I’m often asked which Wild Turkey expression is best. Of course, the only correct answer is: the expression you like. But you and I both know it’s not that simple. More typically folks are searching for comparable whiskeys to their non-Turkey favorites. I’ll receive emails phrased like, “Hey Rare Bird. My name is ‘Randall’ and I’m a huge fan of ‘bourbon X’ or ‘distillery Y.’ Which Wild Turkey whiskey should I try?” Of course, the only correct answer is: all of them. 😉
In light of recent inquiries, I thought I’d take a break from the usual reviews and write a brief guide to finding the “right” Wild Turkey whiskey. A conversion manual, if you will. Some folks might agree with my approach, others might not. Let’s face it – some people will never change what they drink. That’s perfectly fine, but there’s no harm in exploring what’s out there. I’ll be honest, I drink other American whiskeys. I even find myself enjoying the occasional Scotch from time to time. But Turkey is my go-to. It’s my heart’s pour. Maybe one day it’ll be yours – and maybe – just maybe – this little post might help make that happen.
Before I begin I should mention that I won’t be discussing every whiskey out there. My attention will be directed towards the primary U.S. distilleries and a blended whiskey or two (based on popularity). I’d also like to address two myths up front:
Myth #1: Wild Turkey is a whiskey for roughnecks, old men, rock stars, and frat boys.
I’m not sure why Wild Turkey suffers from a rocky reputation amongst the general public or when that reputation started, but it couldn’t be further from reality. Wild Turkey is as pure and genuine as a Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey gets. With honest roots going back to the mid-1800’s, perseverance through hard times when countless distilleries failed, and a family legacy that’s respected by virtually everyone in the industry, Wild Turkey is one of America’s most enduring brands.
Myth #2: The only good Wild Turkey is “dusty” Wild Turkey (or sometimes phrased as, “I only like Wild Turkey where the Turkey is looking at me,” a reference to old WT labels).
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that dusty Wild Turkey is more often than not pretty damn spectacular. That said, it really depends on where you draw the line. 1980’s-1990’s Wild Turkey 101 12-year releases (Beyond Duplication, “Cheesy Gold Foil,” “Split Label”) are whiskeys of near-legendary status. They’re vintage and unique, and as such very tough to find modern comparable expressions. There are stellar WT 101 8-year batches from those years as well, though some are better than others. Personally, I think Master’s Keep Decades and a decent number of modern Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel selections rival many WT 101/8 releases. But you don’t have to take my word for it. You just have to open your mind and give modern Wild Turkey an honest chance. Picking the right expression is key and that’s what this guide is all about.
I originally envisioned this post in a list format comparing other brands/releases to Wild Turkey expressions. But then I realized I wasn’t addressing the myths and came to the conclusion that it was the individual I needed to focus on just as much as the whiskey they currently enjoy. What follows is a breakdown of the basic types of whiskey fans and how they might appreciate an introduction (or reintroduction) to Wild Turkey. You’ll find that casual drinkers, sippers, and some novice enthusiasts often fall for Myth #1, while die-hard and close-minded enthusiasts unfortunately fall for Myth #2. Myth #1 can usually be dispelled through covert substitution, while Myth #2 is tougher to defeat and hinges greatly on the expression. Let’s see what I can do.
The Casual Drinker
While whiskey enthusiasm is growing in popularity, the average consumer still appreciates their “brown liquor” in a mixed drink or cocktail. More often than not, you’ll find Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 (80-proof Tennessee Whiskey), Crown Royal Deluxe (80-proof blended Canadian Whiskey), Jim Beam “White Label” (80-proof traditional KSBW), or Maker’s Mark (90-proof wheated KSBW) in a basic cocktail (Old Fashioned, Manhattan, etc.), mixed with cola or ginger ale, or maybe just as simple shooters. For the majority of these folks a simple substitution of Wild Turkey 81-proof KSBW should work perfectly. Maker’s Mark fans may appreciate Russell’s Reserve 10-year even more.
For the casual drinker that appreciates a bolder or spicier cocktail, I highly recommend Wild Turkey 101 or Wild Turkey 101 Rye. If bold and sweet is preferred, go with WT 101. If bold and spicy is the goal, go with WT 101 Rye. Either way I guarantee you’ll have a winner.
