Wild Turkey has the longest serving Master Distiller anywhere in the world in the form of Jimmy Russell who has spent nearly 65 years within the industry. A Master Distiller for nearly 40 of those years, Russell and his son Jimmy (also now a master distiller) head up the production of one of the world’s most iconic bourbon brands. Producing a wide range of bourbon and rye’s, Wild Turkey produce bottlings under both their namesake, as well as the ‘Russell’s Reserve’ brand.
The distillery has existed in various forms since the Ripy family (who emigrated from Country Tyrome in Ireland) established the Old Hickory Distillery in 1891. Since 2011, Wild Turkey has been distilling at a new facility, built near to the original site. We’ll be taking a look at four currently available expressions from the distillery – 81 Proof, 101 Proof, Rare Breed and Forgiven.
Bottle Name: Wild Turkey 81 Proof
ABV: 40.5% Distillery: Wild Turkey Region: USA
Wild Turkey 81 Proof replaced a previous 80 Proof version around 6/7 years ago as the entry-level bottling in the distillery’s range. I’ve read online that this is not just a difference of 0.5% ABV to the liquid, but that the newer 81 Proof bottling is aged for an additional 2-4 years over its predecessor. Whether this is true of not, it’s not clearly stated on the label – and 81 sounds a lot more ‘in step’ with the next whiskey in the series, the 101 Proof, so perhaps there’s a combination of factors in play here – older liquid and some consistent brand identity.
The bottling comes from the distillery’s standard bourbon mashbill of 75% corn, 13% rye and 12% barley.
Nose: Gentle and sweet typical bourbon flavours – caramel, vanilla, and corn. There’s some additional aromas here – sugar coated apples, butter, sawdust and PVA wood glue. It’s all quite light and pretty inoffensive.
Taste: All the flavours are here – caramel, vanilla, cinnamon and toasted corn – but they’re a little washed out in an underpowered arrival that delivers thinly. As with the nose, it’s all rather gentle, but does have some additional interesting flavours on the mid-palate: oranges and pear, freshly sawn wood planking, honey and some every so slight salinity. In the back palate, there’s still a touch of youthfulness, not quite ‘burn’, but certainly a little raw.
Finish: Short to medium and delivering vanilla, caramel and sweet corn flavours.
Wild Turkey 81 Proof is a perfectly acceptable entry-level bottling from the distillery. It’s well priced within its category and as such most people would not have a problem using this with a mixer – and that’s what I believe it’s best for. All the typical bourbon flavours are present and correct, but they’re muted and relatively watery compared to what you might think of a big-hitting bourbon. As such, this would work well in a mixed drink, bringing the bourbon flavour, but not overpowering any other ingredients with a huge ABV. Available currently from Master of Malt for £22.75.
Bottle Name: Wild Turkey 101 Proof
ABV: 50.5% Distillery: Wild Turkey Region: USA
Wild Turkey 101 Proof is the bigger brother of the lower strength 81 Proof. It’s also a massive seller in the US. It’s a ‘bottled in bond’ whiskey, but as a point of difference, rather than just sticking to the regulations and producing the whiskey at 100 Proof, Wild Turkey like to be a little bit different and therefore went one better, producing a whiskey at 101 Proof (50.5% ABV) - its been that way for many years.
The 101 bottling comes from the distillery’s standard bourbon mashbill of 75% corn, 13% rye and 12% barley.
Nose: Caramel, corn and very pronounced vanilla are joined by soft and sticky toffee apples, hints of wood varnish and some underlying earthiness – dried grasses, hay, moist soils. Wood influence is bolder than the entry-level 81 Proof, offering much more spice – cinnamon and nutmeg in particular.
Taste: A velvety mouthfeel that delivers impactful flavour, but without any hostility. Toffee apples, corns, sweet grains and vanilla are supported by earthy spicing – cinnamon and nutmeg again, but now also with a touch of caraway. There’s discernible smoke here – charred wood embers. After a little resting deeper fruit notes come out to play – plums and damsons.
