Of all the Wild Turkey straight whiskey expressions, I think it’s fair to say that 81-proof Wild Turkey Rye is the least popular choice of serious whiskey enthusiasts. For what it’s worth, it’s not an expression I regularly seek out (primarily because 101 Rye is plentiful in my area). Yet ever since I left the distillery just a few weeks ago, I can’t stop thinking about Wild Turkey’s rye whiskey. The two rye barrels I tasted that glorious Monday were hands-down incredible. I’m not just saying that because of the pleasant company or sheer joy of being in rickhouse A. Ask anyone who has tried Wild Turkey’s rye straight from the barrel – it’s whiskey to be remembered.

But well-aged, barrel-proof rye is far from youthful, 81-proof rye. So what’s the deal with Wild Turkey Rye (formerly Wild Turkey 81 Rye)? Why not just 101 Rye?

Before discussing the 81-proof Wild Turkey Rye, I think it’s important to touch on the past. For decades, there was only one Wild Turkey rye whiskey, 101 Rye. But the rye whiskey sold from the 1950’s through the 1970’s wasn’t distilled in Kentucky. It was distilled in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Illinois – each with its own recipe and/or sources of grains. After Austin, Nichols’ 1971 purchase of the J.T.S. Brown & Sons Distillery (now Wild Turkey Distillery), Jimmy Russell began distilling rye whiskey in Lawrenceburg. From the 1980’s through the present, Wild Turkey rye whiskey has been produced exclusively by the Russell’s using the same “barely-legal” (just over 50%) Kentucky rye recipe.

Up until 2007, 101 Rye had been the only rye whiskey expression produced by Wild Turkey. That year saw the introduction of a new whiskey under a relatively new brand name, Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Rye. Age-stated and bottled at a respectable 90 proof, Russell’s Reserve 6-year Rye offered consumers something new and affordable at a time when rye whiskey options from all distilleries were slim.

To say that Wild Turkey was unprepared for the resurgence of rye whiskey’s popularity is an understatement. After all, until recently Wild Turkey distilled rye only two days each year. By 2012 stocks were extremely limited, causing 101 Rye to become allocated to only 21 states by 2013. But Eddie Russell had a plan.

While rye whiskey is quite a popular neat sipper now, it wasn’t as sought-after in 2012. It was, however, considerably popular with bartenders and mixologists. While I prefer higher proof whiskeys in my cocktails, the average consumer could care less about the specs of their drink’s base spirit. Brand, yes; specs, no. With this in mind, and knowing that Wild Turkey needed to stretch its rye stocks as far as possible, Eddie, then Associate Master Distiller, created Wild Turkey 81 Rye. In contrast to 101 Rye, Wild Turkey 81 Rye was a widely available expression (and remains so today).

By 2015, stocks were looking better – enough for Wild Turkey to increase 101 Rye’s production and introduce a fourth rye expression, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye. And then, just this year, it was announced that Wild Turkey would release its first limited edition straight rye expression, Master’s Keep Cornerstone. Touting a blend of rye whiskey aged 9-11 years and bottled at 109 proof (the longest-aged and highest-proof rye ever offered by Wild Turkey), Cornerstone is destined for commercial success. While I haven’t had the chance to taste it just yet (you’ll sure as hell know when I do), initial reviews have been favorable.

Before moving to the tasting I thought it’d be nice to share the following chart and timeline – a Wild Turkey Rye primer, if you will. Feel free to bookmark or copy/download this info for future reference.

Wild Turkey Rye Whiskey Timeline

Abt 1950 – Wild Turkey 101 Rye sourced from Baltimore Pure Rye in Maryland (mash bill is reportedly 65% rye, 23% corn, 12% barley)

Abt 1960 – Wild Turkey 101 Rye sourced from Michter’s/Pennco in Pennsylvania (confirmed mash bill is 65% rye, 23% corn, 12% barley) – supplementary rye sourced from Maryland and Illinois (presumed Hiram Walker & Sons) through at least 1979

Abt 1974 – Wild Turkey 101 Rye distillation is moved to the Austin, Nichols Distillery in Kentucky (mash bill is changed to a rumored 52% rye, 36% corn, 12% barley)

2004 – Barrel-entry proof changes from 107 to 110 (bourbon and rye)

2006 – Barrel-entry proof changes from 110 to 115 (bourbon and rye)

2007 – Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Rye is introduced

2011 – A new, state-of-the-art Wild Turkey Distillery begins operations in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky and replaces the old Ripy Bros. Distillery (AKA Boulevard)

2012 – Wild Turkey Rye (81 proof) is introduced; Wild Turkey 101 Rye is allocated to limited distribution

2014 – Wild Turkey 101 Rye distribution is increased (primarily as liter bottles)

2015 – Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye is introduced

2019 – Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Cornerstone, the brand’s first limited edition rye whiskey, is announced

And now it’s time to give Wild Turkey Rye a proper tasting. Truthfully, I’m not expecting much from this whiskey. After all, it’s 81 proof and likely 4-5 years in age. It’s a 2018 bottle, so this is almost certainly 100% distilled at the new distillery which launched in 2011. At the very least, I hope it’s better than the last bottle I had from 2014. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I had to give that one away. I guess they can’t all be winners, right? Let’s pour!

Wild Turkey Straight Rye Whiskey (2018) – 81 proof – no age stated (likely 4-5 years) – distilled and bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color:  gold/straw

Nose:  (sweet & simple) lemon zest, honeysuckle, cream soda, vanilla syrup, fresh-baked pastry

Taste:  (thin, but pleasant) “vanilla-esque” candy, lemon oil, honey, sugar cane, faint oak

Finish:  short in duration – citrus zest, pie crust, hints of oak & eucalyptus

Overall:  I’m just going to shoot straight here – Wild Turkey Rye isn’t an ideal neat-sipping whiskey. There’s very little structure and complexity, though that’s to be expected from a younger spirit bottled at such a low proof. On the brighter side, I can say that it sips better than the 2014 release I parted ways with. What accounts for this? I attribute its improved character to the new distillery. If I’m right, this is yet another sign that the whiskey Wild Turkey is distilling now may prove to be their best. Only time will tell.

Rating:  2.25/5 🦃

Before wrapping up, I’ll say that I’ve found a wonderful use for Wild Turkey Rye – as the base of an Orange Old Fashioned cocktail. What’s an Orange Old Fashioned? Well, there’s countless recipes out there, but to me it’s pretty simple:

  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon water
  • 3 dashes orange bitters
  • 2 ounces Wild Turkey Rye (81 proof)

In a rocks glass, dissolve ½ teaspoon of sugar in 1 teaspoon of water. Add 3 dashes of orange bitters and several ice cubes (be generous – it’s a summer drink). Pour 2 ounces of Wild Turkey Rye and garnish with a thick orange slice and a single maraschino cherry. And that’s about it.

Now some might say, why not use 101 Rye instead? Well, you could – but – that’s not the purpose of this cocktail. I prefer an Orange Old Fashioned as a refreshing warm-weather cocktail, not a contemplative slow-sipper. It’s the kind of drink I can enjoy more than once with minimal impairment. If I were using a higher-proof rye, that may not be the case.

All said and done, I think that’s really what Eddie had in mind for the 81-proof Wild Turkey Rye – a whiskey that could serve as a bartender’s everyday workhorse. And that it does. Cheers!