Today’s post is the final in a series recapping Bourbon & Banter’s 5th Anniversary Pilgrimage to Kentucky. We hope you enjoyed learning a bit more about our trip and the wonderful people and places we met along the way. And of course, we’d love for you to make your own pilgrimage to Kentucky as soon as possible if you haven’t done so already. As always, thanks for being a part of our bourbon journey and spending time with us to see what we’ve got to say. A great big thanks to the folks at Campari and Wild Turkey (especially Eddie Russell) for hosting us while we picked our our very first Bourbon & Banter barrels. Cheers! ~ Pops
Over the past decade of I’ve been extremely fortunate to be a part of nine different bourbon barrel pick trips. Some of my good fortune has been due to the relationships that I’ve developed, some have been due to me living in within a 2-hour drive of Louisville, and some has been just plain luck. On Friday morning of the Bourbon & Banter 5th Anniversary trip, we piled into our passenger van, handed the keys to our driver, and headed south to Wild Turkey.
Every barrel pick trip that I’ve been a part of up until this day had been very similar. We either arrived at the distillery and were taken to a rick house where three different barrels had been pre-selected for us where we then proceeded to thief directly from the barrels, or we were taken to a large conference type room, seated around a table and were poured samples from different barrels selected for us.
While I’d been to Wild Turkey before, I’d never had the opportunity to be a part of a barrel selection there. We were there to select a private single barrel of Russell’s Reserve. Some of our group had never been on a barrel pick before, and even though some had before this day, we were all excited. A few barrel pick veterans tried to explain what the process would most likely be like to the members of our group who hadn’t been a part of one before. While every pick is different, there are usually some similarities. A barrel pick is a bucket list experience, even more so for bourbon fans. We had no idea how special this day would be.
We arrived at the Wild Turkey Visitor Center to be greeted by Master Distiller Eddie Russel himself. He informed us that he would be leading us on our barrel pick expedition this day. He told us to pile back into our van and follow him. He got into his black Ford F-150 and led us through the property until we arrived at our destination. Warehouse K. As we piled out of the van, Eddie told us that this was his favorite rick house and if I’m not mistaken, also the oldest at Wild Turkey. This may not be correct, but we started tasting right after that so please forgive me.
As we entered Warehouse K, Eddie told us all to grab a tasting glass and bottle of water, both of which were waiting for us on top of a barrel. We then followed Eddie around the outer walkway to the rear corner of the rick house. As we were walking in and headed back, Eddie told us that we were the first of three barrel picks he was doing that day, and we were probably going to taste from eight or nine different barrels and find one that our group liked.
As we made our way back to the corner where the first barrel was located, I noticed a ton of barrels set out along the walls. Like upwards of 25-30 barrels. As we all found our way back to Eddie, we gathered around the barrel that Eddie said we’d start with. He took his hammer and banged the bung out of our first barrel for the day. Eddie then brought out his favorite copper thief that he told us was handmade by an employee back in the 1960’s. We all felt honored to be a part of this. He had a notebook and kept notes on the barrel numbers that we were sampling from. He told us we’d try a bunch of barrels and once we found our three favorites, we’d then do a blind sample of the three to get to our winner.
The first barrel was good; it tasted like your average 10-year Russell’s Reserve. He told us to drink what we wanted from our glasses and toss the remainder onto the floor. What?
We then moved the barrel that was next to the first one. I felt it was better than the first one we tried. After two barrels Eddie stopped and asked us what barrel we wanted to open next. We all stopped and looked at each other.
“What did he just ask us? You mean we get to choose? No. Freaking. Way.”
We were all shocked that they didn’t have specific barrels for us to choose from.
I asked about this; he told us that there were going to be three different barrel pick groups today and that we were the first. He explained that they pull an assortment of barrels out of the racks related to their ages and where they were in the maturation process to be used for Russell’s Reserve. I told him that out of all the other barrel picks that I had been a part of, not once did our host let us choose. I’d also like to point out that this is the first time I’ve done a barrel pick with a Master Distiller. This was new for all of us. He explained to us that whenever possible, he likes to make sure that Wild Turkey provides an incredibly memorable experience for their guests. This was the understatement of the day.
