Looking back through my blog, it seems I’ve yet to revisit a dusty Wild Turkey expression from the same approximate bottling year. Unless I’ve missed something, today’s post will be the first. Depending on one’s point of view, my timing may or may not be perfect, as vintage Wild Turkey releases have become harder to find and more expensive than ever. For most of us, it’s now or never.
Which brings me to a certain act of kindness early on in this pandemic. I was attending a large convention for work just as word started to spread about COVID-19. The mood was odd and the event … uneventful. The drive home seemed longer than ever. I was mentally and physically exhausted. I needed a bourbon. As I walked in the door – tired, defeated – my wife remarked that something had arrived for me and pointed to a large box. Interesting. I wasn’t expecting a delivery of that size. Naturally, there was zero hesitation opening it. And what was inside? Unbelievable. A mint condition, Wild Turkey 101 8-year from 1979. The fill and color were impeccable, the tax strip was clean and crisp, and the label … a curator’s dream. I was floored.
I’ve met many generous and thoughtful people over the course of my bourbon journey – shared rare pours and periodically exchanged gifts. But this act couldn’t have come at a better time. Just when it seemed everything was falling apart for me professionally (and little did I know what lay ahead) a single bottle of Jimmy Russell’s finest – a stunning present from a friend changed it all. Thank you again, Curt.
There’s a famous saying: “With great bourbon comes great responsibility.” Okay, maybe it’s not exactly phrased like that, but it should be. Essentially, the best thing about receiving a gift like this is that it can be shared with others. One becomes many – and not just through partaking, but through reflection, conversation, and joy. I talk a lot about this on this blog and in my social media posts, but sharing truly is the greatest part of this hobby. If you haven’t figured that out – if you’re solely concerned with amassing a collection of shiny labels and glass – you’re missing out. One might even argue that you’re doing this community a huge disservice.
As for this beautiful late-70’s bottle of Wild Turkey 101, it’s been shared various times with various friends. I have Curt to thank for that – the credit, all his. Each time I look at this bottle in my cabinet … the lower the fill level, the happier I get. It’s an astounding feeling. I remember when a kind internet stranger shared with me my first dusty Wild Turkey experience – a 1981 Wild Turkey 101. It has proven, in a very literal sense, a life-changing experience. Would there have been a blog or a book? Very possibly not.
“With great bourbon comes great responsibility.” Thank you for understanding that, Curt and Chris.
I guess it wouldn’t be right to talk about dusty Turkey and not taste it. As I mentioned in my introduction, I’ve yet to revisit a vintage expression of the same year. I won’t be able to compare two whiskeys side by side, but I can taste this 1979 and compare notes to the one I reviewed in 2017. So, that’s exactly what I’ll do. Will it prove similar or something entirely different? We’ll soon find out. Let’s pour!
Wild Turkey 101 (1979) – KSBW at 50.5% ABV – aged at least eight years – “distilled in Kentucky,” bottled by the Austin, Nichols Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: rosy copper
Nose: (fragrant dusty WT) medicinal cherry, blood orange, salted caramel, sweet funky oak, clove tobacco, chocolate raisins, brown sugar, herbal/floral spice, hints of lemon peel
Taste: (punchy, zesty fruit) orange icing, honey-maple, vanilla candy, lemon, funky oak, tangy red fruit, nutmeg, sweet mineral notes
Finish: notably long w/ a “zing” – fruity toffee, tangerine, peppery maple-oak, leather, herbal spice, clove, faint mint
Overall: My general impression from the 1979 Wild Turkey 101 8-year I sipped back in 2017 remains a distinctively fruity-mineral-laden whiskey. Not exactly Dickel-esque, but close. This bottle shares some of those same characteristics. It’s fruity for sure, though not as heavy on the mineral notes (more so on the palate than the nose or finish). Outside of that, there’s plenty of dusty bourbon character to keep one mesmerized – honey-maple, funky oak, dense herbal/floral spice, etc. An outstanding well-preserved representation of late-1970’s Wild Turkey if ever there was.
The last time I reviewed this release I remarked on the potential of it being sourced whiskey. While not impossible (the label states “bottled by” after all) this particular bourbon was bottled eight years after the distillery’s acquisition by Austin, Nichols & Co. It’s also important to note that Jimmy Russell doesn’t like bottling sourced whiskey (he also doesn’t like sourcing his whiskey out). In fact, the last of the Old Boone stocks owned by Austin, Nichols & Co. were sold to Julian Van Winkle in the early 1970s. All things considered, I think it’s safe to say this 1979 Wild Turkey 101 is Russell-distilled bourbon.
So why the uniqueness compared to other Wild Turkey 101 bottlings from the 1970s and 1980s? Well, the same reason we have uniqueness now – mother nature.
As many of you reading already know, Wild Turkey has multiple rickhouses in various locations – both off and on site. While Camp Nelson wasn’t in Wild Turkey’s portfolio in 1979, McBrayer (across from Four Roses) was, as were a number of rickhouses (some quite historic) in Tyrone. Each rickhouse imparts its own character relative to elevation, airflow, and seasonal/climate changes. Different rickhouses are “in season” every year. For example, Camp Nelson A and F were featured heavily from 2018-2019. I’m not sure which rickhouses were in season in 1979, but I could swear by 1989 I was tasting its presence again (albeit even better).
It should also be noted that bourbon produced by Wild Turkey in the 1970s lacked the automation aspect one finds nowadays. In fact, they were produced in completely different facilities. It could be argued that each distillation run then was just as much a work of art as batching fully matured barrels now. Maybe this is something Wild Turkey should revisit? Imagine a small experimental distillery lacking the computerized automation that’s so common now. Bourbon and rye whiskey made the old fashioned way – wouldn’t that be something? Sounds like a job for Bruce Russell if you ask me.
I could probably write another two pages based around that single thought. But that’s probably another talk for another day. In the meantime, I’ll finish up this 1979 Wild Turkey 101 and think of what it must’ve been like seeing Jimmy Russell craft whiskey in his prime. Judging by the flavor of this bourbon, he had more than proven his skill as a master distiller over forty years ago.
Rating: 4.25/5 🦃
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That mineral note is an interesting footnote in dusty Turkey. It seems to come from a very specific window of time (I have an ’80 8-year which has it, but the stuff I’ve had from earlier in the 70’s and 83-onwards doesn’t). And it even seems to come and go in my ’80 bottle – with a half-hour of air it sometimes (not always) largely dissipates.
Is it a flaw? Well, some folks love Dickel. I don’t. This ain’t Dickel but (as you note) it’s close. It’s enough to keep me from loving any of those old 8/101s that have that note, for all the other good things they bring to the table.
Definitely not a flaw IMO but I can get others not liking it. There was a bit present in the ‘89 I tried, which I expected to taste more like 1990-1991. That said, I found the ‘89 101/8 to be magnificent and well balanced between fruity and dusty notes. I think the main culprit is rickhouses adding their unique character. Just like they do now in different ways (Camp Nelson for example).
I don’t recall ever picking up the mineral note in any mid or late-80’s bottles, or anything but 8/101. Definitely gotten funk, but in my mind WT funk and minerality are distinct notes. A little doesn’t bother me too much, but the ’80 has more than I’d prefer (though it’s otherwise great).
Before I got it in WT I always assumed the multivitamin thing was due to Dickel’s yeast, like Beam peanut and JD banana. Now, I’m not so sure, since presumably WT was always using the same yeast. Possible a warehouse issue, as you say.
Rickhouses are my best bet too! But all factors combined make a difference. 👍