I’ve had a lot to say about barrel-proof Wild Turkey so far this year. Even while discussing Four Gate Foundation, which as it turns out is not barrel-proof Wild Turkey, I was discussing barrel-proof Wild Turkey all the same. Honestly, if there’s any space left to be covered in Wild Turkey’s bourbon portfolio, it’s there. Sure, we have Rare Breed. Today’s Rare Breed is awesome for its price and availability – but – it’s chill filtered and batched with its fair share of relatively younger whiskey. Essentially, if Rare Breed carried an age statement it would be six years.
So what am I talking about exactly? Precisely which space needs covering? Addressing any one of the following three suggestions would be beneficial to the brand (in sales and reputation):
- Non-chill filtered Rare Breed
- A mature (10+ year), NCF, batched barrel-proof expression
- Single-barrel private selections at full barrel proof (NCF, of course)
These aren’t new recommendations. I’ve talked about each one of these many times before, some going back to the beginning of this blog. Other whiskey enthusiasts and Wild Turkey fans have expressed their desires as well. In other words – pretty much everyone that sips Wild Turkey seriously and/or regularly wants new or improved barrel-proof offerings.
Checking the first box is easy. It’s also a time-saving, arguably money-saving expense for Campari. Bypass Rare Breed’s chill filtration process and done. Why this hasn’t been implemented already, especially considering Jim Beam’s Booker’s has been NCF for years (likely since inception), blows my mind. It’s a no brainer, is it not? Please. Stop. Chill. Filtering. Rare. Breed. (Thank you.) 🙂
Considering I spent the last two weeks talking about mature, NCF, batched barrel-proof Wild Turkey (in a sort of “did, but didn’t” way), I’ll move on to the third suggestion – single-barrel private selections at full barrel proof (NCF). Yes, we have Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel already. And yes, it’s NCF and sometimes very close to barrel proof at 55% ABV, but it’s not full barrel proof. It should be.
One argument I’ve heard in defense of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon remaining 110 proof is product consistency. That might be a solid argument for the retail (non-select) release, but it doesn’t hold water (or bourbon, that is) for private barrel selections. The whole idea, and honestly, where Wild Turkey shines, is barrel variation – high quality barrel variation.
Let’s take a look at its closest geographical competitor, Four Roses. There are two distinct versions of their single-barrel expression, the aptly named Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon. The retail iteration is their “OBSV” recipe bottled at 100 proof. While there are certainly differences from barrel to barrel, under those limitations they’re minimized to a level where the average consumer’s expectations are satisfied. Four Roses Single Barrel private selections are quite the opposite. Vendors select barrels distilled from one of ten recipes (five from two yeasts) and they’re bottled NCF at full barrel proof. Now that’s variance. It’s a successful program, one for which demand exceeds supply year over year.
I think it’s easy to see where Wild Turkey is messing up. I’m not talking about multiple mash bills or yeast strains. Thanks to their traditional rickhouses nestled in locations with ideal airflow, Wild Turkey showcases beautiful variance as is. Not to mention it’s all accomplished with a single bourbon recipe and a proprietary yeast strain going back before Jimmy Russell signed on in 1954.
Wild Turkey needs single-barrel private selections bottled NCF at barrel proof. Vendors want it. Consumers want it. Hell, everyone I know that enjoys Wild Turkey wants it. Even whiskey enthusiasts I associate with that aren’t Wild Turkey fans (shudder) think it’s a shame the distillery can’t make this happen. Maybe if Wild Turkey did, those folks might discover the right barrel and become fans. You’d think the simplest way to do that would be barrel-proof Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel selections. It shouldn’t be Kentucky Spirit, as that should remain a 101-proof expression. With the exception of making it NCF, I see no reason to change Jimmy’s classic. But there’s another option – a throwback option. Which reminds me – I have a review to get to!
