Comparison: Three Russell’s Reserves – 16 Year / Single Barrel Pick / 13 Year

RUSSELL’S RESERVE 2003
Limited edition released in 2020

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

PROOF – 89.5

AGE – 16 years

DISTILLERY – Wild Turkey

PRICE – $240

RUSSELL’S RESERVE SINGLE BARREL
Barrel #18-0303, Warehouse CN A, Floor 442, selected by Jamie Boatner & Mike Levin (2018)

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

PROOF – 110

AGE – NAS (~9 to 11 years)

DISTILLERY – Wild Turkey

PRICE – $63

RUSSELL’S RESERVE 13 YEAR BARREL PROOF
Limited edition released in 2021

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

PROOF – 114.8

AGE – 13 years

DISTILLERY – Wild Turkey

PRICE – $91

So here’s a comparison I just couldn’t resist!

I’ll say up front, it’s not a comparison aimed at determining which of these three riffs on the Russell’s Reserve theme I like “best.” I don’t know what the point of such a determination would be. Rather, I take the lucky coincidence of my having these three bottles on hand at the same time as an opportunity to enjoy and to explore a certain dichotomy of the Russell’s Reserve line that I so appreciate—namely that it is as dependable as it is varied.

Any Wild Turkey line shares this dichotomy to some extent. I’ve never had a bad bottle of Wild Turkey 101, for example, and can always rely on the brand to delivery its kicky autumnal flavor profile. I’ve also never had a release of 101 that was exactly like past releases. It’s fun to compare a 2021 to a 2006 or 2001. Those older batches are more and more rare to find, and as such sadly commanding higher and higher prices online. But I still occasionally come across them in the odd corner store, usually near to the ground and forgotten there with a shawl of dust to keep them warm.

I’ve waxed poetic about Wild Turkey in many other posts already, so I’ll not get deep into the distillery or the Russell family here. Let’s dive straight into the comparison!

Often I use simple brandy glasses or tumblers to drink Wild Turkey. For casual drinking those seem more fitting vessels for the brand. But today I went with the more formal traditional Glencairns, to get the full nuance out of their flavor profiles. The 2003, which I’ve posted about previously, has been open for nearly 6 months and I’m just over halfway through the bottle. The SiB pick has been open a little over a month and I’m almost halfway into it. And the 13 Year has been open about two weeks, and I’m only three pours in. Given the wide range of proofs, I’ll try them in order of ascending heat before then doing a more proper side by side. My brief notes will compile the results. Here we go…

COLOR

2003 – rich fire and pumpkin oranges

SiB PICK – vibrant orange with yellow and brassy highlights

13 YEAR – smoldering orange

NOSE

2003 – dusty and refined oak, baking spices baked into the pie, caramel dusted with wonderfully dark cinnamon, some dark cherry

SiB PICK – cherry and the baking spices, some caramel on baked cinnamon rolls, oak stacked and drying for firewood

13 YEAR – deep dark cherry in caramel, chocolate, gooey fresh baked cinnamon roll dough, cherry pie in a buttery crust, refined oak

INTERESTINGLY – despite the proof difference, the 2003 and 13 Year are the most alike here

TASTE

2003 – bright cherry, then a wave of oak notes, then a second wave of cherry, then back to the oak

SiB PICK – the caramel right up front, chocolate fudge, then the oak comes on strong and lingers longest, the cherry aspects surprisingly muted

13 YEAR – the cherry, caramel, and oak united right up front, then the cherry recedes a bit, and then the caramel as well, leaving the oak to linger most

FINISH

2003 – oak, dense pastry dough, dark cherry

SiB PICK – the cherry makes a very subtle return, still leaving it to the oak to hold court, backed up by the caramel and fudge

13 YEAR – oak spice coated in thin but dark caramel

OVERALL

2003 – elegantly rustic, easygoing, autumnal, soft but satisfying

SiB PICK – old fashioned, rustic, antique, dry, oaky

13 YEAR – opulent, old fashioned, dark, oak-spicy, refined

WORTH BUYING?