The Casual Whiskey Sipper
Individuals that appreciate a neat or rocks straight whiskey pour, yet forgo the enthusiasm, may be difficult to introduce to Wild Turkey. While whiskey enthusiasts can be snobby, at least they’re open to trying new things. Casual sippers on the other hand, are almost always brand-loyal and buy the same handle bottle from the same local shop week after week. I’m almost tempted to say leave these folks be and let them enjoy their whiskey – BUT – in the rare event you find yourself with an opportunity to pour them something different, here’s my Turkey suggestions.
Most casual sippers typically enjoy one of the same “big brand” whiskeys named in the casual drinker section above (popular non-straight rye whiskeys) – Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, Crown Royal Deluxe, Jim Beam “White Label,” or Maker’s Mark. In these cases refer to the substitutions stated previously. There are, however, other whiskey brands/labels found in larger bottles that many casual sippers enjoy. Evan Williams (Black, Green, and White labels, as well as 1783), Old Grand Dad (80-proof or 100-proof BiB), Woodford Reserve, Four Roses Yellow Label, Buffalo Trace, Weller Special Reserve, and Seagram’s 7 Crown are all popular expressions commonly found in casual sippers’ tumblers and rocks glasses. There are other brands and labels, but it would be impractical to list them all and most are arguably comparable to those already named.
Fans of Evan Williams Green Label (80 proof) would likely appreciate Wild Turkey 81-proof KSBW, while fans of Evan Williams Black Label (86 proof), EW White Label (100 proof), and EW 1783 (86 proof) should find a more relative profile in Wild Turkey 101. The ABV, recipes, and maturities may be different, but I’ve found that many whiskeys produced by Heaven Hill Distillery, such as Evan Williams, seem to taste older than they actually are. Why that is I do not know, but Heaven Hill is the undisputed champion of the bottom shelf. What they can do in 4-5 years is remarkable.
For those that love the Old Grand Dad brand, an introduction to Wild Turkey is even easier since OGD became a Beam-Suntory product (as the old National Distiller’s OGD are now legendary). I find that 80-proof Old Grand Dad is very similar to Wild Turkey 81, while Old Grand Dad Bottled-in-Bond (100-proof) is somewhat close in profile to Wild Turkey 101 (though WT 101 is a bit more complex). Overall, a pretty easy transition with similar recipes and maturities.
Woodford Reserve sippers will appreciate Russell’s Reserve 10-year, while fans of Four Roses Yellow Label will find common ground in Wild Turkey 81. When it comes to Buffalo Trace KSBW, I’d recommend trying either Russell’s Reserve 10-year or Wild Turkey 101. Russell’s 10 lines up perfectly with BT’s strength (45% ABV), though WT 101 is closer to BT’s age (about 7 years). When it comes to Weller Special Reserve (which is hyped far too much due to its shared recipe with Pappy Van Winkle), I feel that both Wild Turkey 101 and Russell’s Reserve 10 are not only comparable, but a little more complex and higher in quality. And finally, if you’re sipping Seagram’s 7 Crown I’d recommend flushing it down the toilet and rethinking your priorities in life. 😛
The Whiskey Enthusiast
Ah, the American whiskey enthusiast. Chances are if you follow my blog, you belong to this category and likely appreciate Wild Turkey already. But for those that don’t, or have enthusiast friends that don’t, I’ll offer up a few recommendations to potentially bridge that gap.
First, it’s important you approach Wild Turkey with an open mind. Hopefully you’re well-beyond Myth #1, though it’s possible new enthusiasts first starting out may still face this hurdle. As for Myth #2, I can say from experience that if you’re only focused on dusty Turkey you’re missing out on some amazing whiskey. Does modern Wild Turkey taste like dusty Wild Turkey? No, it doesn’t. But the same could be said for nearly any distillery. Does Old Bernheim taste like New Bernheim? Does Stitzel-Weller’s Old Weller taste like Buffalo Trace’s Weller Antique? The list goes on. But just because whiskeys of the same label decades apart don’t taste exactly the same, it doesn’t mean they aren’t all quality pours.
