Last week I wrote about Wild Turkey’s single-barrel offerings. In that post I touched on Kentucky Spirit, Wild Turkey’s first single-barrel expression. I mentioned its greatest weakness – its price/profile ratio in comparison to Wild Turkey 101. And while not always applicable (Kentucky Spirit is a single-barrel whiskey so experiences will vary), many enthusiasts now feel let down by the once reliably exquisite bourbon.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about my dissatisfaction with the direction Kentucky Spirit has taken. The last thing I want to do is regurgitate the same content and deliver it to you in a shiny new post. At the same time, some things bear repeating. In the case of Kentucky Spirit, they bear repeating because we as enthusiasts – as loyal Wild Turkey fans – care. We honestly do. I’m sure there are folks on the inside, be it at Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg or Campari in New York, that see notifications of posts like this and think, “There he goes again.” To those, all I ask is an open mind. Don’t just read what I have to say, but why I have to say it. 

First, Kentucky Spirit isn’t a “bad” whiskey. Its specs surpass the wildly popular Blanton’s – except when it comes to design and packaging. I’ll refrain from beating a dead Turkey, but if Campari wants to get serious about Kentucky Spirit truly kicking retail ass again, they should revisit the elephant in the room. There’s a history and elegance to Kentucky Spirit’s former “fantail” bottle. I don’t expect it to return anytime soon, though a redesign respectful of that legacy is worth exploring. Just my two cents.

Moving on …

As stated in my introduction, Kentucky Spirit’s greatest weakness is its price/profile ratio and where it sits relative to other well-loved Wild Turkey bourbon expressions. First you have the affordable, available, and spec-similar Wild Turkey 101. Like Kentucky Spirit, 101 is non-age stated, chill filtered, and bottled at 101 proof. The only real difference between the two is barrel composition. 101 is batched from hundreds of barrels and Kentucky Spirit is, of course, a single barrel. Any other differences between the two consist of rumor, conversation, and pure subjectivity – except when it comes to price. (Ouch.) At present, Wild Turkey 101 is roughly $25 for a 750ml bottle; Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit is priced as high as $65 for the same volume. That’s a significant divide. The bad thing is, comparing Wild Turkey 101 to Kentucky Spirit blind, more often than not you don’t taste that gap. And you should. For such a substantial price difference, you should every damn time.

On the other end of the spectrum we have Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon. For the same price as Kentucky Spirit (or less) you’re getting a non-chill filtered, 110-proof single-barrel whiskey. If purchased as a standard retail bottling it’s officially non-age stated; however, private barrel selections since mid 2019 disclose both barrel and bottling dates (something Kentucky Spirit has needed for decades). Unlike Wild Turkey 101, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel has its own mojo next to Kentucky Spirit. Be it the higher proof (five points from barrel-entry proof) or the lack of chill filtration (Google is your friend), Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel is typically more robust and complex.

For most of you reading – particularly those fond of yesteryear’s Kentucky Spirit – none of this is new. In fact, you’ve likely stewed (or screamed) in frustration countless times yourself. But fear not. There is hope, and it may have arrived courtesy of Wild Turkey itself.

A few months ago I was alerted to an eleven-year Kentucky Spirit, aged at Camp Nelson’s rickhouse D, and selected by the reputable Maisano’s Fine Wine & Spirits. Thanks to a kind bourbon friend I was able to experience that selection first hand. The story goes that Eddie Russell had a few CND barrels of considerable maturity – some falling under Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel’s minimum 110-proof requirement. Maisano’s barrel #19-0421, “OGB2,” is one such barrel. (It should be noted these specs were confirmed by Maisano’s and Eddie.)

Could this be the Kentucky Spirit profile we’ve been waiting for? Might Maisano’s selection measure up to Moonshine Grill’s impressive thirteen-year barrel? Well, in the immortal words of my favorite pinball machine, it’s time to “quit talkin’ and start chalkin’!”

Maisano's OGB2

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit “OGB2” – selected by Maisano’s Fine Wine & Spirits – 101-proof KSBW – aged eleven years, one month – bottled 4/40/2020 from barrel #20-0421, warehouse (CN)D, rick 27 – distilled and bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Company, Lawrenceburg, KY

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color: rich amber

Nose: (dense, well-rounded) caramel-nougat, vanilla bean, honeysuckle, English toffee, sweet musty oak, blood orange, baked nutmeg & cinnamon

Taste: Cadbury Creme Egg, brown sugar glaze, savory oak char, burnt honey, leather, orange peel, faint clove & tobacco

Finish: medium-long & flavorful – vanilla spice, toasted caramel, charred oak, brown sugar, cola, leather, hints of citrus zest & pepper

Overall: Very nice – no doubt as complex and robust as an above-average Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon. Is it as layered as Moonshine Grill’s thirteen-year “Stay Thirsteen My Friends?” Not quite. There is, however, a well-rounded darkness that I can only attribute to age – perhaps Camp Nelson D’s influence as well. The oak is mustier; the finish a touch earthier. Depending on one’s personal preferences, I could easily see one bourbon outperforming the other. As for me, I’d place Maisano’s “OGB2” on-par with several Kentucky Spirit favorites. Though truth be told, I didn’t come to that conclusion initially. When I first tasted this selection I wasn’t entirely impressed. Looking back, I think I had unrealistic expectations based on the rarity of its specs. (Expectations are never a good thing when evaluating whiskey.)

Since that time I’ve grown immensely fond of it. I’ve compared Maisano’s eleven-year barrel to Wild Turkey 101, a handful of Kentucky Spirit selections, and even a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel or two. Each time I discover an attribute previously unnoticed. Whether in regard to mouthfeel, tasting notes, subtleties from nose to finish, etc., there’s always something new to be found in Maisano’s “OGB2.” And then it occurred to me – this is the baseline profile Kentucky Spirit needs.

What if Kentucky Spirit were only bottled if a barrel’s proof fell below 110 – and – the maturation was of considerable age (no less than ten years, or even twelve as a nod to the legendary Wild Turkey 101/12)? What if chill filtration were optional for private selections (similar to some Buffalo Trace products)? What if the bottle/label were redesigned, or at the very least, given a “barreled on” date to accompany the bottling date?

Maybe I’m crazy (or enthralled with a healthy pour of this whiskey) but I’m thinking if these changes were implemented, Wild Turkey would have a surefire hit on their hands.

Look, I’m only one opinionated person. I’m willing to bet that what I have to say is sometimes (maybe a lot of times) viewed as the ramblings of an overly affectionate fan. I accept that. But I’m leveling here. Kentucky Spirit needs an overhaul. It deserves it. Until then, we’ll keep rolling the dice – hoping for a barrel that outshines Wild Turkey 101, and with a little luck, maybe Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel. It happens – just not near as much as it should. As for Maisano’s “OGB2,” excellent job, John & Co. This is a Kentucky Spirit certainly worthy of praise.

Rating: 4/5 🦃

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