For some time now there has been considerable debate regarding the source of vintage Wild Turkey bourbon whiskey. After all, many labels curiously read “bottled by” rather than “distilled by.” Prior to 1971, it’s safe to say that all Wild Turkey batches contained at least some sourced whiskey. As a wholesaler, Austin Nichols bought and sold bulk whiskey and bottled it under various labels – including Wild Turkey expressions. However, when Austin Nichols purchased the Boulevard Distillery (AKA Old Ripy) in 1971, it became the primary source of Wild Turkey bourbon. But two questions naturally follow – was it the only source for Wild Turkey KSBW batches, and if not, for how long?
According to a March 29, 2017 Q&A with the Russell’s, all Wild Turkey expressions since 1981 (when Eddie Russell started) have been made at the WT distillery (Boulevard) in Lawrenceburg, KY. “Made” is the key word, as it could technically mean whiskey labeled bottled or distilled. Here’s the actual quote from Bruce Russell:
“Nothing has been made at any other distillery since Dad [Eddie] started in ’81. And we control it from grain to bottle now. Our new bottling plant has been open 3-4 years. We were bottling down in Fort Smith, Arkansas before that.”
My interpretation of Rusell’s statement is that he means “nothing,” as in nothing labeled distilled or bottled. So taking from that we can easily assume that from 1981 to present, all Wild Turkey expressions (regardless of label) have been distilled in Lawrenceburg, KY (though sometimes bottled elsewhere). So that leaves 1971-1980 as questionable. While many enthusiasts argue that 1970’s WT likely contains at least some sourced whiskey, most agree that the bulk of the profile consists of bourbon from Boulevard. In fact, some assert that it’s probable that the distillery purchase by Austin Nichols was to secure that profile, as Wild Turkey had become quite popular. If this is true, it’s a testament to Jimmy Russell’s skill as a Master Distiller. One thing we do know, is that the little distillery from Lawrenceburg was making some damn fine bourbon back then.
So where does that leave us? Ah, yes … how does it taste? I think it’s time to set theories aside and let the Glencairn lead the way.
Wild Turkey 101 (1976) – KSBW at 50.5% ABV – aged at least 8 years – bottled by the Austin, Nichols Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: deep copper
Nose: (hello dusty!) honey-maple, rich vanilla, fragrant herbal & floral notes, musty & funky sweet oak, tobacco, leather, french toast, blood orange, licorice, baking spice, musk
Taste: sweet & spicy vanilla, maple syrup, fragrant tobacco, old leather, musty charred oak, immense herbal & floral notes, brown sugar, baking spice
Finish: long, warm & flavorful – honey-maple, leather, musty & funky oak, sweet herbs & floral spice
Overall: This 1976 101/8 is about as good as Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey gets (at least in my opinion). It’s also classic “dusty” Wild Turkey at its best. There’s absolutely nothing about this bourbon that screams sourced outside of WT. In fact, it’s very similar in profile to 1981 WT 101/8. While the color and mouthfeel are closer to 1987 WT 101/8, the nose, taste, and finish are most definitely in the ’81’s ballpark. I’d even go so far as to argue that it has greater balance and complexity than the WT 101 12-year exports from the late 1990’s and 2000’s. It certainly has more character, that’s for sure.
Does this mean that all 1970’s Wild Turkey bottles have the same profile? No. Every batch has the potential to be somewhat different. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if whatever sourced barrels Austin Nichol’s had in storage in 1971 were dumped or sold shortly after the Boulevard purchase. We do know that some were sold to Julian Van Winkle, but that’s another story for another time. As for this 1976 Wild Turkey 101 8-year … it’s a solid gold A.
Photo courtesy K. Harlan (2017)