Bourbon is rich with history. I mean that not only in the metaphorical sense, but in the literal sense as well. With every pour you’re experiencing history – the pride of the distiller, the craftsmanship of the cooper, the life of the oak, the warmth of the summer sun and the chill of the winter air – the harmony that exists when mankind and Mother Nature work together. There are seasons upon seasons in each glass … each bottle from each batch, each batch from every single barrel. Some bourbons are older than others, but no bourbon is without history.
This Christmas the bourbon community lost an icon. Al Young, Four Roses’ incomparable senior brand ambassador and former plant manager passed away after more than 50 years of service in the bourbon industry. I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Young. I’d wanted to for years. When I started writing my upcoming Wild Turkey book, American Spirit, it was Al Young’s interviews for the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History that helped lay the groundwork. Not only did he interview Jimmy and Eddie Russell, but Thomas and Olivia Ripy, descendants of Lawrenceburg’s famous whiskey baron, T .B. Ripy. I can’t stress how important those interviews were to my research. I even found tremendous value in Mr. Young’s own personal interviews – especially his recounting of meeting Jimmy Russell for the first time.
Al Young knew the value of a story. Stories are history and should be preserved for future generations (lest they be forgotten forever). Much of bourbon’s history consists of tales passed down from generation to generation, distiller to distiller. Only in the past few decades have writers actually put these tales to paper in earnest, including Mr. Young who authored Four Roses: The Return of a Whiskey Legend. It’s my sincere hope that everyone who appreciates bourbon – from the casual sipper to the diehard enthusiast – understands the significance of endeavors like Al Young’s. The history of bourbon is an important thread in the fabric of our nation. The stories that define it deserve to be shared and Mr. Young understood that. His contributions to our beloved hobby – to its very heritage – will surely be missed.
Speaking of history and sharing, today’s pour wouldn’t be possible without the help of a good friend and fellow Wild Turkey history buff, David James. David has been a Wild Turkey fan for decades and maintains a collection of genuinely rare artifacts that are impressive to say the least. In fact, he’s in the process of constructing a Wild Turkey museum in his home state of New York (nudge-nudge, Campari). You can bet I’ll be there when it opens!
Thanks to David, the bourbon I have the pleasure of reviewing today is a 1974 1/10-pint Wild Turkey 101 Eight-Year (in 100% bottling line mint condition, I might add). The fill level is perfect, the label is flawless, and the tax strip free from discoloration or damage of any kind. It’s as if someone went back in time, purchased this bottle, returned, and placed it in my hands. Interestingly, it was likely sitting on a retail shelf when Al Young first met Jimmy Russell in 1976. Every bourbon tells a story and I’m guessing this one’s just getting started.
Wild Turkey 101 (1974) – KSBW at 50.5% ABV – aged at least eight years – bottled by the Austin, Nichols Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: deep copper
Nose: (intense dusty WT) honey-maple, blood orange, brandied cherries, funky oak, stovetop vanilla pudding, caramel, herbal spice, floral perfume, tobacco, leather, nutmeg, faint mineral notes
Taste: (oily mouthfeel) vanilla syrup, dense honey-maple, caramel, orange peel, fruit cocktail, sweet musty oak, brown sugar, herbal tea, nutmeg, hints of tobacco
Finish: long, warm & flavorful – rich vanilla, toasted caramel, charred oak, herbal & floral spice, cinnamon, clove tobacco, sweet/zesty pepper, orange liqueur, traces of minerality
Overall: Yet another fine example of the beauty of vintage Wild Turkey bourbon. There’s intensity and density in its notes, but it never overwhelms nor confounds the senses. This is in many ways the essence of American whiskey from decades past – unique complexity achieved without the need for a high bottling proof (primarily due to a low barrel-entry proof). Add to that the absence of chill filtration and various contributing factors (like notably older whiskey in common everyday batches) and you end up with a product that’s impractical and/or preventatively costly to recreate today.
As for this particular 1974 Wild Turkey 101 Eight-Year, it’s not the best dusty I’ve ever had, but it’s no slouch of a pour either. All of the typical dusty Turkey notes are found here in one phase or another (nose, taste, finish). There’s also a slight minerality that I’ve picked up before in older bottles of Wild Turkey 101 (1979 and 1989 immediately come to mind). I wouldn’t go so far as to call it George Dickel’s signature “Flintstone vitamin” note, but it borders it. Maybe “Dickel-esque” in some ways? Regardless, it’s there and frankly, I like it. It gives this pour character and balances out some of the sweeter notes. In fact, this may be the most balanced dusty Turkey I’ve ever tasted. Truly an exquisite bourbon and I wish it could never end.
Rating: 4.5/5 🦃
In closing: It’s whiskey like this that spurs reflection on bourbon’s past in a profound, personal way. Our country’s history can easily be experienced through our senses. One only needs to visit a museum, battlefield, national monument, or talk with one’s elders. There you can see and hear history. But consider this … with bourbon you can smell and taste history. More importantly, you don’t need a rare or vintage bottle to grant you that experience. Any bourbon enjoyed in the right mindset or company will get you there.
And with that I encourage you to take a few extra moments with your next pour. Briefly research what you’re drinking. Maybe find a video – perhaps one of Al Young’s – and learn the story behind your whiskey. I believe you’ll find a greater appreciation for what you’re sipping and I’d like to think Mr. Young would have agreed.
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