The irony of this whiskey is that it tastes so good even though the master distiller didn't know exactly what he was making when he set out to concoct it and was working within an age range that he would normally deem inappropriate for Bourbon.
When Wild Turkey asked the venerable Jimmy Russell to create a limited-edition, 15-year-old Bourbon, he thought the intention was to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the parent company Austin, Nichols, an event that comes in 2005. Actually, the management was surreptitiously asking Russell to create a "Tribute" to his own 50th anniversary at the distillery this year. This meant keeping the commemorative bottling a secret from a man who misses very little that goes on in his plant. Somehow the sleight of hand occurred and the result is a handsome bottle in a sort of scroll-case wooden package that extols the virtues of the modest Russell.
Better than the package, however, is the whiskey inside, which leads us to the other paradox: Russell's philosophy of Bourbon holds that eight to 10 years is the optimal age. Resting inside new charred-oak barrels during sweltering Kentucky summers, Bourbon matures much faster than it would in Scotland's chillier climes and the used barrels employed there. Fifteen years in Kentucky can have the maturation effect of 45 somewhere else. In the wrong hands, it might produce a taste that Russell likens to "taking a stick of white oak and chewing on it." But the distiller started with barrels already deemed worthy of extra age for the 10-year-old Russell's Reserve and coaxed an extra five years out of them through careful wood management that included moving the casks to cooler parts of the warehouse in their dotage. The result is a dark whiskey that hits the nose with elegant maple sugar, licorice and leather charms on a florid base. Then it opens up on the palette with a bold sweetness that bespeaks hard candy and Christmas pudding accompanied by vanilla, caramel and nuts. The finish holds the sweetness for minutes on the tip of the tongue and then slowly transforms, melting to the back of the mouth with the spice and leather from its bouquet resurging. In short, it's another complex Bourbon experience from Wild Turkey.
Russell explains that only with a handful of barrels is it possible to create a Bourbon both that old and exquisite. Hence the supply of Tribute, which sells for about $90, is limited to 5,500 bottles in the United States. Happily for us, Russell creates Wild Turkey in many other less exclusive versions for daily consumption.