Last week I reviewed a 1979 Wild Turkey 101 8-year and discussed acts of kindness in our hobby. I’ll continue that theme today, this time rolling the clock back even further – back to the early 1960s, the “Kennedy Era” of bourbon. Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible without the generosity of two friends. I owe my most sincere thanks to David James, the official Greatest Wild Turkey Fan of All Time, for the chance to enjoy a 1961 Wild Turkey 101 8-year. The very same gratitude is due Aaron Konen, a fellow Dallas Bourbon Club member and dedicated whiskey enthusiast, for a pristine 1962 half pint of Bond & Lillard. Thank you both. I’ll do my best to share my impressions with the world.

The early 1960s were a time of accelerating change in America. Things were moving at a progressive and innovative pace, largely motivated by the fear of communism and the cloud of the Cold War. 1961 and 1962 saw the first Americans in space, Alan Shepard and John Glenn, who at the time were almost certainly as cool as Elvis Presley. And in Kentucky, bourbon was being produced at record volumes. It was to many Americans, a golden age. But that was largely on the surface. There were social, political, economic, and sadly, literal battles ahead (some we’re still fighting today).

As for Wild Turkey, industry wholesaler Austin, Nichols & Co. had a hit on their hands. The brand was doing exceptionally well, finding favor with icons of the time like John Wayne (who was said to bring along cases of Wild Turkey when filming on location). Glamorous full-page ads showcasing bottles of Wild Turkey 101 could be found in popular magazines like Life (see title picture). Little did the titans of the industry know it was an apex. Bourbon would soon be grasping for stability and identity, much like the country itself.

But is bourbon from this apex period inherently special? I’d argue yes, and it all starts with barrel-entry proof.

In 1962, the U.S. Treasury raised the legal barrel-entry proof from 110 to 125. While it was years before some distilleries actually took advantage of this change, in theory any bourbon distilled on or after 1962 could have legally entered a barrel at up to 125 proof. I won’t be diving into the science of barrel-entry proof, though I recommend Fred Minnick’s article in Whiskey Advocate if you’re curious. The short of it is this – a lower barrel-entry proof often translates to fuller, richer flavor at the expense of a lower bottling proof. (This factor will come into play later in this post.)

Outside of barrel-entry proof there are other contributing factors to vintage bourbon character, such as non-municipal water sources, cypress fermentation tanks, cooperage fashioned with choice mature oak, etc. Those interested in exploring this subject should read Micheal Veach’s article, “Old Bottle Bourbon Flavor,” found on his blog.

Let’s have a taste of this 1961 Wild Turkey 101 and see what its flavor profile is all about. It might be similar to early-1970’s 101 bottles I’ve previously reviewed; it might not. After all, we don’t know exactly where this whiskey came from. It was bottled ten years before Austin, Nichols & Co. acquired the distillery we now call Wild Turkey – back when a young Jimmy Russell was a high school basketball star with aspirations of college and coaching. So who might’ve produced this whiskey? According to Sam Cecil in his book, Bourbon: The Evolution of Kentucky Whiskey, rumored sources of Wild Turkey’s early bourbon were Jim Beam, Barton, and J.T.S. Brown & Sons (formerly Anderson County Distilling and Ripy Bros.). Of course, flavor profiles from all longstanding distilleries have changed since the 1960s, so I’m not expecting to find similarities to modern Beam or Barton (or even Wild Turkey).

Wild Turkey 101 (1961) – KSBW at 50.5% ABV – aged at least eight years – “distilled in Kentucky,” bottled by the Austin, Nichols Distilling Co., New York, NY

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color: dense copper

Nose: (fragrant, complex) potpourri, antique cedar, warm apple cider, vanilla spice, sweet & savory herbs, floral perfume, mature oak, tobacco, clove, hints of red fruit & dark citrus

Taste: (oily, herbaceous) layered dry spice (licorice, clove, sassafras), seasoned oak, leather, pipe tobacco, orange peel, peppery vanilla, dense herbal/floral notes

Finish: long & warm w/ waves of lingering spice – vanilla spice, toasted oak, sassafras, leather, baked nutmeg & cinnamon, black pepper, faint honey-lemon

Overall: Well, I’m shocked! This 1961 Wild Turkey 101 noses like Master’s Keep 17-year (2015) with a taste and finish akin to Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond (2020). I’m seriously impressed. I was even moved to confirm with side-by-side comparisons (thankfully Mr. James provided me a more-than-adequate portion to sample). Truly unbelievable.

