Outside of basic reviews, I don’t think there’s a Wild Turkey expression I’ve had more to say about than Kentucky Spirit. And for good reason. Of the current U.S. bourbon lineup, it’s the brand’s third-oldest release (1994), falling just behind Rare Breed (1991), and the venerable Wild Turkey 101 (1942). Save for a few minor aesthetic tweaks in the 2000s, and a total bottle redesign in 2019, the expression has changed very little. At the end of the day, Kentucky Spirit remains true to Jimmy Russell’s original concept – a non-age-stated, single-barrel bourbon bottled at Wild Turkey’s classic 101 proof.
Yet, as timeless as it may be, Kentucky Spirit has witnessed its share of ups and downs. Two increases in barrel-entry proof did little to help its general profile, as additional water became necessary to reach a bottling proof of 101. Based on the average eight-year age of the expression, increased dilution came into play around 2012-2014 (more or less, barrel depending). About that same time (2013), Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon was introduced. At 110 proof, non-chill filtered, it was in some ways closer to the profile of vintage Kentucky Spirit bottlings. Inevitably, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel became the more popular single-barrel offering for most bourbon enthusiasts. And then, there was 2019’s unfortunate redesign (sigh), accompanied by a frustrating price increase (double sigh). Neither did wonders to help an already struggling expression. But, I’ve said my piece on this (more than once).
At this point, it would be easy (arguably lazy) to continue to criticize Kentucky Spirit based solely on price and appearances. Been there, done that. If you’re looking to kick the Glen, there’s plenty of forums to do so. Just this past week I read more than a few “it’s just overpriced Wild Turkey 101” comments. I get their frustration – I shared it at one point – but after diving into the expression deeper than I ever have before, I think the snide is somewhat misplaced. Kentucky Spirit isn’t Wild Turkey 101. Sure, they bear similarities, particularly in proof and certain core profile notes, but they aren’t the same bourbon. Taking private barrel selections into consideration, the delineation between Kentucky Spirit and 101 becomes more apparent – starkly so at times.
There’s an analogy by Signde Drinks’ Ryan Oberleitner I’ve appreciated for years now: When it comes to Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, the ceiling is high but the floor is lower than Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel. Going back through 2013-2018, I’d say that’s accurate. But for me, something changed in the last year or two. I started feeling a rise in Kentucky Spirit’s floor. And just this past week, thanks to a thoughtful gesture by a friend (appreciate it, Robert), I realized there was greater hope for this expression. After tasting a rickhouse E selection for North Carolina, it was again apparent that a 101-proof, single-barrel bottling could shine as brightly as a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel selection of similar origin.
Which brings me to the subject of today’s review. While North Carolina’s rickhouse E Kentucky Spirit was an eye-opener, it wasn’t the first E barrel to impress me at 101 proof. Russell’s Renegades #183, which could’ve been bottled as a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel selection, fared better as a Kentucky Spirit. Might there be another rickhouse offering with similar standout qualities at 101 proof? Damn right there is. That rickhouse is S. And the barrel? A 2020 Kentucky Spirit selection from Ohio Liquor (thank you, Jason).
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit “OHLQ Winter 2021 Barrel #4” (barrel #20-0832, warehouse S, rick 56) – selected by Ohio Liquor – 101-proof KSBW – bottled 12/3/2020 – 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: toasted honey, baked apples & cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, spiced oak, dried orange peel, hints of cedar
Taste: buttery vanilla, caramel toffee, peppery oak, candy spice drops, heady cream soda, maple syrup, faint sassafras
Finish: medium-long – salted caramel, smoked almonds, molasses, oak char, clove, sweet licorice, diminishing baking spice
Overall: Nearly everything I seek in a modern Kentucky Spirit, Ohio Liquor’s “Winter 2021 barrel #4” grants. Immediately, there’s clear distinction from Wild Turkey 101 – waves of layered spice, warm confectionery tones, and plenty of old fashioned candy to keep you chewing. If you’re a fan of 2020 rickhouse S Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel selections, you must give a rickhouse S Kentucky Spirit a shot. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find the additional water only sweetens the typical S dry spice notes. It also gives the bourbon more of a buttery texture. Then again, it could be this specific barrel. Regardless, the next time I see a Kentucky Spirit from rickhouse S – private selection or not – I’m a buyer.
