Sometime back in 2004, Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell was approached by then parent company, Pernod Ricard, to pick a group of exemplary barrels for an anniversary release.  Jimmy assumed it was for the 150th anniversary of the founding of Austin, Nichols & Co., which would occur in 2005.  Unbeknownst to him, the company had plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Jimmy’s time working at the distillery.

Jimmy selected a handful of well-aged barrels – barrels that had previously been moved to lower rickhouse floors to slow maturation.  These were choice by all accounts – the finest Wild Turkey had to offer at the time.  Within a few months these select barrels were batched, bottled, and introduced as Wild Turkey Tribute, a fitting and well-deserved title.  But what’s truly interesting about Tribute is that it was released in two very different formats to two very different audiences.

Wild Turkey Tribute US

In the U.S., Wild Turkey Tribute was bottled at the distillery’s signature 101 proof, its bottle respective to today’s Russell’s Reserve but sans embossing (much like the first year or so of Russell’s Reserve 90-proof 10-year).  Its presentation includes a gold-colored medallion which drapes the neck of the bottle, a descriptive paper insert, and a decorative scrolled tube with the following script:

In celebration of Jimmy Russell’s 50 years of dedication to Wild Turkey Bourbon, we are proud to offer Tribute, a limited edition, 15-year-old small batch bourbon.  This homage to “The Master Distiller” is a true reflection of his half-century of passion and commitment to making Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey the world’s greatest bourbon.

There’s countless boxes and bottle labels one could criticize as marketing flim-flam, but frankly, Tribute isn’t one of them.  50 years is a considerable and undeniably praiseworthy accomplishment.  It’s almost hard to believe it’s been 64 years now in 2018.  Amazing, really.

Wild Turkey Tribute Export

As for the export-only Wild Turkey Tribute, its bottle is the same ornate “tail feather” glass used for Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, with a faux-gold cork/stopper instead of the typical wood.  The most important difference, however, is its proof – a notable 110 points.  By all accounts, including Jimmy Russell’s, the batched whiskey in the domestic and export Tributes are the same.  The only difference is the ABV in which they were bottled.

I’ve always wondered how these two versions of Wild Turkey Tribute compare.  While many folks have blazed this trail well before me, it doesn’t mean I won’t have just as much (or more) fun.  Besides, everyone’s opinion is his/her own.  The general consensus is that the export Tribute is the slightly better pour.  Will my findings be similar?  There’s only one way to know for certain and I think you know what that means.

Wild Turkey Tribute (2004) – 101-proof KSBW – aged 15 years – distilled by the Austin, Nichols Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY (bottle #4233 of 5,500)

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color:  deep rosy copper

Nose:  (dusty & classic WT) butterscotch, rich honey-maple, sweet herbs, floral perfume, pipe tobacco, toasted caramel, vanilla, sweet funky oak, nutmeg, clove, blood orange

Taste:  (well-layered) chewy vanilla, creamy caramel, butterscotch, honey-maple, musty & funky oak, nutmeg, cinnamon, tobacco, leather, sweet herbal & floral spice

Finish:  (notably creamy) long & flavorful – butterscotch, vanilla bean, caramel, funky oak, sweet herbs, clove tobacco, nutmeg, hints of orange peel & leather

Overall:  What an incredible pour!  Tribute is everything you’d expect from a dusty Wild Turkey limited edition.  It’s all here – maturity, complexity, balance – all at near-perfect levels.  And possibly the most impressive thing is that the oak, while most certainly present, is never harsh, bitter, or astringent.  15-year Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey isn’t something you find every day.  When and if you do the primary concern is almost always, will this whiskey be “over-oaked?” Tribute is far from that designation.  Sure there’s plenty of oak, but it’s rich, creamy, and butterscotch & maple sweet.  Again, near-perfect. Hell, let’s just go ahead and call it straight perfect.  Wild Turkey honestly doesn’t get much better than this.

Rating:  5/5 🦃

Wild Turkey Tribute (2004 export) – 110-proof KSBW – aged 15 years – distilled by the Austin, Nichols Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY (batch #JR-8904, bottle #2708)

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color:  deep rosy copper

Nose:  (dusty & classic WT) intense butterscotch, vanilla extract, honey-maple, molasses, funky & spicy oak, heavily steeped herbal tea, orange peel, tobacco, nutmeg, clove, hints of cinnamon & leather

Taste:  (rich & robust) butterscotch, toasted vanilla & caramel, tobacco, leather, honey-maple, musty charred oak, brown sugar, clove, molasses, pepper, dense herbal & floral spice

Finish:  (spicy & slightly earthy) long, warm & flavorful – molasses, maple-oak char, spice drops (cinnamon, clove, licorice), nutmeg, slowly diminishing caramel & vanilla

Overall:  Alright, so this is equally impressive.  As with domestic Tribute, the export release is mature, complex, and balanced to near perfection.  The only notable difference I’m picking up is a greater oak and spice presence, bordering earthy without crossing completely into that profile territory.  And while there may be a bit more oak, export Tribute is far from an “oak bomb.”  I wouldn’t even call it woody. I think the best word to describe it might be textured.  It has all the layers of flavor you find in domestic Tribute, but with certain notes showcasing additional depth and dimension.  It’s about as perfect as a Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey can get.  A Jimmy Russell masterpiece without a doubt.

Rating:  5/5 🦃

Closing thoughts:  All things considered, these are both spectacular bourbon whiskeys.  Jimmy knows how to find some truly fantastic barrels, that’s for damn sure.  As for choosing between the two Wild Turkey Tribute expressions, let’s just start by saying that there’s absolutely no losers here.  Each is stellar in its own brilliant, yet similar way.  That said, the extra proof in the export Tribute makes for a very slight improvement in character.  Does that mean one deserves to be chosen over the other?  Not necessarily.  As stated earlier, everyone has their own preferences.  Some may prefer their Turkey at 101 proof, while others may prefer it closer to barrel proof.  Perhaps the best way to settle the debate is to phrase it as follows …

If you’ve ever sipped 14-year Wild Turkey Tradition (2009) and thoroughly enjoyed it, then domestic Tribute is a notch above Tradition, and therefore, right up your alley.  If you’ve ever experienced Wild Turkey Kentucky Legend (1998) and loved it, then export Tribute is most definitely in that ballpark.  While it should be noted that domestic Kentucky Legend (aka “Donut”) is a single-barrel expression, it’s rumored to be near 15 years of age like Tribute.  It’s also higher in ABV, and therefore closer to export Tribute’s 110-proof.  Barrel depending, Kentucky Legend should be a comparable sipping experience to the export Tribute release and easier to acquire as well.

Before I wrap up I want to say thank you.  I’ve been so fortunate to have such generous bourbon friends (cheers Scott).  Bottles like Wild Turkey Tribute (U.S. or export) aren’t everyday finds.  They’re appreciably valuable.  Not so much in the monetary sense, but in a greater, sentimental fashion.  They’re bottles to cherish and enjoy at meaningful times – not necessarily special occasions, but times one has cause for celebration, reflection, or pause.  I wonder if Jimmy Russell ever imagined how beloved these releases would be fourteen years later.  Legendary whiskey from a legendary man – a Tribute not only to 50+ years of dedication, but to the very art of bourbon itself.

Rare Bird 101 walnut flight board by Thompson Woodworks

Photo credits:  WT Tribute (domestic),; WT Tribute (export)