2003 – In hindsight, given the high price, no. But as a part of my Wild Turkey journey, I’ll certainly enjoy it.

SiB PICK – Absolutely. A solid bourbon experience at a solid price.

13 YEAR – Yes. A well-aged, barrel proof bourbon at a reasonable price.

2003 & 13 YEAR – At secondary prices? No. Stick to the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrels.

This was both interesting and yet unsurprising—i.e. very Wild Turkey.

When I first uncorked the 2003, it was easily among the best Russell’s Reserve bottlings I’d had. The age and proof did well together. The nose showed chocolate, baked cherry, baking spices in a cherry pie, and rich dusty oak. The taste was very like the nose, with caramel and cinnamon roll. The finish was all warm baked cherry and chocolate. It was good. Over the past six months it has dried out a bit, now lacking the same intensity of cherry and sweet notes to keep it in that exquisite balance it initially had. Will that drying out continue, or will things swing back and forth?

At uncorking the Single Barrel pick grabbed my attention right away with what I described then as a “beautiful, rich cherrywood color.” Now in comparison to the 2003 and 13 Year, that color appears lighter, though no less beautiful. The nose had vanilla icing, caramel and pastry dough, cherry hard candy and cherry cough syrup. The taste then carried on with the cherry cough syrup, adding a nice peppery spice, then that caramel and vanilla and buttery pastry dough. The finish was like a greatest hits rundown of the full flavor profile. It was unusually sweet for Wild Turkey, and lacked that Thanksgiving autumn thing. But in its own way it was a good’n. After a month, like its elder 2003 cousin, it too has dried out a bit, though not quite as much.

The 13 year has been uncorked the shortest amount of time. But at its relatively recent uncorking, I wrote a very simple note: “Wow. Tart cherry, big flavors, BTAC worthy.” Having typed that out, I just took another sip. I still believe it is indeed “BTAC worthy.” But that does bring into question the actual value of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection line and any similar unicorn whiskey. What are these rarities actually worth?

It’s a highly subjective question. For some people they are worth $1000, even more if they hail from seasons past. For others they aren’t worth the sweat it takes to hunt them down, at any price. Others patiently wait for the rare msrp sightings and hope their timing will be right.

I’m in that latter group. I loved the 2018 George T. Stagg, for example. It was worth every dollar I paid. But I paid $124. If I’d paid $800, I don’t know that I’d think as highly of it—or of myself. So tasting today’s most affordable option, the single barrel, and experiencing how it holds its own next to the rare 2003 release and the less rare but still mightily hunted 13 Year Barrel proof, I can’t say paying three digits for Russell’s Reserve in any incarnation is necessary or worthwhile. It will never taste bad! Russell’s Reserve is great bourbon, at any age and any proof. But one thing this comparison may accomplish is to cure me of my need to buy future Russell’s Reserve special releases that cost more than the average single barrel release, whether standard or store pick.

I am grateful to have all three of these bottles on hand. Closer to the point of purchase, this comparison may have left me regretting the very pricy 2003. But today’s comparison benefits from the Water Under the Bridge principle. The money is long since spent and gone. I’m not a believer in the pseudo science—i.e. the mind trick—of pretending that one can objectively separate a bourbon from what they paid for it or from the circumstance/story by which they came into the bottle. That’s just not a very whisk(e)y way of thinking, from my point of view. For me, a whiskey is its taste, which was paid for—usually with money but sometimes via a trade—plus its story, and the stories the drinker then adds to it by way of how they came into the bottle, when and with whom they opened it…

One last thing worth noting. As I write up these notes and continue to sip at all three bourbons, I find I’m actually enjoying them more now than when I was “tasting” them. I’ve been noticing this during many recent post-writing sessions. Something about the formality of tasting, versus the informality of drinking, can actually take away from the quality of the experience. Not always. But sometimes… How much does intention and context weigh on one’s perceptions of an experience? And what are the values of those seemingly opposing concepts, subjectivity and objectivity?

Something to contemplate while I continue to sip these exceptional bourbons…

Cheers!

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