What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the date 1989? George H. W. Bush? Tienanmen Square? Taylor Swift? Well, for me it’s Tecmo Bowl and Topps Baseball Cards. In fact, 1989 was the last year I collected Topps. Donruss and Score had developed cooler cards, and honestly I was spending more money on tapes by that time. Remember cassette singles with cardboard sleeves? Well, I had a shoe box full of them. 1989 was also the last year I put significant mileage on my bike. It was my only independent means of transportation. Within the next year or two I’d have friends old enough to drive. Biking uphill to the Quik Stop to get a Mountain Dew, then coasting back down to the neighborhood pool (look mom – no hands!) … soon just a memory. And all throughout that year, many miles away in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, some truly amazing bourbon whiskey was being bottled.
I hate to spoil today’s review so early, but 1989 Wild Turkey 101 8-year is phenomenal – one of the best dusty Wild Turkey bourbons I’ve had to date. We could debate all day on what makes dusty Turkey taste so sublime. Just a few weeks ago that came up in response to my “Golden Age” article. But that’s not my focus for today. What I want to talk about is why various dusty Wild Turkey batches taste so different from one another. In truth, some are very close but there are undoubtedly outliers. From good to great, sweet to spicy, they come in all different profiles. Some are darker in color, some have a thinner mouthfeel, and some land in the middle of either or both.
For starters, one of the more common theories I hear for dusty variance is that Wild Turkey contains sourced whiskey. They usually point to the “bottled by” on the label as evidence. And they’re not wrong – well, not exactly. I’ve discussed Wild Turkey’s history several times in the past, but a brief refresher never hurts.
In the early years, starting with the very first bottle sold in 1942, Wild Turkey was traditionally sourced bourbon. It was a brand, not a distillery. Sometime in the 1960’s, likely due to the top-quality bourbon Jimmy Russell was producing, Austin, Nichols & Co. began purchasing greater volumes of whiskey from Ripy Bro’s./J.T.S. Brown. By 1971 A,N & Co. purchased J.T.S. Brown Distillery and it became the Wild Turkey Distillery. While A,N & Co. had various barrels stored from other distilleries (some even became the first Pappy Van Winkle), it’s very likely (and only makes sense) that as the years went by Wild Turkey KSBW was distilled solely at the Wild Turkey Distillery.
So why “bottled by” and why did it continue for so many years? I don’t have a definitive answer to that question – just the word of Bruce Russell (who I hold in high regard). Bruce stated in a 2017 Reddit AMA that everything has been made at Wild Turkey Distillery since the day his father, Eddie, started in 1981. I believe him, but truthfully the word “made” does allow for a little wiggle room. At its most rigid definition, made means every aspect – from distilled, to barreled, to bottled. But let’s say you just barrel and bottle it – or – just bottle it (like the label reads). One could say you made it and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong for saying so.
The only other source that might possibly explain the “bottled by” mystery comes from the longest-tenured Master Distiller in the U.S. Jimmy Russell has been on the record several times stating that the bourbon community helps each other out – Wild Turkey included. I’ve yet to find a record of him referring to help in the form of barrels, but I wouldn’t count it out completely either. After all, if you were made aware of a regional distillery that had X number of desirable KSBW barrels they needed to sell – a distillery with family or friendly connections, no less – would you consider helping them out? What if your supply was low while demand was high and that same distillery called upon you? Would it not be win-win to purchase those barrels? I think it only makes perfect sense.
Now all of this is pure speculation. And as of today I still believe the vintage Wild Turkey I enjoy from 1981 onward is 100% distilled by the Russells at Wild Turkey Distillery. Yet the fact remains that many bottles simply say “bottled by.” You see that wording far less now, but it’s still there. Master’s Keep comes to mind. Now, would I be shocked to find out that there may have been a few barrels from other distilleries batched here or there over the last several decades? No, not at all. It would still be Wild Turkey to me. If that ever occurred, knowing the Russell’s standard of quality, they would’ve surely been barrels that worked for, not against, the desired profile. If … and that’s the key word here.
A final theory for dusty variance is the age of the barrels used in the batches. After all, the 8-year age statement only applies to the youngest whiskey in a bottle. In the Glut Era considerably older barrels went into the standard Wild Turkey 101/8 and 101/12 expressions, at least Eddie Russell’s on the record stating that more than once. This would’ve been a year-by-year, batch-by-batch approach based on supply and demand. In such cases, variance would’ve been practically unavoidable. There’s also numerous rickhouses with stocks aging at different times. As we’ve learned from tasting single barrel expressions like Kentucky Spirit and Russell’s Reserve, it’s quite easy to achieve variance even with similar maturities distilled using the same recipe. Location and age are relative, and as such they’re arguably equivalent in terms of their effect on a batch’s flavor profile.
Okay, so that discussion went a little longer than planned. If you’re new to my blog, my apologies. You’ll find I do that sometimes. So there was a review, right? Ah, yes … 1989 Wild Turkey 101/8. Special thanks to Mike Smolanoff for making this possible!
Wild Turkey 101 8-Year (1989 export) – KSBW at 50.5% ABV – aged at least eight years – “distilled in Kentucky,” bottled by the Austin, Nichols Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: deep copper
Nose: (funky & fruity dusty WT) butterscotch, caramel, honey-maple, vanilla, funky oak, fruit cocktail, herbal spice, floral perfume, bubblegum, nutmeg, baked bread, melted butter, orange peel, faint mineral notes
Taste: (rich mouthfeel) warm butterscotch, fruity vanilla, caramel candy, musty & funky oak, herbal & floral spice, brown sugar/molasses, nutmeg, tobacco, leather, hints of clove
Finish: notably long & flavorful – butterscotch, caramel, vanilla, sweet musty oak, nutmeg, herbal/floral spice, honey-maple, hints of buttered bread, faint licorice & pepper
Overall: Wow – this is an excellent pour! Honestly, I stretched this tasting out over two sessions – each as impressive as the other. My warm-up pour for the first tasting was a 1994 Wild Turkey 101/8, while my warm-up pour for the second was Master’s Keep 17 (the “bottled by” thing got me curious). Not only did the 1989 WT 101/8 outperform those two (excellent in their own right whiskeys), it nearly ran circles around them. There’s so much here to love – where to start?
Okay, first let’s talk about the nose. Hello fruity, funky, lovely, herby, dusty Turkey bourbon! All of the more common dusty profile Wild Turkey notes are here (working in complete harmony, I might add), but tucked into that wonderful complexity is a note I rarely get with Wild Turkey … bubblegum. There’s also faint minerality, but in a very good way. The palate isn’t quite as intense, but it’s nowhere near a letdown either. As with the nose, complex elements working in harmony. And the finish? Notably long in flavor but not too lengthy on the warmth. I mean, you know it’s 101 proof, but there’s so much going on here flavor-wise that the heat is an afterthought.
All said and done, I don’t care if the label on this 1989 Wild Turkey 101/8 reads “distilled by” or “bottled by,” it tastes absolutely incredible. In some ways it’s exactly what I was expecting, in other ways so much more. And that’s one of the best things about dusty Wild Turkey – there’s always a twist. There may be no guarantees in profile, but there damn sure is in quality. Cheers!
Rating: 4.5/5 🦃
Note: Bottled pictured is a 1987 WT 101/8