After tasting two different barrels, our group was starting to get into it and able to compare their tasting notes from one to the other. I looked around and found the ugliest looking barrel in the place. It had black soot all over it; one side was warped, it had black caramelized goo all over it from where the barrel had leaked from a few different spots over the years. It was not a good looking barrel. I looked it over and figured why not; I spoke up “Hey, what about this one!?! It’s nasty looking.”
Everyone turned to look, and Eddie comes over and says “Sometimes ugly barrels make delicious bourbon.” Nobody disagreed, so Eddie removed the bung and stuck in his thief. He began filling glasses, and we all started tasting barrel sample three. This one was head and shoulders above the previous two. Not that the other two before this one were bad, this one was just great, much smoother and with more flavor than the others. This one also didn’t have quite as much heat to it. It was excellent and the new benchmark for the day.
Someone then suggested that we head to the other side of the building and see what we could find over there. So off we went, looking for a winner. We ended up trying four more from that side including a short barrel that was hard to thief from. All were good, a few better than others. During our hunt for the perfect barrel, a few of our group started to try and check the barrel fill levels by rocking them, the logic being that a short barrel (one that has lost a good portion of its contents due to angel’s share or leakage) produces delicious bourbon. We ended up finding two different short barrels. Both were very good.
After opening and sampling eight different barrels, we ranked the top three in a very informal process that was helped by a few of us that kept some detailed notes as we went. Eddie told us to wait on the porch while he went back and gathered samples from our top three picks to be tasted blindly. After a few minutes, Eddie invited us back in to sample from three tasting glasses and to rank them but to keep our opinions to ourselves.
The power of suggestion is much stronger than you think in these settings. The final votes ended up being much closer than I thought they’d be. The barrel I liked best turned out to be the ugly barrel that I asked to be opened as our third sample. That barrel ended up being the overall favorite with the most votes but there was a short barrel that came in a very close second. The short barrel that came in second overall was a MUCH stronger candidate the second time around in the blind tasting. I’m not sure what the difference was but tasting that second barrel next to the other two finalists made it a much harder decision.
Luckily for all of us (B&B readers included), we ended up getting both of them! At the conclusion of the voting, Pops asked Eddie if he’d be willing to sell both our final winner and the short barrel that came in a close second. Eddie was nice enough to grant our wish and followed it up by pointing out the fact that he is in the business to sell bourbon after all. After that, we got to name the barrels, and then Pops and Eddie completed some paperwork.
Before we left Warehouse K, we all got to sign our barrel head, and Eddie was gracious enough to pose for some pictures with the group as well as some individuals. As we were gathering ourselves to get back into our van and head back to the visitor center and gift shop Eddie stopped and asked the group “Anybody wanna try some Rye?” Uh, yeah. When a Master Distiller asks you a question like that, you say yes. In fact, if anyone in our group had said “No thanks,” they’d probably still be walking home right now.
Eddie led us back into the rick house just inside the door. We gathered up a few of our glasses, and he told us that this was his very own barrel that would never make it to a retail shelf. Although it was his barrel, he was happy to give us a taste. A 10-year Russell’s Reserve Rye that was just magical. There was barely a hint of Rye spice on the palate and a pleasant Kentucky Hug on the way down.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’ve been lucky enough to now have been a part of 10 different barrel picks at multiple different distilleries. While they all had unique aspects, not one of them compared to the overall experience that we had with the Master Distiller at Wild Turkey. What an amazing experience.
If you’d like a chance to purchase a bottle from our selected barrels make sure you’ve signed up for our email list. We’ll be sending out more information and a link for purchase to members of our email list first. If there are any bottles remaining after that we’ll share on the blog but most likely the barrel will sell out before that happens. So don’t miss your chance to own a bottle from Bourbon & Banter Barrel #1.