Friday, December 14, 2012

Of Whiskey and Innovation (Part 3); Russell's Reserve Single Barrel

Marketers know which words have the most power to draw eyes and attention. 'Free' is number one, but 'new' is right up there too.

The power of these words is mostly in that they make you look, which causes you to think about the brand, which makes you more likely to buy it, even if the 'news' itself is not particularly compelling to you.

New products introduced under the banner of an existing brand are called line extensions. In addition to other benefits of being new; they tend to get the brand a little more shelf space, a floor display, or a bartender recommendation, things which in themselves will increase sales of the whole line, not just the new item.

This is the strategic foundation underlying much of what is called 'innovation' in the whiskey business today. Case in point: new Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon.

The analysis above is necessary for understanding why this product exists.

Russell's Reserve began in 2001 as a Wild Turkey line extension, named in honor of veteran Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell. The original iteration was 10 years old and 101° proof (50.5% ABV). Soon it was repackaged to something closer to the current look and the proof was cut to 90° (45% ABV). A 90° proof, 6-year-old rye soon followed.

Beginning with release of the rye, the Wild Turkey name disappeared and Russell's Reserve became a brand in its own right. The line was positioned to be a little more contemporary than Wild Turkey, hence the lower proof and milder taste profile. Eddie Russell, Jimmy's son, is responsible for the profile and is the brand's principal spokesperson.

The latest 'innovation' in the line is Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, which has no age statement (NAS), but is a whopping 110° proof (55% ABV). Another Wild Turkey bourbon, Rare Breed, claims to be 'barrel proof' at 108.2° proof (54.1% ABV), but that is being updated to 111°. About six years ago, Wild Turkey raised its barrel entry proof from 110° to 115°, following an earlier increase from 107°, which accounts for the higher proofs emerging now in mature barrels.

Even at 115°, Wild Turkey has the lowest barrel entry proof of any major bourbon distillery.

Many bourbon enthusiasts still mourn that long-ago proof cut from 101° to 90°. For them, Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon is a restoration, with a 9 point bonus!

In creating this single barrel line extension, Campari USA has followed what Beam did with Knob Creek Single Barrel earlier this year. Knob Single is 20° higher proof than standard Knob, and Russell's Reserve Single Barrel is 25° higher proof than standard Russell's Reserve Bourbon.

Although the new single barrel is NAS, Campari USA Senior Brand Manager Robin Coupar says the barrels are all eight to nine years old. Russell's Reserve Single Barrel should begin to appear in stores next month at a suggested retail price of $49.99.


Ethan Smith said...

Being a Wild Turkey fan, this begs a few questions:

1. Why is the 101 proof point that they made the brand famous seeming to get no love anymore?
2. Does this mean the regular 10/90 RR or the Rare Breed will be done for soon?
3. What proof does WT come off the still at since it is barreled at such a low proof?
4. When do I get my dang 101 rye back? This 81 stuff is swill!

Chuck Cowdery said...

I can only answer no. 3. It comes off the still at 130.

whistler said...

I have personally found higher proof bourbons to be smoother, which seems counterintuitive. Am I alone in this opinion? At tastings in which I compare bourbons, all neat, I notice the higher alcohol but very little to no bite when compared with most 80-100 proof samples. Maybe I'm nuts.

Lazer said...

Correction. KCSB has a 9 yr age statement, you're thinking of the Rye which is NAS

T Comp said...

Chuck, Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve is 9 year age stated. It seems to move off the shelves at a good clip in this area. It'll be interesting to see if this line extension puts some life back into Russell's and Rare Breed.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Thanks for the catch, guys. I fixed it.

Sylvan said...

Woodford Reserve reportedly uses a barrel entry proof of 110° for the pot still fraction, which is lower than WT's new(ish) 115°.

Anonymous said...

I tend agree....but you are playing with fire.

The higher the proof that is still balanced and not too hot the better, but it is a fine line.

mutantlovesongs said...

Am I crazy to be just a little bit skeptical/irritated when the distiller of an NAS whiskey privately assures us that its 8-9 years old? Off the record, as it were?

I recognize that age is not the be-all-end-all of quality, but it is one of the few label points clearly defined and regulated by law. Furthermore it is also one indicator of the cost of production, which helps assess whether the whiskey is a good value or not.

Claiming an age that the label does not reflect seems like a cheap dodge. Is this a totally unreasonable position?

Chuck Cowdery said...

It is entirely reasonable to be skeptical/irritated when the distiller of an NAS whiskey privately assures us that its product is 8-9 years old. Thanks for pointing that out. PS: Sorry about the captcha, but it's Google's, not mine.

Michael Shoshani said...

Whistler, you are definitely not alone. I noticed this when I first tasted Old Grand Dad 114 in the late 1980s, back when it was being sold as "barrel proof". The smoothness was the shock of my life; I'd expected it to be liquid fire but it was not.

If anything, I think as a general rule (meaning there are exceptions), a given whiskey is a lot smoother at 100 proof or above than it can ever hope to be at 80, 86, or even 90.

(As I recall, Col. Chuck, wasn't Wild Turkey's increase in barreling proof because they were having problems with some barrels actually not being even 101 proof when they were dumped? Or am I misremembering something?)

Chuck Cowdery said...

Your memory serves you well, Michael.