Second, I suggest occasional blind tastings when evaluating expressions (in general). This is an ideal method for dismissing both Myth #1 and #2 (almost any whiskey myth, really). For example, one of my favorite recommendations is Rock Hill Farms versus Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit. Each are single barrel KY straight bourbons of similar recipes, proof, and age. RHF is allocated and often priced above suggested retail price, while WTKS is quite the opposite. The outcome of a blind comparison between the two can be shocking for many die-hard Buffalo Trace mash bill #2 fans.
Whether you blind taste or not, that’s up to you. Regardless, what follows is a series of common whiskey enthusiast favorites and my recommendations for comparable Wild Turkey alternatives. I can’t promise that any of these expressions will match up profile-wise, but most should be of a common nature and often share similar notes.
Jim Beam – Many enthusiasts find themselves reaching for one of several whiskeys from the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection: Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s, Knob Creek (small batch or single barrel), and Booker’s. While I consider the lower-proof Basil Hayden’s more of an entry-level enthusiast whiskey, one should find similarities and notable improvement with Russell’s Reserve 10-year. Fans of Baker’s and Knob Creek (small batch) should easily find commonalities in Wild Turkey 101, while advocates of Booker’s might appreciate a pour of Wild Turkey Rare Breed. After all, both Booker’s and Rare Breed are batched KSBW at barrel proof. They may be different in profile, but they are both bold and uncompromising whiskeys.
And finally, Knob Creek Single Barrel stands out as it’s eligible for private barrel selection. While I recommend Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel over the standard retail Knob Creek SiB, comparing Russell’s Reserve SiB private selections to Knob Creek SiB private selections can make for a very enjoyable comparison tasting. Each will be rooted in their respective distillery’s signature profile, though more often than not you will find outliers and “off-profile” barrels. Tasting these types of single barrels in a side-by-side format can prove fun and rewarding.
Maker’s Mark – Outside of the standard Maker’s Mark expression (which I covered under the casual whiskey drinker section), the enthusiast is left with Maker’s 46 (including it’s private selection variants) and Maker’s Mark Cask Strength. Truth be told I’m not a fan of Maker’s 46. I find it has an artificial sweet wood element – like Splenda-coated popsicle sticks – and I don’t really know of a comparable Turkey expression. As for Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, I’d suggest Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel. They should be close in strength (as the typical ABV I’ve noticed on Maker’s Cask Strength is around 110), with each offering a full-flavored experience in their own way. I’d argue that Russell’s Reserve SiB is notably more complex, as it’s matured longer and is based on a mash bill with rye as the secondary grain (Maker’s secondary being wheat, of course). We’ll touch more on wheated bourbons later.
Heaven Hill – The most well-known brand coming from Heaven Hill Distillery is Evan Williams. While I discussed most of the core Evan Williams expressions earlier in this post, I saved Evan Williams Single Barrel for the enthusiast section. Folks that enjoy this expression should also enjoy Russell’s Reserve 10-year. While Russell’s 10-year isn’t a single-barrel expression, it is comparable in age and proof. The real obstacle, however, is price. As I mentioned already, Evan Williams is the champion of the bottom shelf. EW SiB isn’t a bottom-shelf pour, but it’s nearly priced like one. Stiff competition to say the least.
Another Heaven Hill brand that’s frequently enjoyed by enthusiasts is Elijah Craig. Formerly a 12-year expression, Elijah Craig Small Batch is now closer on paper to Wild Turkey 101, which is my recommendation. As for Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, which has to date retained its 12-year age statement, I’d wager there’s a few comparable Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel private selections out there (batch/barrel depending). If you really want a comparative expression, you’ll have to find mature barrel-strength Wild Turkey like the Jewish Whisky Co.’s Whisky Jewbilee. Unfortunately, Whisky Jewbilee bottles are extremely limited and priced well above Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. It’s my hope that Campari takes note and one day releases a more mature barrel-strength Wild Turkey expression.
I haven’t covered many straight rye whiskeys at this point, but I will make note of one or two here. Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond is a popular budget KSRW produced by Heaven Hill. Truthfully, it’s a great pour for the money, but for only a few dollars more Wild Turkey 101 Rye presents a significant step up in quality. I propose that if you try WT 101 Rye, you won’t go back to Rittenhouse BiB. I haven’t. As for Pikesville Rye (also produced by Heaven Hill), I recommend giving Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye a shot. As with Rittenhouse vs. WT 101 Rye, with one tasting you’ll likely change where you reach on the rye shelf.
