Wild Turkey 101 … If I had to choose one single bourbon whiskey for the rest of my life it would inevitably be Wild Turkey 101. Why so? Well, where do I begin?
I suppose I could start with the same old reasons you always hear cited: affordability, availability, versatility, and reliability. I could easily elaborate on any of these traits and how they relate to Wild Turkey 101. I have before, many others have before me, and many others will likely continue to do just the same. That in and of itself means something. But you know what? I think I’m going to take a different route with this post. Maybe look at things from a slightly different perspective.
First, there’s something to be said for a genuine legacy. While there are several Kentucky straight bourbons that share this trait – Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark immediately come to mind – the Wild Turkey 101 that we know and love still rests in the hands of its peerless steward, Master Distiller Jimmy Russell. Sure, there was 101 before Jimmy. But Jimmy’s 101 … that’s the 101 of legend. That’s the 101 we have today. Yes, its profile may have changed (we’ll talk more about profile later), but profiles have changed for all bourbon whiskeys over the years. The most important thing is quality, and personally, 101 has hit a remarkable high in the last few months.
Second, there’s something to be said for patient apprenticeship. We all know Eddie Russell as co-Master Distiller of Wild Turkey, but it wasn’t until 2015 that Eddie officially earned the Master Distiller title. It’s not that Eddie didn’t deserve it sooner. Eddie has been producing exemplary expressions of his own design for years. It’s just that Jimmy was deliberately careful (arguably a little tough). After all, Wild Turkey is Jimmy’s Camelot and 101 his Excalibur. The good news is that Eddie can swing that sword like nobody’s business. More precisely, Eddie learned the craft the hard way and spent decades getting where he is today. There’s plenty of “master distillers” out there (every startup has one), but few that have the hard-knocks education Eddie received. Jim Beams’ Fred Noe? Surely. Outside of that … well sadly, that breed of gentleman is few and far between.
Finally, there’s something to be said for the underdog. Who doesn’t like a good underdog story? For years Wild Turkey 101 has worn the underdog stigma like a gilded badge of honor – the whiskey of old men, frat boys, and rock stars. Or as esteemed author Fred Minnick says, the “biker bar” bourbon 🙂 . Upon hearing the words “Wild Turkey,” many folks outside of this hobby instantly think “bottom shelf.” The irony is that Wild Turkey has been and remains an incredible high-quality Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. Let the masses have their Crown Royal and Seven Crown! The way I see it is that it’s simply more Wild Turkey 101 for me and my enthusiast friends.
Speaking of more Wild Turkey 101, when was the last time you purchased a bottle? How about a bottle from 2018? [See my bottle code guide for help dating your Wild Turkey bottles]
Why do I ask? Well, I suppose this all goes back to last April when Bruce Russell mentioned on Reddit that 2018’s Wild Turkey 101 contained more 10-year bourbon over the typical 8-year bourbon (thanks Longbranch 😉 ). Of course his comments peaked my curiosity and I waited (yes, impatiently) for my local retailers to stock 2018 bottles.
The day finally arrived and I immediately got to work. The first 101 bottle I opened was a March 2018 100 ml. This would’ve been filled the month prior to Bruce’s Reddit comments. All said and done, I didn’t find a significant profile difference (at least from memory) in comparison to 2017’s 101. But hold on. This bourbon science project was just getting started.
The second bottle I tasted ended up becoming my first “ah-ha” moment … an August 2018 Wild Turkey 101 pint (bottle code beginning LL/GH). Now this seemed special. Not necessarily Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel special (well, maybe the occasional so-so barrel), but remarkable enough to have me thinking twice about what constitutes a “value whiskey.” I proceeded to find a 101 from July (thanks Reid) and September to compare adjacent months. Needless to say they were all strikingly similar and (spoiler) damn good.
Before moving on to my notes, I should mention that this post was made possible by a recent Patreon poll. Special thanks to the patrons that voted. You guys & gals are awesome. I hope this review is not only insightful, but meets your expectations. Let’s pour!
Wild Turkey 101 (July, August, and September 2018 bottles summarized) – KSBW at 50.5% ABV – no age stated – distilled and bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Company, Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Nose: vanilla spice, caramel apple, oak char, nutmeg, maple, orange peel, brown sugar, hints of cinnamon
Taste: (notably creamy) caramel drizzle, vanilla, sweet oak, herbal spice, apple peel, nutmeg, pepper, leather, faint clove
Finish: long & pleasantly warm – toasted caramel, butter toffee, vanilla, charred oak, sassafras, leather, baking spice, hints of citrus
Overall: Now this is how a quality bourbon whiskey should taste. And at $25 a bottle? Let’s be honest. It’s hard to find anything critical to say about Wild Turkey 101 at that price (especially these late 2018 summer and early fall batches).
So what makes these particular Wild Turkey 101 releases stand out over 2017 and early 2018 bottles? Is it the additional 10-year whiskey Bruce Russell talked about? Well, I can’t say for certain that these particular bottles contain extra-mature bourbon, though it wouldn’t surprise me at all. There are, however, other factors to consider.
Take for example, the new distillery which opened in 2011. It’s possible that some of the younger whiskey in 2018 Wild Turkey 101 batches was distilled there instead of the old Boulevard facility (as modern NAS 101 is described as 6 to 8 years in age on the reverse label). While everyone loves the allure of old Wild Turkey distillate, there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever that the new distillery can’t produce whiskey that’s even better. Time will tell, though based on the most recent Wild Turkey 81-proof KSBW I reviewed, things sure look promising.
Also, I think it’s fair to say that since Eddie Russell was named co-Master Distiller in 2015, Wild Turkey has seen a notable uptick in quality over the last three years. I alluded to this earlier, but please don’t take it the wrong way. I’m not pointing a finger at Jimmy by saying this. I just think the timing is right. Wild Turkey has grown significantly. The operation that Jimmy Russell once oversaw by himself has increased multiple times over. And let’s be frank, Jimmy isn’t getting any younger. Sharing the reins with Eddie was a smart move. Backed by Campari’s investment following a time when the former owner, Pernod Ricard, had essentially let the brand drift … things could only get better. And they very much have.
And last but not least, there’s barrel selection. As I’ve shared recently, barrels aren’t pulled from each and every rickhouse year over year. Think of each batching period as a harvest, with barrels pulled from choice rickhouses that are “in season.” It could very well be that the rickhouses from which 2018’s Wild Turkey 101 were batched from are simply of a more favorable profile. I doubt this is a major contributing factor to the notable quality of latter-2018 101 bottles, but it’s a factor worth considering nonetheless.
All said and done if you haven’t tried 2018 Wild Turkey 101, what are you waiting for? I highly recommend you give one a try. Hell, buy multiple bottles. They don’t have to be fifths or liters. Just grab a few minis, half-pints or pints of different bottle codes and give them a proper blind tasting. You might just be surprised at what you find. Sure, they’ll each taste like Wild Turkey 101, but I’m willing to bet you’ll find at least one bottle with a special Kentucky kiss.
Rating: 3.75/5 🦃