Comparison: Master’s Keep Cornerstone Rye / Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye

MASTER’S KEEP CORNERSTONE RYE
2019 annual limited edition 

MASH BILL – 37% corn, 51% rye, 12% barley

PROOF – 109

AGE – “Minimum of 9 years,” but elsewhere said to be a blend of 9- to 11-year ryes

DISTILLERY – Wild Turkey

PRICE – $186 (ouch!)

RUSSELL’S RESERVE SINGLE BARREL RYE
2016 bottling 

MASH BILL – 37% corn, 51% rye, 12% barley

PROOF – 104

AGE – NAS (rumored 6-8 years)

DISTILLERY – Wild Turkey

PRICE – $74 (wince, but, okay)

I wanted to take my time with this one. I’ve already read other reviews of the Cornerstone. A recurring motif is that it stumps people out of the gate, and reveals itself with time and air. So I thought I’d take notes at the uncorking and again a week or so later. I picked up a bottle of the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye as well, and uncorked it at the same time to level the playing field in that regard. Here are the uncorking notes in brief:

NOTES AT UNCORKING:

COLOR

RUSSELL’S – a rich, toasty straw-amber

CORNERSTONE – a rich, toasty orange-amber

NOSE

RUSSELL’S – fruity caramel, grassy straw aromas, sweet floral rye, a nice dusting of cinnamon

CORNERSTONE – dusty up front, and restrained, then with some coaxing and air the fruity and tangy caramels emerge, darker than in the Russell’s, with straw and hay, creamy frosting, faint baking spices sinking into that nice rich layer of caramel

TASTE

RUSSELL’S – creamy, the grassy and floral aspects up front, giving way to the rich and warm caramels, a touch of gentle oak tannins, ending with a lovely and soft peppery warmth

CORNERSTONE – dusty refined oak, caramel, then the floral grasses waving a bit, and finally the oak comes around again coated in the rich dark caramel

FINISH

RUSSELL’S – deeply but gently warm, with a nice blend of grassiness and caramel, all of it easygoing and lingering for a long long time… I didn’t want to move on to Cornerstone yet…!

CORNERSTONE – oakier than the Russell’s, dustier, the tannins a touch edgy stopping just short of bitter, with those dark caramel aspects hovering in the background and allowing the oak to stand front and center, then a tingly warm peppery burn… 

OVERALL

RUSSELL’S – A solid dad of a rye, still youthful and bright but with a good amount of experience under his belt

CORNERSTONE – Grandpa to Russell’s dad, oakier and stiffer now, not as spry as he once was, but with wits and heart earned by time

Very interesting. I can imagine anyone not invested as a Wild Turkey fan might either sum these two up as essentially the same, or that they might likely side with the comparatively brighter, more forthcoming Russell’s Reserve. But for me, a rye fan who also quite enjoys parsing out the fine details to be discerned in the famously consistent Wild Turkey whiskies, this was a comparison I’d been looking forward to. As a comparison, at uncorking it did not disappoint.

At first the difference was quite clear. Both offered the same basic flavor profile, with a notable difference in how. The Russell’s was immediately if casually forthcoming, with that familiar Wild Turkey rye range of florals, caramels, and oak. The Cornerstone was immediately dustier, that coat of dust restraining the flavor profile quite a bit from coming forward. 

Then, after time and air, the two began to level out a bit. As I write these notes, now after having tasted both, I nose their glasses and get a fine balance of caramel and florals from the Russell’s, and a dustier, slightly subtler version of the same from the Cornerstone. But in both, the full flavor profile range is now immediately discernible. That experience follows through on the tasting and finish of each.

Right now, albeit too early to say, if I had to I’d say the Russell’s Reserve—at well less than half the price of the Cornerstone—is preferable. Both are excellent. The oak fan in me enjoys the Cornerstone’s solid and confident wood aspects. The part of me that likes a good, easygoing evening enjoys the good and easygoing Russell’s Reserve. Both are old enough to be well past the occasionally off-putting outbursts of youth, which can send a rye out of balance. Balance is a Wild Turkey hallmark that never disappoints, and is key to the success in everything they make. Master distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell have mastered the art of balance. It means they seldom surprise us with curveballs. Their constant surprise is that with each and every effort they deliver something GOOD. A bad—even an “off”—Wild Turkey product? I can’t imagine such a thing.

