You see it all the time … the word … “dusty.” What’s a dusty? You might know already (or think you know) – but do you? How does one really know when a bourbon is a dusty? How about a dusty Wild Turkey? Are they the same? Are they worth more? Do they taste better? If I have a dusty that has no dust on it, is it still a dusty? All good-ish questions. 🙂 Let’s explore these today, shall we?

If you’re new to whiskey enthusiasm, bourbons referred to as “dusty” are essentially older releases still found sitting on retail shelves; in other words, older bottles found literally collecting dust. There’s no hard-line rules as to what defines a bourbon as dusty (it’s quite subjective, honestly) but you hear the word frequently and it usually (if not always) infers a choice or desirable find.

Alright, I’m just going to bust out of the gates and say it – a “transitional label” (2011-2015) Wild Turkey 101 bottle isn’t a dusty – at least not yet. It’s a retired label, sure. It may have actual dust on it, and the words “Austin, Nichols,” (I’ll give it that) but a dusty it ain’t. Or maybe you’ve recently “hit the jackpot” with an entire shelf of Rare Breed batch 112.8! Yeah, no. That’s not a dusty. Sorry. Ah, but Rare Breed batch 03RB … that’s dusty, right? Ehh, maybe. But let’s stop right there and take a step back. Don’t worry. I’ll circle back to Rare Breed 03RB.

Wild Turkey 101
Not a dusty.

Whiskey, like so many other hobbies, has its share of vocabulary with seemingly unknown origins. “Shelf turd,” “unicorn,” “tater,” “dusty” … we see these every day, yet their backstories are hazy at best. So, when did the word “dusty” become whiskey canon? It’s hard to say for sure, but my best guess would be early-to-mid-2000’s. Why? Well, the internet was experiencing rapid growth at the time – and – bourbon was once again gaining in popularity. Folks from around the world could now communicate with one another easily and instantaneously. Descriptors developed just as rapidly. For example, I was into coin collecting at that time, and while words like “gems” and “culls” were likely used prior to the internet, they really took off afterwards. And the same goes for whiskey words. Terms like “dusty” were probably spoken well before they were typed; nevertheless, they didn’t become part of the hobby-wide vernacular until the internet came along. At least that’s my hypothesis.

So what constitutes a dusty in terms of whiskey – more specifically – in terms of Wild Turkey? Well, there’s really only two guidelines I use for determining dusty Turkey: 1. The release date of the bottle, and 2. Its overall flavor profile.

Let’s start with my first guideline, release date. When it comes to Wild Turkey, I usually default to the 10-year rule. That being, if a bottle (not the whiskey itself) isn’t at least 10 years old, it’s not considered dusty. Does that apply universally to all American whiskey labels? No. For example, Elijah Craig 12-year (particularly with the 12 on the front label) might be considered a dusty, as it’s been discontinued (redesigned and reformulated) for several years now and remains remarkably popular. I’m not saying it’s worth a premium (I was never a fan of EC12, sorry) – I’m just saying that calling it a dusty is arguably acceptable at this point, even though it’s been less than 10 years since the age statement was dropped.

As for Wild Turkey, any of its straight whiskey expressions sitting on a retail shelf since 2009 or earlier … I think it’s reasonable to call that a dusty in today’s bourbon-hype environment. Note I said straight whiskey. Finding a 2009 American Honey liqueur isn’t exactly something to jump up and down about. Sure, you can call that a dusty if you want to. Just don’t expect a lot of high fives from bourbon geeks or likes on your social media posts. But let’s say you find a Kentucky Spirit from 2008. Sure, that’s potentially a dusty Turkey and a great find in my opinion. Same for a 2006 Wild Turkey 101 or a 2007 Russell’s Reserve 6-year Rye, etc.

Wild Turkey 101 8-year
Definitely a dusty.

But it’s not just release date alone that matters – it’s profile. I can’t speak for every bourbon label out there, but when it comes to Wild Turkey, releases I consider dusty should have a profile to match the designation. This is where things get a little tricky, as subjectivity plays a large role.

Some years back I created a Wild Turkey Bourbon Profiles chart. While it’s far from perfect, it was my attempt at illustrating how Wild Turkey from different eras taste. At first glance it appears chronological; however, note that the interlocking circles mean you’ll often have profile crossover. In other words, a 2019 Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon might have some throwback classic character to it. (I reviewed one such example last week.) Alternatively, a 2004 Wild Turkey 101 might have some dusty notes, while a 1993 Wild Turkey 101 some classic notes. Again, the chart is far from perfect, but it’s my best effort at describing how older Wild Turkey releases can taste.