So what’s going on here? How can a dusty eight-year bourbon taste like a modern seventeen-year bourbon? If this 101 were Glut Era whiskey I’d assume there was seventeen-year whiskey in the batch and leave it at that. But this bottle is from 1961. Bourbon was in demand and more popular than ever. Nevertheless, there remains but one answer: oak. It all comes down to an influence of the wood on the spirit. Whether the barrels composing this batch aged on the top floors of wood/clad rickhouses, rested for a considerably longer time than eight years on lower floors, or maybe some of both thanks to barrel rotation (a practice seldom employed nowadays), this bourbon had a firm and undeniable friendship with oak. And what a lovely friendship that turned out to be.

Rating: 5/5 🦃

Next up is a 1962 Bond & Lillard Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey (at that time a product of National Distillers Products Co.).

Bond & Lillard Distilling Co. was formed in 1869 when W. F. Bond partnered with his brother-in-law, Christopher C. Lillard, to produce bourbon at Bond’s family distillery in Anderson County, KY. In 1899 it was acquired by the infamous Whiskey Trust, and later assimilated into the National Distillers’ American Medicinal Spirits catalog in 1833. In 1987, National Distillers, along with its numerous brands from the pre- and post-Prohibition AMS catalog, were acquired by Jim Beam.

If Bond & Lillard sounds familiar, it’s likely because of its recent appearance as a Campari Whiskey Barons expression. Campari filed a new trademark registration in 2016 and Bond & Lillard batch 1 followed the next year (interestingly without the involvement of Jimmy or Eddie Russell). In 2019 a second batch was released, this time under the direction of Eddie Russell.

How will this 1962 Bond & Lillard compare to 1961’s Wild Turkey 101? And what about 2017 or 2019’s Campari Whiskey Barons release? Let’s give it a healthy pour and find out!

1962 Bond & Lillard

Bond & Lillard (1962) – KSBW at 43% ABV – aged at least four years – “distilled and bottled in Kentucky” by the Bond and Lillard Distillery Co., Louisville, KY (distributed by National Distillers Products Co.)

Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …

Color: rosy copper

Nose: (dusty, fruity) chocolate raisins, well-aged armagnac, blood orange, medicinal cherry, fruity vanilla, sweet musty oak, herbal/floral spice, caramel apple, faint leather

Taste: (notably oily) boozy orange, ripe plum, vanilla bean, caramel syrup, honey-maple, sweet oak, herbal tea, spiced gumdrops, leather, chewing tobacco

Finish: medium-long, well-balanced – raisins, caramel, musty oak, chocolate orange, sweet & zesty herbs, hints of lemon & cherry

Overall: Well, you’d never find this much intensity in a modern 86-proof bourbon. No way. What we have here is an unmistakable dusty bourbon profile (one commonly found in bottles from the 1980s and early 1990s). It’s striking. The complexity in particular reminds me of a choice armagnac aged well into it’s late teens (or later). And to think this Bond & Lillard is age stated as a four-year bourbon. I’m inclined to believe there’s older whiskey in the batch – possibly as a means to achieve a desired profile. At the very least there’s less dilution, thanks to the aforementioned low barrel-entry proof. Regardless of the exact reasons, it stands as a testament to the quality bourbon produced in the mid-twentieth century.

As for how this 1962 bottling compares to Bond & Lillard from Campari’s Whiskey Barons series, there’s frankly no comparison. With that said, it should be stressed that Eddie was, to my knowledge, aiming for a pre-Prohibition, four-year profile when creating Bond & Lillard batch 2. This National Distiller’s release is essentially 1960’s 86-proof Old Grand-Dad with a less popular label. I’m no expert, but it damn sure tastes like dusty Old Grand-Dad. And there’s something to be said for that. Vintage Old Grand-Dad bottles aren’t cheap. Neither are vintage Bond & Lillard bottles – but – I think it’s safe to say that Old Grand-Dad bottles will cost you a few nickels more.

Rating: 4.5/5 🦃

In closing: It was an absolute pleasure sipping these two whiskeys … a virtual walk back in time, a surreal once-in-a-lifetime experience. Surely the most surprising revelation was the similarity between 1961 Wild Turkey 101 and the 17-year Master’s Keep expressions. I never imagined that could be. In regard to the 1962 Bond & Lillard, it was sublime and proved exactly why so many astute whiskey enthusiasts pursue National Distillers’ bourbon. Suffice it to say, none of this would’ve been possible without the help of others. So, cheers to great friends and great bourbon! May your days be long and your glasses always filled with extraordinary spirits.

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