Wild Turkey rye is perhaps the most underrated straight rye whiskey on the market today. Of their four standard rye expressions, two undeniably rise above: Wild Turkey 101 Rye and Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye (at least they’re by far my favorites of the bunch 😉 ). Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye is the undisputed newcomer, having been in limited production since 2015. Wild Turkey 101 Rye on the other hand, has been in production since the 1950’s – possibly the 1940’s, though I’ve yet to see a pre-50’s bottle. I’ve covered its history before, so today I’ll remain focused on the task at hand … comparing two of my favorites. But this time there’s a twist – the 101 Rye is from 2005.
You might be thinking, why compare a 2005 expression with a 2017 expression? Well, I didn’t start off headed in that direction. It all began when I received a sample of a 2017 Kentucky Bourbon Affair (KBA) RRSiB Rye bottling from a generous Turkey insider (thanks Dave). Needless to say, my first impression was a excellent one – certainly no less than on-par with the best RRSiB Rye selections I’ve had to date. A few days later, I opened a 2005 WT 101 Rye sample I received from one of the most dedicated Turkey fans I know – Captain James Richards. Quite the surprise followed. I’ve had quality Wild Turkey rye before, but the 2005 101 Rye was an unexpected treat.
So with initial notes taken on each of those pours individually, and being equally impressed on separate occasions, I thought it might be fun and enlightening to compare the two side by side in one tasting. Sure, they’re different expressions from different time periods, but if you want to explore changes in Wild Turkey’s rye profile it’s probably your best bet. Besides, 101 Rye was the only Wild Turkey rye expression produced prior to 2007, so there really is no other option to consider from that era. But why Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye? Why not modern 101 Rye for comparison?
Well outside of the single barrel aspect, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye is arguably the best representation of modern Wild Turkey rye whiskey. It’s non-chill filtered, it’s reportedly the most mature (6-7 years), and its barrel-entry proof to bottle-fill proof difference (11 points) is less than modern WT 101 Rye (14 points). Still, not as impressive as 2005’s entry-proof to bottle-fill proof difference (6 points), but closer nonetheless.
Okay, enough of the Turkey nerd details. I think it’s time to give these two whiskeys a proper side-by-side tasting. No need to do this one blind. Going in I already know that one is somewhat dusty in profile, while the other is intensely crisp and modern. But profile differences don’t necessarily constitute quality differences. I’ve had amazing vintage whiskeys and amazing modern whiskeys. All that matters is the sipping experience and what you get out of it. With that, let’s pour!
Wild Turkey 101 Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey (2005) – (reportedly) 51% rye, 37% corn, 12% barley – 101 proof – no age statement – bottled by the Austin, Nichols Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: dense amber
Nose: (classic WT bourbon-esque) cookie dough, honey-maple, musty oak, lemon-vanilla, sweet herbs, ginger snaps, rich floral spice, caramel, hints of cinnamon & clove
Taste: (fruity, musty & dusty) tangy cherry-vanilla, musty-fruity oak, caramel, candy apple, grape syrup, orange peel, funky herbal spice
Finish: medium in duration – honey-maple, caramel, funky oak, wet tobacco, sweet herbs, lemon candy, leather, faint floral spice
Overall: Now this is an interesting Wild Turkey profile. While it’s definitely rye in nature, 2005’s 101 Rye has some striking similarities to WT 101 KSBW from the same time period. In fact, I think I like this as much as another “bourbony” rye – the 1990 WT 101 Christmas Rye I reviewed a few months back. Yep, you read that right. After all, labels are only labels – it’s the whiskey behind them that matters.
There’s a lot here to love. Sweet notes, spice notes, classic funky notes … all here in great form for a non-age-stated KSRW. And if you’re curious how 2005’s 101 Rye profile compares to other Wild Turkey rye releases, I’d say it falls perfectly in-between early 1990’s 101 Rye and early 2010’s 101 Rye (honestly a little closer to the 90’s rye). I’m also reminded of the initial Russell’s Reserve 6-year Rye release (2007), though this 2005 101 Rye is richer and bolder. It’s a fantastic pour and a bottle I’ll surely be looking out for in the future.
Rating: 4/5 🦃
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye (barrel #16-27, rickhouse E, floor 2) – 2017 KY Bourbon Affair private selection – 104 proof, non-chill filtered Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey – no age stated – distilled and bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: rich amber
Nose: vanilla, lemon zest, ginger candy, spicy oak, herbal tea, light caramel drizzle, fresh-baked bread, faint sweet pickle
Taste: vanilla-honey, sweet/spicy oak, sugar cookies, lemon squares, cream soda, confectioners sugar, ginger, light herbal & floral spice
Finish: long & sticky – vanilla candy, honey, sweet oak, lemon peel, mint, pepper, hints of leather
Overall: This is everything you’d expect from a single-barrel Russell’s Reserve rye selection – maybe a tad more. From fresh-baked goods to sweet zesty citrus, all of the typical Wild Turkey KSRW notes are present – unashamedly pleasing your taste buds. There’s even a bit of sweet pickle teasing you in the background. It’s a balanced and enjoyable pour with just enough complexity to rival some highly sought after non-Turkey straight rye whiskeys.
All said and done, it’s hard to rank this KBA Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye. I’m thinking this might be my favorite, but then there’s so few of them out there – not to mention they’re so damn consistent. Not that it’s a bad thing – no, consistency is a good thing. But when it comes to private barrels it’s nice to have a surprise every once in a while. I’ve yet to truly experience that with Russell’s Reserve Rye. I thought it might happen with this one, as the faint sweet pickle on the nose lead me to believe it might make more of a showing on the palate. Alas, that wasn’t the case. But overall I’m still considerably happy with this KBA pick.
Rating: 4/5 🦃
Closing thoughts: If there’s one takeaway here, it’s that Wild Turkey rye has changed significantly in the last thirteen years. But different doesn’t always mean better. Sure, the 2005 101 Rye is more unique, offering a glimpse into a time when the distillery produced only a fraction of the rye whiskey it distills now, but it’s not necessarily for everyone. When it comes to rye whiskeys I find there’s generally two major camps: those that prefer a bolder rye whiskey with a notable spicy bite, and those that prefer a sweeter rye whiskey with fairly subtle spice. I’m more of the “bolder with spicy bite” rye fan, though I often visit the “sweeter with subtle spice” camp regularly.
So all things considered, I’ll be looking out for early to mid 2000’s Wild Turkey 101 Rye; however, should another Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye private selection come my way, I may just forget all about 2000’s 101 Rye. Crazy, I know. Like I said, different isn’t always better. Eddie Russell has been hitting bulls-eye with bourbon private selections lately. Keeping that in perspective, I think we’re just getting started with what Wild Turkey can do in the rye department. Great things ahead, I’ve got a feeling.