So, about a week later… 

NOTES A WEEK AFTER UNCORKING:

NOSE

RUSSELL’S – an old-fashioned candy store with an oak plank floor, spritely rye spice, black licorice, gourmet red hots, caramel

CORNERSTONE – dusty oak, faint but bright cinnamon, faint old-fashioned caramel, eventually some cherry pie, all very restrained in the glass

TASTE

RUSSELL’S – caramel with sugary baking spices stirred in, thinner and less complex than at uncorking

CORNERSTONE – rich bright caramels that darken on swallowing, refined oak throughout, a mild faint peppery warmth

FINISH

RUSSELL’S – a fine-grained warm pepperiness, the caramel, some vanilla, the baking spices wafting past, all fading very slowly over a long time

CORNERSTONE – the pepperiness tingles more here than on the pallet, blurring the clarity of the caramel and baking spice flavors. Also, surprisingly, a slight band aide note I associate with certain scotch whiskies…

OVERALL

RUSSELL’S – most impressive now on the nose, then the lingering finish, but in between the taste is uneventful this time around

CORNERSTONE – the overall restraint allows the oak’s fine-grained tannins to win out in the end, with some faint cooling mint inside the peppery heat, leaving an uneventful impression over all

BUY AGAIN?

RUSSELL’S – Yes. It’s a pricy one. But—and despite this lackluster second tasting—it remains among the best and most dependable ryes I’ve experienced. I’d take two of these over one Cornerstone.

CORNERSTONE – No. The price is just too high for the experience.

This second tasting was most surprising for how unimpressive it was overall. Even after sitting for about ten minutes in their glasses, both the Cornerstone and Russell’s came across rather plainly. I wouldn’t expect that of the Russell’s, which up to now has been a consistent and dependably flavorful, creamy rye. Whatever created the chemistry between it and my body today simply wasn’t a great formula. And the Cornerstone, with which I’m having only my second experience, just isn’t working hard enough. Either that or my meals, water intake, and whatever else today, have engineered some alchemical distance between my senses and what Cornerstone has to offer.

I can tell I have a journey ahead with these two bottles. They demonstrate the changeability of whiskey once it collides with air. Some whiskeys remain consistent over time once uncorked. While these two premium Wild Turkey rye offerings haven’t on second tasting presented a night to the uncorking’s day (the familiar flavor profile is right there 24/7), what’s different this time around is a sense of listlessness. It’s like they’ve got a lot going on inside and today they’re not trying very hard to let it out. I really had to make the effort to go to them, most notably with the Cornerstone’s nose. It took a good amount of time and coaxing to eventually pull those cherry aspects out from under the dusty oak.

Looking back over my notes from the uncorking, the pattern of events is quite similar. So there is a consistency there: things gradually opening up over time. I imagine I’ll be trying these both in a variety of glasses, after allowing them to sit in the glasses for a variety of durations.

I am indeed surprised by the lackluster experience of the second tasting. But I also trust, based on many varied past experiences with Wild Turkey products—from the classic Wild Turkey 101 to the Diamond Anniversary to W.B. Saffell—that this odd off-day too shall pass. It is just as likely that when next I taste these they will lull me into happy contentment, like some large cushy leather reading chair next to a warm fire. This won’t come about with crackling sparks. Wild Turkey whiskeys always go about things in a rather Zen manner.

In fact, even as I now continue to sip at the Cornerstone over the course of writing out these notes, it has slowly begun to give up its caramel and cherry notes more freely and become creamier, less dusty. Now it’s about on par with what I’ve come to expect of the Russell’s Reserve single barrel, only darker. Now I might lean back in that leather chair…!

Well then. This 2019 Cornerstone and 2016 Russell’s would both seem content to be what they are, when they are, on their own time and their own terms. It’s like getting to know a really interesting person who has nothing to prove.

That’s fine. I’m willing to wait.

Cheers!

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