Wild Turkey Master’s Keep: One

WILD TURKEY MASTER’S KEEP: ONE
2021 release

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

PROOF – 101

AGE – NAS (blend of 9, 10, and 14-year bourbons)

DISTILLERY – Wild Turkey

PRICE – $175

WORTH BUYING? – No [But read the addendum…]

Perhaps it was inevitable. Finishing bourbons in a second, toasted oak barrel is among the trendier trends of the early 2020s. Elijah Craig did it to great success, as did Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. They certainly weren’t the first, though. Old Forester stumbled into that claim in 1910 when a fire shut down their bottling line, and to save some mid-process bourbon they poured it into new oak barrels until the machinery could be repaired. Apparently it turned out pretty good!

Those Elijah Craig and Peerless toasted outings were among my favorite releases of the past year. By contrast, a 2020 Michter’s Toasted Barrel Finish Rye was so unpalatable to me that I eventually gave the bottle away. So although toasted barrel finishing isn’t guaranteed to please, those I have enjoyed I’ve really enjoyed. There is a wonderful campfire marshmallow thing that can happen, and a richness from the extra wood spices. So my hopes were high for what the famously meticulous Eddie Russell might bring to the trend.

But at uncorking, I found One immediately unpleasant—not an experience I associate with Wild Turkey. Out of the gate, it was all dry cracked oak and little else. I didn’t even want to finish the pour! I left the bottle alone for a week and came back to it. Still dry and oaky. But now those familiar Wild Turkey cherry notes began to emerge, softening the oak a bit. I set the bottle aside again.

I did a bit of googling on the release, to see what I could find about the intent. Was it more than a trendy gesture? And why is it called One? I found this on the Wild Turkey website:

Master Distiller Jimmy Russell’s love of mid-aged bourbons is no secret. To reflect his father’s tastes, Eddie hand-selected barrels aged between 9 and 10-years-old. To reflect his own passion for the complex characteristics that come with older bourbons, Eddie selected a small batch of carefully aged 14-year-old whiskey. He artfully crafted these two profiles into one with a second maturation in new oak barrels specially toasted and charred.

Is the bit about crafting “two profiles into one” the logic behind the name? Eddie Russell has often merged his and his father’s sensibilities in past releases. That Jimmy Russell’s commitment to consistency provides the yin to Eddie Russell’s experimental yang is what the father/son duo is arguably most famous for. And a blend of 9-to-14-year whiskeys is not so radically different from other past releases—e.g. Revival blending 12-to-15-year whiskeys, and Decades 10-to-20 years. Why not name this release for its key feature, the toasted barrel finish?

None of this may matter. It’s just marketing. But I can’t help wonder if it speaks to some skipped beat in Eddie Russell’s customary attentiveness, and if that in turn explains the bourbon’s remarkable lack of complexity at uncorking and even a week in. Past Master’s Keep releases have varied in their overall impression, yet all have been notably refined and complex from first pour to last.

So here we are, two weeks after uncorking and three pours into the bottle. These brief notes were taken using a traditional Glencairn.

COLOR – autumnal honey-oranges

NOSE – sweet toasted oak, cinnamon and baking spices, thick peanut butter fudge, granular sugar like the kind sprinkled on gingersnaps or cake donuts

TASTE – sweet oak, raw oak, cracked oak, then the baking spices, very faint baked cherry, a very nice syrupy texture

FINISH – a plume of peppery heat billows right up front and then gently fades around the baking spices and oak, which linger subtly but at length

OVERALL – a quality bourbon that’s nevertheless just not great [Be sure to read that addendum!]

I hate to say it, given my appreciation and, more often than not, love of Wild Turkey. But this bourbon just doesn’t do it for me. I’m a big oak fan, and yet this exploration of that flavor note comes across plain, blandly bitter, saccharine in its sweetness. My cheek muscles literally cringe upward a bit during the finish, pulling away from that dry sugariness.

The texture is very nice and mouth-coating. The familiar Wild Turkey baking spices make a strong appearance and are legit good. The cherry notes are far less present, seemingly dried into dust by the overpowering oak.

Were the cherry notes allowed to offer some balance, or if the sweet oak notes were to lean more into those gooey candy / marshmallow notes I’ve enjoyed in other toasted barrel finished bourbons, then this might be more enjoyably complex. There is a kind of complexity at work here, centered in the bourbon’s spectrum of dry oak notes. But for me it’s just not that interesting, nor entirely pleasant.

I’ve long believed Wild Turkey to be the best openly kept secret in bourbon. With some products—e.g. Rare Breed, Russell’s Reserve, Wild Turkey 101—I think that’s still true. It wasn’t that long ago (a little over a year maybe?) one could still find most of the Master’s Keep releases lined up untouched in liquor stores, their bulky boxes gathering dust since they first hit the shelves to the sound of distant crows cawing.

But with the one-two punch of the 2020 Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond and 2021 inaugural Russell’s 13 Year Barrel Proof, interest in the brand seems to have turned a corner. Those derelict past Master’s Keep releases have now all been quite suddenly snapped up. And the 2022 Russell’s 13 was immediately showing up at secondary prices upon its release—not only on the online secondary market but in stores—leaving the dust no hope of settling.

But at least the Russell’s 13 was undeniably good. The pricy 16 Year was also truly good, as have many previous Master’s Keep releases also been. Worth their price points? Mostly no. But as a tasting experience, always good. Whereas One is neither worth the cost nor undeniably good. Some people do enjoy it, and there’s no disputing taste. But for me, unless this bottle takes a significant turn as it continues to air out, I can imagine it might eventually get traded away to a friend for some open bottle of theirs.

Odd to say “cheers” on that note, but… Cheers.

Addendum

Ten days after taking the above tasting notes and writing up my commentary on them, I tried One again, this time in a basic brandy glass. It was an entirely different experience.

On the nose I got a very even-keeled oak note, well balanced with chocolate cake, vanilla frosting, and graham cracker. On the taste came cherry, some good ol’ fashioned Wild Turkey funk, more oak, and both chocolate and cream frosting. The finish was a balanced blend of all the above, and excellent. It reminded me of an oakier version of the Rebel Yell 10 Year, actually.

Three days later I tried it again, also in a brandy glass. Dusty oak on the nose, with bright baked cherry behind it, a dusting of baking spices like in a cinnamon roll, and faint dry caramel. Then on the taste, the dusty oak and baked cherry in balance, neither of them too forceful, with a nice soft caramel note running underneath them. The finish then took its time to wrap things up, lingering with caramel, dark chocolate, a bit of the cherry and of course the soft dusty oak.

What in the heck?!

Is it the glass? These simple brandy glasses do tend to show off Wild Turkey well. And on that second go with the brandy glass I did also pour some into a Glencairn, where it came across drier—though still better than two weeks ago. So is it ten and thirteen more days airing out in the bottle? 

Whatever the reason, on these tastings the whiskey was a far cry from the uneventful, unpleasant oak plank I’d tasted in those first two weeks of the bottle’s uncorked life.

Perhaps this demonstrates the old adage that timing is everything. I can’t say in any scientific way why I was so put off by this whiskey before, and two weeks later am so taken with it. Is it worth $175 now? Not at all. I’d take any random Russell’s Reserve SiB over this, and for roughly a third the price on average. But certainly I am now quite intrigued to follow this bottle through its journey. And to think I was ready to trade it off for something else!

Dang, whiskey, why yuh gotta be so mysterious?

Cheers to the journey!

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