A lot can happen when whiskey sits in oak for a considerable number of years. Flavor is certainly impacted (for better or worse) and loss to the angels is inevitable. But if everything works out right – if a distiller is attentive and experienced – you might just end up with something incredible. This is the story of Wild Turkey 17-year Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
While most enthusiasts are familiar with 2015’s 17-year Master’s Keep release, far less are familiar with 2001’s 17-year Wild Turkey KSBW. And rightfully so, as it was an extremely limited release (5,000 bottles) exclusive to Japan* (see footnote). Some of you may be thinking, why Japan? Well, there’s actually a very good reason.
Most American whiskey consumers in the 1980’s and 1990’s simply weren’t willing to pay a premium for top-quality bourbon. It was tough enough selling bourbon at all. Bottles that are considered dusty gold today were passed over time and time again in the States. Japan, however, maintained a tremendous appreciation for straight bourbon whiskey and their consumers were more than willing to pay a premium for well-aged expressions. In fact, several historians credit Japan with keeping Kentucky’s bourbon industry alive. Wild Turkey was no stranger to this.
By 1999, the now-revered Wild Turkey 101 12-year was discontinued domestically. It only made sense at the time. The distillery could consistently sell mature whiskey overseas at a profit. You hear it far too often – folks complaining about how all the “good stuff” was shipped off. Well, if there’s anyone to blame for WT 101/12 leaving the U.S., it’s Americans not willing to pay its price tag for nearly two decades. But WT 101/12 is only one example. There were other export-only releases throughout the early to mid-2000’s, the oldest of which was the 17-year KSBW limited release.
To be honest, I don’t have much information on 2001’s 17-year Wild Turkey expression. I’m of the opinion that Jimmy Russell simply had some older barrels set aside that were prime by 2001. No special occasion. No fanfare. No hype. It’s probably as simple as Jimmy describes it on the box:
We are proud to present this exclusive limited edition release of Wild Turkey 17 Year Old Bourbon. Many years ago, I hand picked a few barrels and set them aside for this rare and exceptional bourbon. Each bottle is individually numbered, and should provide extraordinary pleasure to the fortunate few who have secured a bottle. – Jimmy Russell
And speaking of the box … this is one hell of a display. While the bottle itself is very reminiscent of 2009’s Tradition, Wild Turkey 101/17’s overall presentation is arguably the fanciest of all Wild Turkey releases to date. As opposed to the hard-edge hefty box Tradition is housed in, or the “shop class” Booker’s-esque box of Diamond Anniversary, the 17-year’s box is elegantly rounded and artfully stained. It’s quite the showpiece, I must say.
But boxes and bottles only provide fickle pleasure. Sure, they’re cool to admire, hold, and post on Instagram [guilty]; however, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – a whiskey bottle is only special when it’s opened. And with that I want to offer a most sincere thanks to Instagram’s @sae824 for the chance to sample this amazingly rare Wild Turkey expression. It’s folks like Scott that keep this blog ticking and I can’t say thank you enough. And with that, on to the tasting!
Wild Turkey 17-Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (2001 export) – bottle no. N902 – (not stated but assumed) distilled and/or bottled by the Austin, Nichols Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: (notably dark) deep rosy copper
Nose: (complex & layered classic WT) bourbon-infused maple syrup, molasses, vanilla bean, caramel, musty oak, fragrant pipe tobacco, herbal & floral spice, leather, blood orange, ripe cherries, hints of musky perfume
Taste: (rich & creamy) butterscotch, vanilla, English toffee, honey-maple, sweet oak, licorice, tobacco, nutmeg, cinnamon, old-fashioned caramel chews, melted butter, sugar cane, clove
Finish: long & flavorful – toasted vanilla, brown sugar, caramel, musty & spicy oak, nutmeg, leather, herbal & floral spice, faint orange peel & pepper
Overall: A remarkably beautiful whiskey. There are very few Wild Turkey expressions that have so much richness and depth in complexity. And interestingly, it’s not what I’d consider “dusty” in profile. Much like Tradition (2009) and the 14-year Master Distiller Selection (2006), there are some dusty-esque notes. But if I had to pin the 17-year to a profile it would be undeniably classic. Possibly the most intensely classic Turkey profile bourbon you’ll ever taste. And seeing that we’re in 2018 with so many production changes since 2001, I highly doubt there will be another like it. At least that window is closing quickly, if not closed already.
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you have to find extremely rare Wild Turkey bottles to have a similar experience or level of enjoyment. Nor am I saying that Wild Turkey will never again produce a mature bourbon at this degree of excellence. I’m simply saying that the export 17-year KSBW was distilled and aged in a time difficult to replicate. There are other well-aged Wild Turkey limited editions, but few of similar age that are solely Jimmy Russell’s. In fact, when I reached out to Eddie Russell to inquire about this release, I was assuming he’d played a larger role. But according to Eddie, 2001’s 17-year was a “Jimmy deal,” and added that Jimmy had the barrels moved to lower floors of the rickhouse just a few years prior to the release.
The 2001 17-year KSBW is truly a masterpiece for those that appreciate mature bourbon whiskey. Unlike Master’s Keep 17-year, which is somewhat delicate and finessed with its delivery of complexity, Wild Turkey 17-year is richly layered and undeniably robust. It’s evidence that their respective maturations took completely different paths in completely different rickhouses. But when it comes to acquiring these mature expressions, Master’s Keep 17 is easier to find and far less costly. Those looking for the export 17-year are in for a shock when it comes to valuation. So much so that I’d recommend 2009’s 14-year Tradition or 2006’s 14-year Master Distiller Selection export as alternatives. The profiles, while not exactly the same, share notable similarities to WT 17-year. And honestly, I prefer the 14-year MDS a touch more than the 17-year anyway (at least based on memory and notes).
In closing, I’d like to again thank Scott for the opportunity to try this amazing whiskey. I could probably write another three paragraphs on sharing (and likely have in the past already) – just know that it’s the best part of this hobby and I’m happy to be a small part of such a fantastic group of enthusiasts. As for the 17-year Wild Turkey KSBW export … it’s a testament to the experience and skill of Master Distiller Jimmy Russell. Truly the mark of a living legend. Cheers to Jimmy!
Rating: 5/5 🦃
Photo courtesy @southernluxurylife 2018
*Per Mike Jasinski (dusty bourbon extraordinaire) – there were a limited number of Wild Turkey 17-year bottles sold in the United States. While originally reported as a Japanese exclusive, apparently there were an unknown number of bottles sold domestically. Jasinski states there were two reverse labels – one in Japanese (common) and another with the U.S. Surgeon General’s Warning. Should anyone find one of these rare U.S. issues, please contact me. Thanks!