As I’m sure you’re aware, there’s been a lot of talk about Wild Turkey Rare Breed. It’s repeatedly featured on social media, praised in forums like r/Bourbon, and finds plenty of screen time on YouTube. Just this past week, author Fred Minnick hosted a series of blind tastings in an attempt to determine “The Best $41 to $60 Bourbon.” Spoiler: Rare Breed 116.8 kicked ass. Frankly, I wasn’t surprised. I don’t think many bourbon fans were. Sure, there was some tough competition – Old Forester 1920 in particular – but in the end, Rare Breed came out on top.
But Fred’s tasting is only one example. Many enthusiasts and critics have reached similar conclusions. Unfortunately for bourbon fans, whenever Fred says something, people listen; moreover, people listen and do stupid things. It’s known as the “Minnick Effect.” One day you’re buying your favorite bourbon on sale by the case, the next day you’re scouring the internet – relying on your Amex card for a single bottle of the very same whiskey. If you don’t believe me, ask fans of Henry McKenna how fun life’s been since 2018.
As frustrating as this phenomenon may be, one thing we shouldn’t do is blame Fred for the irrationality of consumers. People are inherently lazy when it comes to booze shopping. The fact that you’re reading this blog likely excludes you from that group, but generally speaking most Americans don’t care for nerdy, time-consuming stuff. Product research is boring. They look to the experts to tell them what they should drink. And despite what you think about Fred (a very kind and generous individual, if you ask me) he’s irrefutably an expert in his field. He also does far more good for whiskey than harm. Sometimes that means your favorite bourbon disappears from shelves, but if the net result saves jobs and keeps the industry growing, I’m supportive.
As for Rare Breed, do I see it flying off shelves or hoarded and flipped like Henry McKenna? I don’t think so. Not yet. People may be lazy and easily influenced by experts, but they’re also suckers for stereotypes. Unfortunately (or fortunately for us Turkey fans), Wild Turkey has long been perceived as “roughneck whiskey” – the choice booze of frat boys, rock stars, and old men. Enthusiasts aren’t immune to this. Trust me, I get plenty of emails and messages from experienced individuals who ignored Wild Turkey for years. Depending on where you live, particularly bourbon hotspots like Atlanta, Nashville, and of course, Lexington and Louisville, you might have a harder time finding Rare Breed. But at present, I think most of us are safe. Wild Turkey is still very much an underdog.
It’s been a year since I last reviewed a current Rare Breed batch. When I saw a May 2020 bottle at a local store a few weeks ago (ironically, the last one on the shelf), I gobbled it up. I’m not sure what date Fred Minnick’s bottle was filled, though I’m not sure it matters all that much. Rare Breed 116.8 has proven remarkably consistent. If anything it’s only getting better. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to explore new bottlings. Chances are you’ll find the same familiar profile with potential variance in its subtleties. And that’s exactly what I’m expecting today.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed (2020) – 116.8-proof KSBW – reportedly a blend of six-, eight-, and twelve-year, barrel-proof bourbon – distilled and bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: dense copper
Nose: (robust, balanced) burnt marshmallow, toasted caramel, apple peel, fruity vanilla, sweet oak char, orange zest, nutmeg, lemon-honey, tea leaves, hints of bright cinnamon & clove
Taste: (vibrant, lively) tart vanilla, red fruit, caramel/candy apple, charred oak, orange peel, herbal spice, brown sugar, lemon-cherry
Finish: long, zesty & flavorful – caramel, maple syrup, brown sugar, blood orange, oak char, leather, pepper, tangerine peel, sweet clove, faint sassafras
Overall: Easily my favorite Rare Breed 116.8 bottle to date. The nose is on par with many Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel private selections – loaded with complexity, and perhaps surprisingly, maturity. I’m not saying it noses exactly like a ten-year bourbon, but it damn sure shares similarities. Core notes like vanilla and caramel are robust; fruity notes like apple and orange are juxtaposed with baking spice and sweet charred oak. For a barrel-proof whiskey it’s exceptionally inviting – arguably deceiving for those unfamiliar with Wild Turkey.
Which brings me to the taste and finish. This is where Rare Breed’s traditionally brash character comes into play. While the nose hides the fact that six-year bourbon is married within, by the time it hits the palate you realize you’re indeed sipping Rare Breed, not Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel. But only initially. The front of the palate hits with a burst of vibrance, but if you let the whiskey simmer for a second or two more, it blossoms. Vibrant becomes velvet – the notes darker, richer and fuller. This depth carries on throughout the finish, ending with a seemingly never-ending trail of diminishing spice.
Does it get better than this? Of course. There are many notable Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel private selections that outperform this 2020 Rare Breed. But then, that’s not what Rare Breed is about – never has been. Rare Breed is a showcase of Wild Turkey’s boldness – Jimmy Russell’s masterful blend of distinctive bourbon flavor profiles. It’s that simple. And judging by the taste of today’s iteration, Eddie Russelll has mastered it himself.
Rating: 4/5 🦃
Before signing off I’d like to mention that we’re approaching the 30th anniversary of Wild Turkey Rare Breed. To my friends at Campari, please take note. Rare Breed deserves a commemorative release, much like Booker’s 30th or Elmer T. Lee’s 100th. It doesn’t have to be a limited edition in the sense of rarity. In fact, I’d prefer it not be. A commemorative bottling for the everyman/everywoman – the very same six-, eight-, and twelve-year blend cherished by Wild Turkey fans since 1991. But this time, roll it back to a non-chill filtered whiskey and give it a unique proof. Maybe add a few more twelve-year barrels or those top-floor beasts of yesteryear. Give it a nice presentation and make it affordable and available to all. Whereas Booker’s 30th and Elmer T. Lee’s 100th were unattainable for most, Rare Breed’s 30th could stand for those who actually drink Wild Turkey. Yes, it’s short notice, but there’s enough time to make it happen. Do it for us. Do it for bourbon. Do it for Jimmy. Cheers!
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