So what accounts for these differences in flavor profiles? After all, Jimmy Russell has said time and time again that nothing has changed. This is an article-worthy topic in and of itself – but – let me make something clear – Jimmy Russell means what he says (and says exactly what he means). Sure, Wild Turkey’s facilities have seen upgrades (and was completely rebuilt in 2011). There’s steel fermentation tanks instead of cypress wood, as well as a brand new still (not to mention computers running it all). The barrel-entry proof has changed – twice. But these are equipment and operational changes.

When Jimmy says nothing has changed he means the method in which the bourbon is crafted – its recipe, yeast, fermentation time (by smell and taste), barrel char, how it’s evaluated, etc. The way former Master Distiller Bill Hughes taught Jimmy to make bourbon – that’s how Jimmy taught Eddie. To Jimmy, nothing has changed. If a chef cooks the same recipe in two different pans on two different stoves, would you classify the end result as two different dishes? I don’t think so.

Nevertheless, Wild Turkey’s overall flavor profile has changed over the years. Hell, the flavor profiles for all long-standing bourbon brands have changed. It’s not a phenomenon unique to Wild Turkey. There’s a lot of reasons for this and Michael Veach’s article, “Old Bottle Bourbon Flavor,” does an excellent job explaining why (a highly recommended read, by the way). My point is, Wild Turkey isn’t the same Wild Turkey any more than Jim Beam isn’t the same Jim Beam or Maker’s Mark isn’t the same Maker’s Mark.

As for how this all relates to the word dusty … I think it’s imperative that one take into consideration both the age of the bottle itself and its whiskey’s flavor profile. I’ll use Wild Turkey Rare Breed batch 03RB as an example.

Let’s say you find a bottle of Rare Breed batch 03RB. Is that a dusty? Maybe. 03RB has the unique distinction of being the longest-produced Rare Breed batch – filling bottles from roughly 2004 to 2013. Does every bottle of Rare Breed 03RB taste the same? With the exception of black plastic wrap in 2004, they certainly look the same. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on personal preferences) they don’t taste the same. 2004 03RB tastes closer to Rare Breed batch 01-99, while 2013 03RB doesn’t really taste like 2004 03RB or 2014’s batch 112.8 either.

Rare Breed 03RB
Maybe a dusty.

To me, earlier bottles of Rare Breed 03RB are richer in classic notes – arguably some dusty notes buried within. Conversely, latter 03RB batches have what I’d classify as a combination of classic and modern notes. Most of these variances between 2004-2013 Rare Breed bottles have to do with barrel-entry proof changes, as 2004 would’ve been batched from whiskey barreled at 107 proof, while 2013 03RB batched from whiskey barreled at 107, 110, and 115. But then, different rickhouses are in season every year (each with their own profile traits), so simple batch variance shouldn’t be understated either. While Jimmy and Eddie do a great job of achieving batch consistency from year to year, finding consistency from today to nine years back is going to be considerably tough.

But back to the question – is Rare Breed 03RB a dusty find? Well, I’d say it depends on the bottle’s year. A black wrap 2004 Rare Breed 03RB is a true dusty find in my opinion. A 2013 03RB … not so much. Sure, it’s a cool Austin, Nichols label, but it’s not really a dusty bourbon. Five years from now I might (probably will) tell you differently. As for today, I’d say the last two years of 03RB contain enough modern notes to warrant calling them dusty disputable. But as mentioned earlier, it’s all subjective anyway. You’re free to call it a dusty all day long. Just don’t expect universal praise or agreement in doing so.

So why does any of this matter? What’s the purpose of this article? It’s pretty simple, actually. Money. The secondary market for Wild Turkey expressions have increased substantially over the past two years. Bottles are selling for higher than ever before and the word “dusty” helps to drive those values. So if you’re relatively new to bourbon enthusiasm and are actively seeking out vintage bottles – particularly Wild Turkey – be careful. Just because something is labeled as “dusty Turkey” doesn’t mean it’s worth a premium. In fact, many bottles folks tout as dusty can frequently be found on shelves. The picture featured at the start of this post was taken at a store just last week. Those aren’t dusty bottles. They’re retired labels with some actual dust on their glass. That’s all. There’s no need to spend extra hard-earned money on everyday retail finds. Be mindful, do your research, and never take the word “dusty” for granted.

Cheers and happy hunting!