Russell’s Reserve: Then and Now

My first successful dusty hunt was almost a complete accident.  Recently, we stayed in Lawrence, Kansas for a few weeks, and up the street from the house we rented was a seemingly unassuming liquor store called Jensen Liquor. Honestly, I wouldn’t have even been there if my friend Dale (a local) hadn’t been looking for lime cordial to mix with the rum we happened to find at the house. The nearby (and much larger) Cork & Barrel somehow didn’t have it in stock, so we trucked across the street to this other place. Jensen turned out to be a goldmine of rare liqueurs (including the Allspice Dram that Dale had been seeking for his upcoming Tiki party) and a good number of semi-dusty whiskeys. I picked myself up a bottle of Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve 101°, which has since been discontinued and replaced by Russell’s Reserve 90° (no mention of Wild Turkey anywhere on the bottle). The bottom of the glass bottle has a faint raised “04” which leads me to believe it was bottled around 2004 (a trick I learned from sku). This about matches the date it was discontinued, according to the chatter about it I’ve found on the web. (For reference, I’m guessing that the 90° Russell’s is a 2010 or 2011, given the “10”.)

With this review, I’m going to do something a little bit different and compare the older Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve (WTRR) head to head with the new stuff, Russell’s Reserve 90° (RR90).

Age: Both aged 10 years (the new RR90 also says it is “Small Batch”)
Proof: The old stuff is 101°, just like regular Wild Turkey. The new stuff is 90°.
Price: I got my dusty bottle for about $28, while the new Russell’s will run you about $35.
Volume: 750 mL

Color: Already we see a ton of difference just with the color. The WTRR is a dark copper color, while RR 90 is a lighter golden honey color.

Nose: You can smell the heat and heft of the WTRR, along with a strong whiff of raisin, some dark honey, maybe even molasses. This smells like an autumn whiskey. RR90 is a much lighter, sweeter scent, vanilla and sugar, a strong floral note, more wildflowers than anything heavier. Scents of summer.

Palate: WTRR is a nice mix of robust sweets and rye spices, balanced well (without the rye spiciness and the heat from the proof, I suspect the sweetness would be cloying, and without the sweet, the spice and heat would be too much). I taste dark brown sugar, fig preserves, along with some rounded wood and perhaps old leather. This one sits heavy on the tongue like a sherry or a port. You could chew on this for a while.

RR90 is a completely different beast. Still sweet, but a very different kind of sweetness. Honey, or perhaps even honeysuckle, vanilla, the barest hint of butterscotch—all light sweets. The bit of rye spice is much more subdued. There are also some interesting dry flavors here, primarily hay and sawdust; they strike a different sort of balance with the sweet than the spicy does in the older version.

Finish: Heat and spice give WTRR a nice, clean finish, washing clear the thick, chewy, sweet flavor of this whiskey, with a pleasant warming sensation that lingers on for quite a while. Some of the herbaceous flavors of high-rye whiskey’s make a brief cameo at the very end. RR90 leaves you with a completely different finishing note, not very spicy but dry, smooth, with a touch of sweet, a slow fade of the basic profile of the palate.

Overall: WTRR is a complex, dynamic, balanced dram, a pleasure to drink. It has a definite kinship to its more well-known sibling, Wild Turkey 101° (for me, a favorite in its class), especially in the rye spiciness and the pleasant heat of the higher proof. It is like a complex musical piece with several movements but an overall unity. The shift from sweet, chewy to hot and spicy to herbal is delightful. If you find a bottle of this somewhere, pick it up. This could give some of the top-shelf bourbons of today a serious run for their money.

RR90 is a different beast, clearly aiming at a different goal. The bit of copy on the back of the bottle touts its being “uniquely smooth.” Well, that’s what some people are after. It really is a very refreshing dram, light and smooth and pleasant to drink. As such, it almost tastes more like a wheated bourbon, if not for some minor spicy notes on the palate and dryness in the finish. Unlike its predecessor, however, it doesn’t really distinguish itself from other whiskeys in its class. I would venture to say that you could get more bang for your buck with a lower-priced wheated bourbon, say Old Weller. If you like your whiskey a bit dry but still quite smooth, this might be a good choice for you.

Rating: Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve 101° circa 2004: high A
Russell’s Reserve 90° circa today: B

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