Four Roses – of all the KSBW brands out there, I find fans of Four Roses Distillery the most welcoming of Wild Turkey. Perhaps it’s the Lawrenceburg roots, but more likely it’s the similarities in profile. While Four Roses and Wild Turkey have very different bourbon recipes (Four Roses has ten and Wild Turkey has one), they often “cross paths” on the nose and palate and share a signature spiciness. For those that appreciate Four Roses Small Batch, I’d suggest trying both Russell’s Reserve 10-year and Wild Turkey 101. While Russell’s 10 lines up in strength (45% ABV), WT 101 lines up more in profile. As for the standard retail Four Roses Single Barrel (which is a single recipe, “OBSV”), I’d argue that Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel is just as excellent and slightly more complex to boot.
And then we have Four Roses Single Barrel private selections, of which there are ten major variants (due to the ten different recipes). Naturally Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel private selections are the comparable alternative; however, it’s important to note that FR private selections are bottled at barrel proof, while Russell’s SiB private selections are bottled at a fixed 110 proof. Even so, I’d argue that one will often find Russell’s SiB on-par (barrel depending) and far from uncompromising. That said, Campari please take note of this. We need a single-barrel barrel-strength Wild Turkey expression … pronto!
Buffalo Trace – Let me start by saying that in the world of American whiskey enthusiasm, no single distillery gets more attention than Buffalo Trace Distillery. I’ll spare the details (and you likely know them already), but the short of it is Buffalo Trace makes Pappy Van Winkle (ironically, the first Van Winkle bourbon was purchased from Wild Turkey in the 1970’s). I’m not going to cover any Van Winkle whiskeys in this post, nor will I be covering the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. They’re fantastic whiskeys when purchased at suggested retail price, but certainly nothing worth spending a paycheck or two (or three) to enjoy. Anyone that tells you the opposite is a jackass – plain and simple. Sure, one could argue that some dusty Wild Turkey expressions have significant monetary value. That said, there’s a big difference in something preserved in a bottle over decades and something that’s bottled year after year (after year). Apples and oranges, my friend.
Buffalo Trace has three primary bourbon mash bills, and at least one rye mash bill. For more about these (and other) whiskey recipes, I highly recommend checking out Bourbonr’s Mash Bill Breakdown. I’ll loosely cover these in order starting with mash bill #1, which is low rye. One of these bourbons, the appropriately named Buffalo Trace KSBW, was covered earlier in this post.
Outside of Buffalo Trace KSBW, Eagle Rare is perhaps the most commonly found mash bill #1 bourbon and on paper comparable to Russell’s Reserve 10-year in both age and proof. While not as similar in profile, I think Russell’s 10 is a good place to start based on its accessibility. Col. E. H. Taylor Small Batch is another popular mash bill #1 expression. On paper it’s comparable to Wild Turkey 101, though Col. EHT Small Batch is technically bottled-in-bond. Finally, Stagg Jr. is a batched low-rye KSBW bottled at barrel strength. Folks that appreciate its full-flavor and intensity might enjoy Wild Turkey Rare Breed, though the flavor profiles will be notably different (again, we’re comparing different recipes and maturities).
Buffalo Trace mash bill #2 (an exclusive recipe to Age International) is perhaps the most relative in profile to Wild Turkey. The two recipes (at least the rumored recipes) are very similar, as well as the general maturity of each company’s expressions. Probably the most recognized whiskey of this mash bill is Blanton’s. Blanton’s has been featured on television and in movies, most notably in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. 😉 In all seriousness, Blanton’s and its mash bill cousin, Elmer T. Lee, are comparable in profile to Russell’s Reserve 10-year (though Russell’s 10 isn’t a single-barrel whiskey). Rock Hill Farms, a 100-proof single-barrel KSBW of mash bill #2, has been addressed earlier in this post and is very close to Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit. All said and done, Blanton’s, Elmer T. Lee, and Rock Hill Farms are all perfectly enjoyable whiskeys, but if placed in blind tastings against Wild Turkey 101, WT 101 will often come out on top.
