The Ripy brothers founded Wild Turkey in 1869 near Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. They were bought out by the Gould brothers in 1952, and they in turn sold to Pernod Ricard in 1980. According to legend, distillery executive Thomas McCarthy took some friends on a wild turkey hunting trip in 1940 and brought along some special bottles to share. The following year, his buddies requested more of that “wild turkey whiskey,” and the name stuck. The Campari Group acquired the brand in 2009, and embarked on a complete renovation of the distillery. Massive and glistening, the new facility is a tribute to the popularity of Bourbon in America and around the world. These guys are making whiskey, but they’re also printing money.
Regardless of that, the quality standards are as strict as ever. “We want the product to taste the same tomorrow or ten years from now as it does today,” says Russell. He tastes each day’s distillate blind with a panel of five people, and they compare notes. The Bourbons are aged between six and ten years. There is an identical formula for all the spirits produced, with the differences coming from the degree of aging, cask selection and blending.
Wild Turkey 81 ($20) was released last year to replace the brand’s 80 proof Bourbon. On the nose, it exhibits what Russell considers to be the most important elements: caramel, vanilla and sweetness. On entry, the mouth feel is high-strung and peppery, but the vanilla and caramel flavors begin to emerge in the mid palate and continue on the long, sweet finish. A nicely balanced spirit, perfect for blending into cocktails.
Wild Turkey 101 ($25) is the standard-bearer, and was the only product on the market until the 1980s. The lush, sweet nose yields whiffs of baking spices, pepper and vanilla. It enters the mouth aggressively, with the alcohol noticeable; the wood is persistent throughout the mid palate, but the finish once again resonates with sweetness. Despite the high level of alcohol, it has an absence of heat.
First released in 2000, Russell’s Reserve ($35) is a small batch Bourbon (with an average of 200 barrels per batch), aged ten years in cask and bottled at 90 proof. The soft, ripe nose exudes aromas of tropical fruits and touches of banana. A smooth entry is followed by a rush of pepper, spice and toffee in the mid palate. The texture is more angular than the nose suggests, and the finish is long and spicy.
Rare Breed ($42) first appeared in 1991 as a limited release, and stuck around. The whiskey is a blend of 6, 8 and 12 year-old stocks bottled at a barrel proof of 108.4 (54.2% alcohol). The nose exudes whiffs of toasty oak intermingled with tropical fruits and crème brulée. It is sweet and richly textured on entry, almost unctuous, but once again the mid palate is all pepper and spice. The alcohol is noticeable but not overwhelming, and the finish is very long and resonant. This is a complex whiskey that is a delight to sip.
The just-released Wild Turkey 81 Rye ($25) has an exotic nose of candied pear, Oriental spices and hints of lychee. It is tightly focused in the mouth, with a surprising sweetness that emerges in the mid palate and mingles with the spirit’s substantial earthiness. The finish is long and spicy. Although I haven’t tried it yet, I suspect this would make a splendid Manhattan.
Other than Manhattans, and perhaps a few additional options for the 81 proof spirits, Wild Turkey is really not a whiskey for cocktails. It has so much power, amplitude and richness that it really should be appreciated on its own, and usually is. It was the favorite of Hunter Thompson, after all---not to mention the reviewer at Whisky Magazine who famously declared it to be “the Clint Eastwood of whiskeys.” Even better, before you saddle up and ride off into the sunset, you can experience it at a reasonable price.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, by Mark Spivak, will be published in November by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot). Writing in an engaging and appealing style, Spivak chronicles the untold tales of twelve spirits that changed the world and forged the cocktail culture. “These are the best kinds of stories,” he says---“the kind a writer could never make up.”