Rating: 4/5 🦃
Before you head out to your local liquor store looking for a bottle of Kentucky Spirit, I thought I’d offer a little advice to save you from potential buyer’s remorse or regret. After all, Kentucky Spirit isn’t cheap (typically $60-$65). The last thing you should do is take a blind gamble, unless of course, you enjoy the thrill (guilty). At the same time, if you snooze you lose, so please keep the following in mind.
First, don’t buy a “fantail” Kentucky Spirit bottle (the previous design) just because it’s a fantail bottle. Unless the bottling date is 2012 or earlier, there’s no likelihood the bourbon will taste any better than a recent bottling. In other words, the glass isn’t going to make the profile special. Buy it for the same reason you’d buy a newer bottle – to discover, and hopefully appreciate, the whiskey’s profile. Aside from seasonal rickhouse variety, there’s been no significant changes from 2013-2019. And for what it’s worth, a modern-day fantail bottle isn’t a dusty. Not yet, at least.
Second, note that a majority of 2020’s Kentucky Spirit bottles contain whiskey produced at the new distillery (2011). That doesn’t translate to good or bad, it just means potentially different. In the case of the 2020 rickhouse S barrels I’ve tasted, both as Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel and Kentucky Spirit (all Fall 2011 distillations), I’ve been nothing but impressed – probably the most impressed I’ve been with modern Kentucky Spirit in some time. Did the new distillery play a role? Sure. Will the same positive experience come with each new bottle/barrel? Probably not. But doing a little research before purchasing and knowing what you’re buying is never a bad thing. Swap pours with friends. Taste bottles from different rickhouses, find your preference, then pull the trigger.
Next, don’t write off Kentucky Spirit based on a single rickhouse. I realize this appears to contradict my previous point, but hear me out. As many of you know, 2020 Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon selections from rickhouse E weren’t my jam. There were a few I enjoyed more than others, but overall, it was a considerably funky lot. When bottled as a Kentucky Spirit, however, there was notable balance in E-aged barrels. The fruity notes became less tangy, traits like honey and caramel glaze stepped forward, and the occasional distracting minerality all but disappeared. Most importantly, the bourbon retained its “not simply Wild Turkey 101” character.
Finally, I’ll briefly address Kentucky Spirit’s price. As previously stated, it’s not cheap. It’s essentially the same price as Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon. I get it. 101 proof (CF) versus 110 proof (NCF) … priced the same? It’s a fair, albeit effortless criticism (like shooting fish in a bourbon barrel). But Kentucky Spirit’s price is only askew when comparing it to other Wild Turkey expressions. In comparison to competing brands, such as Blanton’s, Kentucky Spirit seems far more reasonable. And speaking of Buffalo Trace expressions, I don’t see anyone complaining that Col. E. H. Taylor Single Barrel is priced at the exact same SRP as Stagg Jr. They’re the same mash bill, the same barrel-entry proof, reportedly of similar age, yet entirely different bottling proofs. When was the last time someone bitched about E. H. Taylor Single Barrel for $60?
Wrapping up, it’s fair to say that Kentucky Spirit hasn’t found its modern-day niche just yet. But it’s getting there. Put thought into each future purchase. Do your research. Vote with your wallet. Stores will notice, as will Campari and Eddie Russell. There’s a place for Kentucky Spirit. It all depends on finding the appropriate barrels. Some barrels deserve to be bottled at 110 proof, as Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, others at 101, as Kentucky Spirit. The process can’t be random. I assume it isn’t, as Eddie has mentioned in the past that he looks for certain “Jimmy-like” traits for Kentucky Spirit. That being said, vendors often have the option to bottle private selections as either Russell’s Reserve or Kentucky Spirit, so be mindful of who you’re buying from. There are some for which profit matters more than profile.
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