And now for the final bourbon recipe produced by the Buffalo Trace Distillery, the wildly popular mash bill #3. For those unaware, mash bill #3 features wheat instead of rye as the secondary grain. It’s also the mash bill of the famed Weller and Van Winkle brands, of course. As stated earlier, I won’t be covering Pappy Van Winkle primarily because you rarely find it or its Van Winkle cousins (Old Rip Van Winkle and Van Winkle Special Reserve) available at retail price.
Since I’ve covered Weller Special Reserve already, I’ll move forward with Weller Antique (formerly Old Weller Antique) and Weller 12-year. Fans of Weller Antique should find Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel an arguably better pour (even with unique profiles). Like Russell’s Reserve SiB, Weller Antique is available through private barrel selections. Naturally, I’d suggest Russell’s SiB private selections as a suitable (often superior) rival. As for Weller 12-year, I’m not going to lie – it’s a quality pour at retail price (about $30 nowadays). That said, good luck finding at that price – good luck finding it at all. On paper Russell’s Reserve 10-year comes close, though the profiles are certainly different. If you’re willing to pay a little more, seek out favorably reviewed Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit private selections. You might just be surprised.
When it comes to rye, Buffalo Trace has one primary recipe, a traditional “barely legal” Kentucky straight rye mash bill, and potentially a second unique high-rye mash bill used in Col. E. H. Taylor Straight Rye. It’s unclear, however, if that second unique rye mash bill is sourced from its sister distillery, Barton (both Sazerac companies). Sazerac Rye (commonly known as “Baby Saz” to distinguish it from its Antique Collection counterpart, Sazerac 18) is comparable both on paper and in profile to Russell’s Reserve 6-year Rye. And even though I’ve stated that I won’t be covering the Antique Collection, I’ll briefly mention that Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye can give Thomas H. Handy a run for its money. As for Col. EHT Straight Rye, you’re not really going to find a Wild Turkey expression that shares its unique recipe and profile. On the flip side, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye is just as complex and likely more mature.
Before wrapping up Buffalo Trace, I’d like to touch on two of its sister Sazerac-owned distilleries, Barton and Bowman. Barton 1792 Distillery is known for two primary bourbon brands – Very Old Barton and 1792 (formerly 1792 Ridgemont Reserve). While the mash bill is unknown, it’s touted as “high rye.” Fans of either Very Old Barton (in various ABV labels) or 1792 should find common notes in Wild Turkey 101. For those that appreciate the higher-ABV 1792 Full Proof, I’d recommend Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel or possibly Wild Turkey Rare Breed.
As for the A. Smith Bowman Distillery, Buffalo Trace provides its initial distillate, which Bowman then distills twice over. Which mash bill is sourced to Bowman is a topic of great debate. Whatever the answer, I can say from experience that it tastes like BT mash bill #2. There are two core Bowman bourbon expressions, Bowman Brothers (90-proof small batch) and John J. Bowman (100-proof single barrel). These two whiskeys share similar profiles to Blanton’s, Elmer T. Lee, and Rock Hill Farms, and therefore, my recommendations for Wild Turkey alternatives would be Russell’s Reserve 10-year and Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit. For a budget alternative, Wild Turkey 101 would also make for a nice substitution.
I realize that there are numerous other American whiskey brands, labels, and producers. There’s just no way for me to fit them all into one discussion. I’ve covered the major distilleries and their core expressions. Sure, I’ve left some out (Old Forester comes to mind), but generally speaking the most common everyday bottles were addressed.
As I stated earlier in this post, some folks may disagree with my approach. Many folks may likely disagree with one or more of my comparisons as well. If so, they wouldn’t be wrong – they’d just hold a different opinion and that’s perfectly fine with me. In fact, I welcome opposing comments and alternative suggestions. After all, whiskey enthusiasm is all about sharing – including the sharing of one’s opinion. And with that I’ll close on this …
I’m certain that Wild Turkey has something to offer everyone. Ignore the myths, open your mind – hell, go in blind – and I think you’ll discover I’m right. There’s an expression out there for every whiskey lover – from the casual whiskey drinker to the die-hard enthusiast. Don’t get carried away by hype or misguided by the opinions of others (including mine). Trust your palate, and your palate alone, and I guarantee you’ll be happier for it. Cheers!