When it comes to critiquing Wild Turkey straight whiskey expressions, I seldom discriminate. All releases are welcome and subject to review at any time. Case in point, Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (AKA Wild Turkey 81). No, it’s not 101. It’s not single-barrel. It’s not barrel-proof (far from it). Hell, it’s not even on a whiskey enthusiast’s radar – but – it’s practically everywhere. From glamorous print ads and large chain restaurants, to the lower shelves of your favorite local whiskey store, we’ve all seen Wild Turkey 81-proof KSBW. Do most readers of this blog buy it regularly? Probably not, but that doesn’t necessarily make it sub-par whiskey.
After weeks of reviewing stellar Wild Turkey bottles, I decided I need a brief change in course. I need to get back to basics – bourbon simplicity – and what better way to do that than to pop a cork of good ol’ Wild Turkey KSBW? Besides, I think there’s something to be said for diversity. Not everyone has access to Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel private selections or the far more elusive vintage dusty bottles. And truth be told, when it comes to American whiskey most people out there are drinking Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam anyway. Those are the very consumers that Wild Turkey KSBW appeals to. So why not give a recent bottle an honest run through? It can’t hurt.
Believe it or not, 81-proof Wild Turkey KSBW hasn’t been around for long – just over seven years. I’m not sure of its complete backstory, but I think it’s fair to say that the former Wild Turkey 80-proof KSBW was incredibly “batchy.” From bottles that were pretty good, to bottles that weren’t good at all, I’ve experienced a wide range of quality variation in the last ten years of Wild Turkey 80-proof’s distribution.
By 2011, things were on the move. There were redesigned labels, a new state-of-the-art distillery, and a few new expressions under development. Wild Turkey 81-proof KSBW was perhaps the most important new expression prior to the introduction of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel in 2013.
Wild Turkey 81 “an important new expression?” Please allow me to explain.
If you step outside of the whiskey enthusiast mindset, you’ll realize that when it comes to the major American distilleries, approachable core expressions mean everything. Quite frankly, those releases pay the bills. In order for Wild Turkey to compete with Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam, Evan Williams, and Maker’s Mark, it needs a consistent and quality-reliable lower proof product. After years of 80-proof Wild Turkey falling short of that mark, 81-proof Wild Turkey was a welcome change. But it’s more than a single proof point that makes a difference. According to Brand Ambassador Bruce Russell, the age of the barrels selected for 81-proof Wild Turkey KSBW are of greater maturity. It’s also notably consistent in comparison to the discontinued 80-proof expression.
While I’ve reviewed Wild Turkey KSBW before, I’ve yet to review a bottle with the current label. Not only does this 2018 bottle sport the latest design, it likely contains bourbon primarily (though not completely) distilled at the new facility. How will it measure up to earlier bottles of Wild Turkey KSBW? There’s only one way to find out!
Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (2018) – 81 proof – NAS (label states “up to five to eight years”) – distilled and bottled by Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Nose: vanilla, toffee, caramel drizzle, confectioners sugar, light baking spice, faint nutty oak
Taste: nutty toffee, vanilla, caramel candy, baking spice, mild oak
Finish: medium-short – vanilla, toffee, honey, muted spice, hints of oak
Overall: Okay, so … bourbon. While there’s nothing here to write home about, Wild Turkey KSBW does a damn fine job as a baseline bourbon. I’d even argue that this 2018 bottle is a pinch better than the 2015 Wild Turkey 81 I reviewed last year. Vanilla, caramel, light oak, and just enough spice to keep it acceptable as a neat pour. But realistically speaking, that’s not what it was designed for. Wild Turkey KSBW shines best as a mixer (and I don’t mean that in the covertly negative “bad review catch all” designation).
In all seriousness, Wild Turkey KSBW holds up well to Jim Beam White Label any day of the week. I say that from recent experience not conjecture. While that may not be said in regard to the former 80-proof Wild Turkey KSBW, the 81-proof now stands toe-to-toe against the 800-pound bourbon gorilla in substance and form. The trick is getting the world to notice. Perhaps that’s why you see a majority of the Matthew McConaughey Wild Turkey ads promoting Wild Turkey KSBW. As I stated before, approachable core expressions mean everything. They keep the lights on at the distillery. If Campari can get the world (or America alone) to take notice, Wild Turkey might just need a bigger hill.
Rating: 2.25/5 🦃