First, I should apologize for the grim headline. Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit isn’t going anywhere – not yet, at least. But I have to admit, I worry for its future.
Before I dig in I think it’s imperative for me to state I mean no offense to the Russells, Wild Turkey, or Campari. I have the highest respect for what you do (all of you) and appreciate your hard work and dedication on a daily basis. That’s not lip service, that’s a fact.
The Campari years have been great for Wild Turkey. That cannot be denied. The brand is in so many ways shining brighter than ever before – but – if you reflect on bourbon’s colorful past, you’ll notice that times of great success are often the times when things are most overlooked. How does this relate to Wild Turkey, more specifically, Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit? Let’s take a look.
How it Was
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit was created in 1994. Some cite 1995 for its official release, but the first bottles were filled and labeled in 1994. In almost every way, Kentucky Spirit was a direct response to Elmer T. Lee’s crowning achievement, Blanton’s. With its decorative box, ornate bottle, handwritten specs, and hefty pewter top, the original Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit was remarkably similar. And the whiskey inside? Marvelous.
With the exception of Wild Turkey Kentucky Legend and the duty-free exclusive, Wild Turkey Heritage, Kentucky Spirit would remain Wild Turkey’s sole single-barrel expression for roughly 19 years.
Everything changed with the introduction of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel in 2013. Wild Turkey fans now had a single-barrel expression that was non-chill filtered and even closer to barrel strength at 110 proof. I’m not certain it was an immediate success, but I can say that by the time the private barrel selection program started the following year, it didn’t take long for the expression to garner attention and critical praise. In fact, I think the turning point came around the end of 2016 when author Fred Minnick favorably reviewed a Lincoln Road Package Store Russell’s Reserve selection via Twitter, and later, Whiskey Advocate Magazine. Not only did that review help put Jamie Farris on the national bourbon map, it did so for Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel as well. From that point forward Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel (particularly private selections) were on fire.
But what about Kentucky Spirit? It was also available as a private selection by 2014. Why didn’t you hear more about it? Why were so many retail Kentucky Spirit bottles sitting on shelves? The answer is twofold – profile and popularity.
If you’ve ever had the opportunity to taste Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit releases from years past, you’ve surely noticed the profile changed. Yes, it’s a single-barrel expression, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m saying is that in a general sense the profile drifted over time. Like every long-tenured Wild Turkey expression (and really, any other distillery’s long-tenured expression), gone were the classic and “dusty-esque” notes of the past. Kentucky Spirit became more refined – “lighter,” for lack of a better word. While that might appeal to some folks, most whiskey enthusiasts found themselves gravitating towards Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, with its robust and fuller-flavored profile. Kentucky Spirit, on the other hand, essentially became a single-barrel version of Wild Turkey 101 – at double the price (or more).
So it begs the question: What’s Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit’s target consumer audience? Casual drinkers? At its price point and specs, I highly doubt it. Casual neat or rocks sippers? Maybe, but then Russell’s Reserve Ten-Year and Wild Turkey Longbranch easily fill that role. They’re also cheaper and more widely available expressions. So, that leaves whiskey enthusiasts.
Do you think Kentucky Spirit is an ideal whiskey enthusiast’s pour in today’s highly competitive market? Probably not. While I don’t have inside information or sales reports to back it up, I’m willing to bet the numbers line up with that assertion.
How it Is
So here we are in 2019 and things aren’t looking very promising. Gone is the iconic tail-feather glass that’s defined Kentucky Spirit from its beginning. In its place … we basically have a modern Rare Breed bottle with two new stickers. To me, it seems as if the designers might have been going for a Russell’s Reserve 1998/2002 vibe, but in reality it appears more like a homemade infinity bottle. Truth be told, this wasn’t Kentucky Spirit’s original redesign. That went to Longbranch, as discussed last year.
I promise you this – today will be my last official rant regarding Kentucky Spirit’s (arguably lazy) bottle redesign. Honestly, I feel a little guilty. It seems there’s actually a few folks excited about it. They’re called Camparistas (Campari reps). I’ve commented on their Instagram posts (as well as replies to mine), openly sharing my thoughts on the redesign on more than one occasion. I almost never feel good about it afterwards. Camparistas have such positive enthusiasm for their company and its brands. It’s as if I’m telling kids the hard truth about Santa Claus. And no matter what I say or how I say it, I just don’t think social media commentary will change Kentucky Spirit’s fate.
But Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit isn’t dead – it’s merely surviving on life support. Don’t blame that solely on the bottle redesign. It’s far too early in the game to see if that hurts or helps sales. I just don’t think the new look is doing the expression any favors.
Outside of presentation, Kentucky Spirit still has to compete with Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel and Wild Turkey 101, not to mention countless other (considerably cheaper) bourbon expressions at or above 100 proof. Again, things aren’t looking very promising.
So what can be done? What should be done? Let’s explore some options and potential solutions. Perhaps the fate of Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit can be altered.
How it Could Be
As it stands today, there’s only three things I can think of (outside of price) that could potentially save modern Kentucky Spirit and the first is painfully obvious – design a nicer bottle.
I understand there’s reasons why the classic tail-feather glass is no longer an option – but – that doesn’t mean something of comparable beauty can’t be found. How about a throwback bottle design like export Kentucky Legend (101 proof) or export Tradition (NAS)? Or maybe something entirely new altogether? Hell, the sky’s the limit. Campari is perfectly capable of expert design. Why make Kentucky Spirit the lazy exception to such high standards?
Second, there’s no reason to keep Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit a chill-filtered bourbon whiskey. Making Kentucky Spirit an NCF expression would give it a nice advantage over the notably cheaper alternative, Wild Turkey 101. In fact, I’d argue the change would make Kentucky Spirit more appealing to both vendors and consumers considering private barrel selections.
Third, make Kentucky Spirit’s barrel specs more attractive to whiskey enthusiasts. This could be done by simply adding a “barreled on” date. The bottling date has been there since 1994, why not (finally) tell consumers when it was barreled? After all, if we’re in agreement that Kentucky Spirit is aiming for whiskey enthusiasts, why not shoot for the bullseye? You could even “split the arrow” and add the barrel proof. Bourbon nerds love details – Turkey nerds probably more so. A few numbers added to a paper label might just equal a few numbers added to the company ledger.
How it Should Be
So at this point I’ve covered what could be done – now for what should be done. I’ll warn you, die-hard Turkey fans may find my solution sobering.
Pull the plug.
You read that right. Maybe Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, at least as we know it today, needs a rest. I’m not saying it should go away forever. I’m just saying that between Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel and Wild Turkey 101, it’s not standing as proudly as it has in years gone by. Sure, I’ve found some quality Kentucky Spirit releases over the last couple of years, but overall, you’ll have to agree – the label’s seen better days.
But remember – it doesn’t have to go away forever. Consider this:
First, mothball the Kentucky Spirit label. Put it to bed and close the door.
Next, add a second barrel-entry proof of 107. In other words, keep the current 115 barrel-entry proof, as I feel it’s perfect for Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, yet simultaneously age barrels filled at 107 proof. Essentially, you’d have two entirely different Wild Turkey bourbon whiskeys prior to bottle proof.
And finally, having reached ideal maturation (presuming eight years), pull those 107-entry-proof barrels and resurrect Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit – Jimmy Russell’s classic 101-proof, single-barrel bourbon from his classic 107-barrel-entry proof. And a bonus? Bottle it without chill filtration.
How Will it Be?
At the end of the day, these are just ideas. I could be completely wrong about Kentucky Spirit’s future. Honestly, there’s a big part of me that hopes I am. Maybe there’s a place for it as-is? Surely there’s choice bourbon barrels that fall below 110 proof making them ineligible for Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel. Probably not many, but possibly enough to warrant keeping Kentucky Spirit around. And then there’s the recent wave of Camp Nelson barrels, which I’ve found handle dilution notably well. It’s possible those and other uniquely profiled barrels justify the need for a continued Kentucky Spirit. Maybe.
In closing, I’d like to stress that I’ve given this matter a great deal of thought. Debatably, more than I should’ve. I’ve consulted with bourbon friends and fellow Wild Turkey fans alike. There’s no single solution we can all agree on. What we do agree on, however, is that the future of Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit is shaky at best. Something has to change and soon. Whatever that change might be, let’s make it count. Let’s do it right. No compromises. No apologies.