Wild Turkey Kentucky Legend was a short-lived duty-free release in the 1990s. There are two versions: 101-proof Kentucky Legend from the early 90s, and barrel-proof Kentucky Legend (a.k.a. “Donut”) from the late 90s. The two versions are quite distinctive in presentation and profile. 101-proof Kentucky Legend is essentially duty-free Tradition with a different label. 1998’s Wild Turkey Kentucky Legend, more affectionately known as “Donut” due to its unique glass, is a single-barrel expression bottled at full barrel proof. While its label states it’s filtered, it’s hard to determine if that language refers to conventional filtering (removing char), or chill filtering (a cosmetic process).
Chill filtered or not, Donut is one of my all-time favorite Wild Turkey expressions. Generally speaking, I like it more than twelve-year Wild Turkey 101 and many (but not all) Rare Breed batches. Some are better than others, though I’ve never had one to disappoint. And thanks to a kind bourbon friend, Instagram’s @windycitywhiskey, I have the opportunity to taste another bottling. Will it line up with others I’ve reviewed in profile and quality? There’s only one way to find out. It’s time for a pour!
Wild Turkey Kentucky Legend (AKA “Donut”) – NAS 117.2 proof KSBW – barrel B-12-4, bottle #129 – bottled by the Austin, Nichols Distilling Company, Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: rosy copper
Nose: (fruity funk bomb) funky oak, dense honey-maple, fruity vanilla, butterscotch, orange peel, nutmeg, lemon/lime syrup, cherry sours, sweet & tangy minerals (a la George Dickel)
Taste: (fruity dusty WT) vanilla/cream soda, ginger, sweet & zesty pepper, funky oak, caramel hard candy, honey-maple, orange/lemon zest, sweet tobacco, brown sugar, hints of clove & leather
Finish: medium-long, flavorful & well-balanced – zesty fruit & pepper, hot ginger, toasted caramel, honey-maple, blood orange, sweet clove, Juicy Fruit gum, butterscotch, vanilla candy
Overall: Talk about variance! This is without a doubt the most unique Donut I’ve experienced to date – particularly the fruitiness and minerality. I almost hate to say it, but it’s somewhat reminiscent of well-aged George Dickel. I’m not talking about the thinner, over-filtered whiskey Diageo puts out. (Don’t even get me started on Whiskey Advocate’s 2019 “Whiskey of the Year.”) I’m talking about mature, undiluted and unfiltered Dickel whiskey routinely found in Barrell Bourbon, Pursuit Series, and Smooth Ambler Old Scout single-barrel releases.
But please don’t take my observation for more than it’s worth. I’m not saying this 117.2-proof Donut tastes exactly like barrel-proof Dickel whiskey. It doesn’t. There are similarities for sure, but predominantly you’ll find loads of funky oak, honey-maple, and butterscotch that only dusty Wild Turkey can deliver. Almost too funky, if I’m completely honest. But then, that’s the beauty of full-proof, single-barrel bourbon – profile quality is inevitably dependent on the individual.
While undeniably a quality pour, I’ve had Donuts I prefer over this one. The good news is it’s different. It stands on its own with a unique and memorable profile. Had water been added that may not be the case, or at least not a strong one. More the reason why Wild Turkey/Campari needs to think critically about the future of their single barrel program. Many craft distilleries now hold whiskey that’s of age and they’re releasing it at full barrel strength. With every year that goes by those stocks showcase greater maturity and complexity. The time for Wild Turkey to step back into the barrel-proof, single-barrel arena is now. The longer they wait, the greater the potential of being passed over in favor of brands willing to give their customers an undiluted experience. Eddie Russell will tell you himself: the best way to sip bourbon is straight from a barrel. Why not give that experience to your consumers? I think that says enough right there.
Rating: 4.25/5 🦃
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They all seem like such simple, no-brainer moves, especially the NCF Rare Breed. It makes you wonder what’s standing in the way.
Why would Campari risk falling (further) behind the other major players?
My thoughts exactly. Here we are in 2020 and still no concrete signs that this area has been recognized. At least we get Rare Breed Rye, I guess.
And really, since RB Rye is NCF then it shouldn’t be any issue at all to go NCF for RB Bourbon. They KNOW it’s a selling point or they wouldn’t have made it a point to note it on the RB Rye label. Doesn’t make much sense.
I am looking forward to the RB Rye, but it doesn’t get my blood pumping like a 10+ year batched barrel-proof KSBW release would.