Russell’s Reserve 2003

Limited Edition Release (2020)

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

PROOF – 89.5

AGE – 16 years

DISTILLERY – Wild Turkey

PRICE – $240

WORTH BUYING? – Though I enjoy it very much, I’d say no. There are other Wild Turkey options offering a similar experience for less $$$.

Where to start with Wild Turkey? And what to say that hasn’t already been said with expert precision and ease by David Jennings over at Rare Bird 101, a Wild Turkey blog I highly recommend if you don’t know it already.

I’ve written about Wild Turkey products a number of times now. It is a favorite brand of mine due to its dependable quality and flavor profile. Wild Turkey is not a brand I turn to for surprises. It is easily among the most tightly controlled tasting experiences in Kentucky bourbon. But its predictability never bores. It’s good bourbon, and always satisfies. I absolutely understand why Jennings has devoted so much exclusive attention to the brand.

So when an opportunity to pick up this very limited release at msrp came along (and given only 3600 bottles were produced, that msrp wasn’t cheap) I went for it.

I’d had very similarly well-aged Wild Turkey before—e.g. Master’s Keep 17 Year and the Diamond Anniversary release. This Russell’s Reserve 2003 features a careful blend of 16-year-old bourbons that naturally proofed down to 89.5, putting it closer to the Diamond’s 91 proof than to the Master’s Keep 17’s 86.8. The barrels in the blend are the very last stocks of Wild Turkey with a 107 entry proof—raised to 110 in 2004 and then 115 in 2006. That lower entry proof famously means good things for flavor. Vintage Wild Turkey releases from the 107 entry proof era are coveted among fans of the brand. I’ve managed to taste a few, and it was indeed a different era.

Not that the current 115 entry proof stocks are inferior. Not at all. They’re excellent in their own right. Just different. Father and son master distiller duo Jimmy and Eddie Russell go to great lengths to ensure the Wild Turkey flavor profile doesn’t stray far from its well trodden path. For his part, Eddie is the “experimental” one, nudging the flavors around through careful aging and blending, always respecting tradition while seeking out new variations. This Russell’s Reserve 2003 emphasizes tradition, and makes a good example of whiskey as “history in a bottle.” The circumstances of the past get captured and only start to mingle with the present again once a bottle is uncorked.

I uncorked this bottle about three weeks prior to this tasting. I noted then it was among the best Russell’s Reserves I’ve had. The age and proof worked well together. The nose showed chocolate, baking spices in a fresh cherry pie, and rich dusty oak. The taste was very like the nose, with caramel and cinnamon roll. The warm finish emphasized the baked cherry and chocolate. Good stuff!

I’m now on the fourth pour, tasting it in both a standard brandy glass and traditional Glencairn, each offering their own emphases. How has the bottle been airing out?

COLOR – a medium autumnal orange, with shades of copper and rusty-brown

NOSE – those classic Wild Turkey dusty cinnamons, bright wood and rye spices, bright caramel with a faint note of darker fudgy caramel beneath it, faint cherry pie

TASTE – very true to the nose, with some baking chocolate, dried apricot, more prominent oak, and a surprisingly silky texture

FINISH – warm, mildly prickly heat, mildly bitter oak tannins, lingering dried apricots and breakfast pastry

OVERALL – an elegant blend of well-aged bourbons conjuring sunny Autumn days

Brighter and more forward in the brandy glass, darker and more reserved in the Glencairn, the overall impact of this bourbon is indeed distinct from the average contemporary Russell’s Reserve bottling. The naturally lower proof retains the flavor punch I expect from a single barrel Russell’s Reserve, or any Wild Turkey bottling, frankly. But it delivers its punch with a much lighter touch. It’s very easygoing, and very easy to like.

Three weeks into the bottle, I might not now call it the “best” Russell’s Reserve I’ve had. (I actually wouldn’t know what a “best” Russell’s Reserve could possibly be! They all have their merits.) It’s drier now than at uncorking. But it’s certainly excellent. I ultimately prefer darker Wild Turkey outings, as I prefer darker whiskeys generally. A 2001 bottling of Wild Turkey 101, for example, was a smoldering butterscotch bomb. But on the bright Spring afternoon that I’m tasting this whiskey, it’s a perfect match. Though Wild Turkey is famously “autumnal,” this bottle has a lot of sunlight in it.

If you’re a Wild Turkey fan who appreciated the Diamond Anniversary or Master’s Keep 17 Year release, you’ll enjoy this. They offer a relatively similar experience within the Wild Turkey profile’s strict range, and as a flight would together make a great study in nuance.

From a consumer standpoint, however, I’d say one is better off seeking out those other two outings rather than this Russell’s Reserve 2003. Both are more readily found even now, and cheaper. They have been dismissed as “shelf turds” by some people for continuing to gather dust in stores years after their release dates. But as tasting experiences there is nothing dismissible about them. Wild Turkey’s predictability simply makes it less of an object of lust than the unicorn herd coming out of Buffalo Trace Distillery, for example.

And that’s fine! It’s nice to know I might always be able to pick up another Master’s Keep Decades or Revival if I get a hankering. I don’t see myself hankering a second bottle of this Russell’s Reserve 2003, given its hefty price tag. And hindsight being 20/20, I do have a twinge of buyer’s remorse at having plunked down the $$$ for this bottle.

But here it is on my table. I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts.


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