Single Barrel #052 selected by Healthy Spirits (2022)
MASH BILL – Buffalo Trace Mash Bill #1
PROOF – 90
AGE – 10 years
DISTILLERY – Buffalo Trace
PRICE – $30 (discounted; normally $40)
Single Barrel #5177 barreled on April 23, 2008 (2018)
MASH BILL – 78% corn, 10% rye, 12% malted barley
PROOF – 100
AGE – 10 years
DISTILLERY – Heaven Hill
PRICE – $35 tax and all (ah 2019)
RUSSELL’S RESERVE SINGLE BARREL
Barrel #17-545, Warehouse D, Floor 5, selected by K&L (2017)
MASH BILL – 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% malted barley
PROOF – 110
AGE – NAS (~9 to 11 years)
DISTILLERY – Wild Turkey
PRICE – $48 (on sale from $65)
I picked up one of these on sale in 2017, one at its originally decent price right before retailers (and then Heaven Hill) jacked up that price in 2019, and one at a discount in 2022. One is bottled in bond. Two are store picks. All three are single barrels, aged around a decade, and from big classic Kentucky distilleries. All three share a classic bourbon oakiness. These several overlaps seemed enough reason for me to line them up for a flight!
I’ve written about Wild Turkey frequently here. Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace have also received extensive coverage. None of them are lack for attention on the bourbon social meds. It’s the particularly pleasing oakiness of these three single barrel outings that compelled me to put them side by side.
I’m a big oak fan, you see. Having grown up climbing oak trees in all four seasons, my senses are highly tuned to its subtleties. High quality, nuanced oak notes in whiskeys grab my attention and awaken my senses in a particular way.
So let’s dive in. The Eagle Rare has been open for five weeks, the Henry McKenna and Russell’s for just over seven. I’ve sipped through roughly a third of the Eagle Rare and Russell’s, and half the McKenna. Using traditional Glencairns, I first tried them in order of ascending proof before then comparing side by side. These notes reflect those sum-total tasting steps.
EAGLE – a spectrum of yellow and amber oranges
McKENNA – very like the Eagle Rare, tinting just a notch darker into the oranges
RUSSELL’S – one more notch darker in those same directions
EAGLE – baking spices, cherry, drippy caramel, all served up on a lovely foundation of oak
McKENNA – rich peanut butter, thick caramel, oak, a light dash of cinnamon baking spices, faint cherry
RUSSELL’S – dark sweet cherry, oak, caramel and light baking spices
EAGLE – sweet vanilla caramel, cherry, oak
McKENNA – the caramel sweeter here than on the nose, though the rich peanut butter still takes the lead, held up by the gently rustic oak, and a bit of the cherry
RUSSELL’S – the cherry now like some deluxe artisanal cherry fruit rollup, nice bright baking spices, OAK
EAGLE – oak, baking spices, caramel, lingering gently with a fine peppery prickle
McKENNA – oak and oak tannin, very dry overall, with only the faintest lingering caramel and cherry notes, leaving a nice prickly warmth
RUSSELL’S – oak, oak tannins, a thin but bright edge of sweetness from the cherry and caramel
EAGLE – cherry and oak
McKENNA – peanut butter and oak
RUSSELL’S – dark cherry and oak and more oak
ALL – Yes, though I wouldn’t want to pay too much more than I did for any of these.
They’re all good. All solid. None are amazing. But they don’t need to be amazing to be worthwhile. If every whiskey were amazing, no whiskey would be.
It’s interesting that the Eagle Rare and Russell’s Reserve are enough alike that if you told me one was the other I’d believe you. It’s that oak and cherry combo, with the Eagle Rare coming across brighter and the Russell’s darker. The McKenna makes the most substantial departure, with its central peanut butter note where the cherry would be in the other two.
As for value, though I see no reason to hoard any of these—given they taste very good but not amazing, and they all come out regularly despite lumpy national distribution—I certainly don’t mind having them around. I’ll happily always keep an Eagle Rare SiB open on the shelf, so long as it costs around $40 or so. Like the Eagle Rare, for up to $70 I’ll likewise be glad to always have a Russell’s Reserve SiB at the ready. Some distilleries now charge double+ the Russell’s price for whiskeys with similar specs, offering similar or even lesser quality, so, why pay more? And as for Henry McKenna, the current msrp is $70 and for me that’s a no go. This particular bottle is really good, but McKenna is famously a wild card, with some outings coming across quite overly tannic or thin. After this bottle I have two more bunkered, and when those are gone I’m confident my journey with Henry McKenna will have come to its end.
I just took another sip of the Eagle Rare. Perfectly enjoyable. It’s popularity makes great sense.
Another sip of the Henry McKenna. Drier than Eagle Rare, but rich and complex. It’s popularity also makes sense, though the new price point does not. I’m okay with drier whiskeys, but many people prefer sweeter. And even I would much rather pay $70 for something more balanced between dry and sweet than McKenna tends to be.
And another sip of the Russell’s… Where’s my slice of black cherry pie? I’d love to sip this bourbon after devouring a piece of that pie. Like the McKenna, this bourbon leans dry. But here the cherry notes keep things compelling enough to more readily prompt the next sip.
In short, oak lovers will sigh contentedly after sipping any of these. Cocktail fans will Mmm after their first sip of a Manhattan made with any of these. Unicorn hunters, however, may likely find themselves underwhelmed.
These three bourbons, at the price I paid when I did, epitomize for me the basics: good taste + good price = good bourbon. And the basics need not run with the unicorn herd. There is way too much bourbon out there now for that.