Present-day Wild Turkey owes a lot to Eddie Russell. Although he learned to make bourbon similarly to his father Jimmy, Eddie has taken Wild Turkey in new and sometimes exciting directions that some of us might take for granted. The entire Russell’s Reserve line ranks chief among the more publicly known creations that Eddie was largely responsible for introducing, along with the long-requested Rare Breed Rye. Then there’s a little lineup of near-annual releases that not only caters to the biggest Wild Turkey enthusiasts, but has recently caught the eye of less suspecting shoppers: Master’s Keep.
Wild Turkey may often be seen as a brand that prefers modesty to presentation—one of its many endearing qualities, but the Master’s Keep line basically flips the script with limited release whiskeys packaged in large, boastful boxes and bottled in elegant bottles with hefty corks to boot. Factor in the well-aged whiskey often found in these bottles, and you have the recipe for a series of expressions that command both high expectations and high price tags (more on that later).
The inaugural Master’s Keep introduced drinkers to what was, at the time, Wild Turkey’s oldest age-stated whiskey (this would be replicated in 2020’s Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond). Perhaps even more intriguing was the low sub-90 bottling proof, thanks to the 107 barrel entry proof of the time and the odd aging process (no water was added after dumping). Barrels chosen for this release were aged in rickhouses made of wood and stone, the latter being “at the Old Crow Distillery, which were located in a low lying valley.” The distance these barrels traveled between the rickhouses and distillery were recorded at 200 miles.
While the story and statistics behind the first Master’s Keep release are nothing if not impressive, what ultimately matters most is how the whiskey itself turned out. Let’s see what it has to offer:
Nose: Sweet upfront with an earthy backbone. Loads of cherry, caramel, and sweet oak that eventually turns smoky. Fruity tobacco with hints of dried pomegranate, and some chewy molasses cookies. Occasional flicker of burnt hazelnut or pecan.
Palate: Mild to moderately oily mouthfeel with a light, developing creaminess. Smoky oak and earth translate with a breeze or two of cherry and burnt toffee. Tobacco, molasses, and leather. Low proof seems to keep the tannins in check. Heavily smoky cherry and vanilla notes hit the back over time.
Finish: On the short side. Bit more of a dark brown sugar to go with the oaky vanilla, tobacco, and toffee-nut. Barrel char, pepper, and clove quietly develop.
Talk about a change of pace. Master’s Keep 17-Year is a vastly different beast when compared to the majority of Wild Turkey products available today. Absent is the bold, spicy personality, replaced with something soft and borderline gentle. This is even more surprising when we consider the whiskey’s age, which might indicate a potentially tannic experience. What we have instead is something with restrained sweetness compared to other bourbons, with a smoky essence being the other main giveaway.
The surprises keep coming when we add the finish into the equation. You’d think that high age and barrel proof whiskey from Wild Turkey would scream “big finish,” but nothing could be further from the truth. With every sip I’m surprised by how clean this ultimately closes out. I’m prepared to call this a dangerous pour thanks to its approachable proof, mostly unintimidating profile, and the brevity of its final moments on the palate.
Do all of these points add up to a good whiskey? I’d say so, but not without some disclaimers. Master’s Keep 17-Year is far from your regular Wild Turkey product. One might expect (and even hope) for this given its status as a premium bottling, but it’s just as logical to suggest that such a release should cater to the brand’s usual audience looking for an elevated version of their bourbon of choice. I tend to prefer Wild Turkey when the spice is reined in just a bit while the sweet notes are nudged closer to full-blown richness, so the change of pace with Master’s Keep 17-Year is something I’m at least open to. However, I also feel like this whiskey is missing something to push it into that “definitively great” category that other, more everyday Wild Turkey products comfortably reside in.
This then takes us to the question of price and value. When Master’s Keep debuted, it carried a $150 MSRP, which has crept closer to $200 with recent releases. When a whiskey commands this high of a price tag, lofty expectations almost always follow suit, and they’re all but impossible to shake once they take hold. Between the statistics, marketing, and bottled whiskey itself, Master’s Keep 17-Year seems poised to do one of two things: blow your mind or leave you scrambling to justify your fancy-looking purchase.
As a Wild Turkey fan, Master’s Keep 17-Year is, if nothing else, a fun exercise in seeing just how varied a distillery’s portfolio can be. Considering this is one of the last expressions distilled from Wild Turkey’s former still (now housed in their tasting room), it also feels like that much more of a time capsule. But I consider myself part of a subsection of an already niche crowd, so my perspective probably won’t align with someone who’s definitely into whiskey, but far less concerned with the admittedly nerdy details. And for those individuals, I can’t imagine Master’s Keep 17-Year will leave the strongest of impressions, especially considering its place in the market.