Earl’s WS owns a lot of firsts in Winston-Salem. It’s the first restaurant in the newly proclaimed North End. It heralds the first partnership between Herbie Gimmel, Joel Ornstein and Wade Robinson. Earl’s also has the distinction of being the only whiskey bar in the Triad to have its own single barrel of Russell’s Reserve Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, the high-end blend from Wild Turkey.
Located outside Lawrenceburg, Ky., the Wild Turkey distillery has been making bourbon for over 75 years. Jimmy Russell has been master distiller for 60 of them. At his retirement in 2018, he was the longest-tenured master distiller in the world.
This blend was his favorite.
To procure their own barrel, Earl’s staff sampled tastes from six different barrels, sent uncut from the distillery. Each barrel has its own personality, depending on the day it’s contained, its place in the warehouse, the unique nature of the wood.
The selection was ultimately up to bar manager, Justin “Smoothie” Bennett with a little help from Gimmel and Ornstein.
“I chose purely on taste,” said Bennett. “It wasn’t overly powerful, just enough rye spice.”
The barrel of choice was bottled on-site in Kentucky. The bottles were then sent to the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Commission for taxation, and finally made it to the bar. The empty barrel accompanied the order as a displayable show-piece. You can see it hoisted high on the wall behind the bar. A steampunk-looking copper pipeline, reminiscent of a moonshine still coils down from the ceiling to end at a spigot from which each order is poured.
Robinson owns Wade Co. Design, the construction and design company that was responsible for the interior design of Earl’s and the barrel display.
The idea was brought forth by Melanie Holt, retail hospitality account manager for Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits.
“ knew that the owners would appreciate it,” she said “It’s a brand-new place in town. Look at it!” She gestured to the bar, “Why not? Look at this place. It’s a bourbon bar. This fits here.”
According to Holt, 128 bottles came out of this barrel. Almost 50 are on display above the bar. Staff is periodically opening each bottle and pouring it directly into the original barrel.
A combination of factors determine the outcome of whiskey: temperature, altitude, moisture. There is no age statement given on the bottle, but the Russell’s Reserve single barrels typically spend somewhere around 8-9 years aging in American White Oak. The current selection is from Barrel No./ 19-094, aged in Rickhouse F, on the 5th floor. All Russell’s single barrels are bottled at 110 proof. The purchase price is hush-hush but typically barrels can run between $8,000 and $12,000 each.
First try the bourbon neat, and then add a cube or two of ice to open it up. On the palate you get the presence of heavy oak. Cherry, pine and dark cola notes are detectable as well. Dense and full bodied, the finish lingers with honey and woody tones. It’s hot and high in alcohol, but this is a complex and intense whiskey that reveals more about itself with every sip.