 next to the Diamond, it seems to pull out the Diamond’s vanilla, which hadn’t struck me earlier in the evening. Of course, this could be the juxtaposition or simply how the Diamond opens up with air. Either way, I’m appreciating the elegance of the Diamond next to the more rambunctious 2001.

Whereas the 2001 distinguishes itself with its butterscotch, the Diamond is distinguished by its elegant blending and balance. Then the 2006 floats in between, not as butterscotch-forward as its predecessor nor as refined as the Diamond, yet no middle-of-the-road slouch either. 

Each of these is enjoyable. I’m glad to have the Diamond on hand, though I don’t need another bottle. It suffers from a similar situation that Eddie Russell’s annual Master’s Keep blends do—being so faithful to the Wild Turkey norm. This is an odd “failing,” since it’s arguably that very consistency that makes Wild Turkey great. Whereas Jimmy Russell has been the stalwart keeper of the flame, his son Eddie does experiment a bit. But just a bit. Usually in the form of blending older aged barrels at higher proofs or the occasional barrel finishing. The results always meet one’s expectations for Wild Turkey. So it can be difficult to justify the higher cost of Russell junior’s expert blends. Surprises tend to be valued more than the familiar when it comes to paying a higher price per bottle.

It’s an interesting psychology—that something out of left field might be considered of greater value than something exquisitely blended but therefore also less flashy. Wild Turkey—whether masterminded by Russell senior or junior—is all sincerity and very little flash. It always delivers as one expects, and, debatably, this is its greatness and its shortcoming. Four years in, the delicious Master’s Keep editions still do not fly off the shelves. If Eddie Russell threw us a curve ball, maybe those bottles would sell faster. Then again, we might then belly-ache that junior had strayed too far from the Buddha’s path…!

These three bottles, spanning 13 years of production from 2001 to 2014, and evidencing 65 years of mastering the art of bourbon making, together comprised an excellent round of toasts in tribute to their maker. As a whiskey fan, I’m grateful that a Jimmy Russell ever existed at all, and that he still exists. I’m grateful his son continues the legacy of consistency, nudging tradition forward steadily and respectfully. And also that Bruce Russell, the son and grandson, now serving as National Ambassador for Wild Turkey, might advance what his father and grandfather have done and push at that Wild Turkey consistency with even further daring for change.

Cheers to the Russells! 🥃

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