Finish: Medium in length and delivering caramel, toffee apples (quite sweet), but tempered by prickly spices.
Wild Turkey 101 Proof is a very solid bourbon. The higher ABV helps deliver good flavour definition and improves the mouthfeel of this whiskey over its 81 Proof sibling immeasurably. Whilst being a big step up in quality, the different in price over the 81 Proof is not huge as an amount (around a tenner in the UK), but quite large as a percentage (an additional 50%). That said, to my mind, it’s well worth the asking price. This is a bourbon which has a really pleasurable flavour profile, but stands up to drinking neat.
Bottle Name: Wild Turkey Rare Breed
ABV: 56.4% Distillery: Wild Turkey Region: USA
Wild Turkey Rare Breed was originally released back in 1991, and is an NAS blend of bourbons from 6 through to 12 years of age. It’s a barrel proof whiskey (read cask strength) that is produced in regular large batches (in case you’re wondering why the ABV varies across different bottlings). Rare Breed received a makeover in 2015 with new, modern and shiny branding – particular the bottle tube, that’s now a particularly shiny gold – and an increased ABV of 56.4%.
Despite being Wild Turkey’s high strength bottling, it is still made with the same mashbill as the more commonly seen expressions, namely 75% corn, 13% rye and 12% barley.
Nose: Surprisingly delicate considering the ABV – sweet grains and corns, toffee, vanilla and caramel are joined by deeper aromas – leather, polished furniture and dusty books. Fruit is not just coming from the orchard with this one (apples and pears), but also from some reduced dark berries (particularly cherries) and plums.
Taste: A soft and creamy mouthfeel delivers bold and impactful flavours right from the get-go – Cinnamon, nutmeg, caraway and allspice lead – combined with high fruitiness in the form of apples, pears, berries, plum and damsons. Cask influence comes through strongly with the higher ABV on offer – vanilla, sawn planking, drying oak and charred wood.
Finish: Medium in length, and still offering steady spiciness.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed is definitely sipping whiskey. Whilst the nose hints at subtlety and delicateness, the palate delivers punchy flavour that has a vein of spiciness and wood running right the way through it. Flavours and aromas are defined and precise and the combination of sweetness and spice is managed exceedingly well. Bold, full-flavoured and yet highly drinkable. Yum.
Bottle Name: Wild Turkey Forgiven
ABV: 45.5% Distillery: Wild Turkey Region: USA
Wild Turkey’s Forgiven is a blend of bourbon and rye whiskies – in a similar vein to High West’s Bourye. It’s created (allegedly by accident) from 78% 6 year old bourbon and 22% 4 year old rye. It doesn’t come cheaply here in the UK – you’ll be looking at around £80 for the privilege - which is an incredible mark up on the prices that you can pick this bottle up in the States (closer to £35).
Nose: A touch shy initially, this needed some time in the glass to open up. When it did, the main aromas were bourbon-led – cinnamon apples, pastries, toffee and caramel, alongside vanilla and dark cherries. There is certainly some more rye influence notes here, but they’re a little hidden – they come across as earthy, almost umami-like – potato crisps and savoury nuttiness.
Taste: A good arrival offering plentiful weight and texture. Much more rye now – earthy and natural tasting. Apples, burnt toffee, wood char and vanilla, but with orange zest, allspice, nutmeg, leather and pepper. Again, there are umami flavours and some overt nuttiness in play here.
Finish: Long, quite earthy and fairly drying.
I find Wild Turkey Forgiven a little confusing. The nose shouts bourbon, but the palate screams rye – the two never quite seem to sit together perfectly. The result is a demi-sweet combination which offers a lot of interesting aromas and flavours, but perhaps a lot less overall balance. If you can pick this up in the US for a reasonable price then it’s certainly worth some of your time, but here in the UK there’s a real disconnect between the price and the quality.