I’d like to preface this post by wishing Jimmy Russell a happy 67th anniversary at Wild Turkey Distillery. Since 1954, Jimmy has crafted the finest bourbon and rye whiskey in the world (that’s a fact) – a remarkable accomplishment by an equally remarkable man. Cheers to you, Jimmy! dj
Wild Turkey isn’t a brand typically associated with lower-proof whiskeys. While I’ve seen 86.8-proof labels going back to the 1960s, and various 80-proof labels up through 2010, they’re not what the brand is primarily known for. That doesn’t mean Wild Turkey can’t shine sub-100 proof. It can and does, expression depending. In fact, there’s more sub-100-proof Turkeys than many enthusiasts probably realize, especially when export and travel-retail bottlings are thrown in the mix.
While it’s not difficult to find lower-proof Wild Turkey expressions – the 81-proof bourbon, Longbranch, and Russell’s Reserve Six-Year Rye, are practically everywhere – finding ones that satisfy a diehard enthusiast’s palate isn’t exactly a walk in the park. The key is knowing where to start and why you’re starting there to begin with. Taking that into consideration, I thought I’d share my favorite sub-100-proof Wild Turkey whiskeys to date.
I’ll be the first to admit, the best Wild Turkey comes straight from a barrel with a Russell by your side in Tyrone’s rickhouse A. Anyone with experience will readily confirm it’s the opportunity of a lifetime – an event to be remembered and treasured. One can sometimes come close with barrel-proof pours like Rare Breed and various Single Cask Nation selections. Hell, sometimes the right Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel selection will offer an uncanny glimpse into Anderson County magic.
The thing is, I just can’t sip barrel-proof whiskey regularly. I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment. There are plenty of enthusiasts that love Rare Breed, Booker’s, and Elijah Craig Barrel Proof as daily sippers. I’m just not one of them. Years ago, I might’ve stated that differently, but these days I’m looking for as much flavor as I can squeeze out of a lighter ABV. Sometimes it’s not Turkey at all. Sometimes it’s not even whiskey (I’m fond of brandy, for example). And then, there’s always a well-crafted, lower-strength cocktail, among other potential options (cider, beer, wine, etc.). Yet, my heart and soul best flourish with something crafted by Jimmy and Eddie Russell.
If you’re seeking a flavorful, satisfying, and potentially memorable lower-ABV sipping experience, here are five sub-100-proof Wild Turkey expressions worthy of your attention. Some are easier to find than others, but with the right network of whiskey friends none are impossible to acquire. At the very least, you should be able to secure a sample. Oh, and in case you’re wondering why this list is “sub-100 proof” instead of the more on-brand “sub-101,” leaving this list sub-101 would arguably warrant the inclusion of Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond and Wild Turkey American Spirit. I think those stand well enough on their own. 😉
5. Forgiven (Batch 302)
When it comes to Wild Turkey’s first and only bourye to date, the inaugural batch 302 is hands down superior to its follow-up, batch 303. How so? While each stands as a notably easy 91-proof sipper, batch 302 has more depth and classic Turkey character. Looking for that famous “Turkey funk?” Batch 302 has it. Batch 303, on the other hand, leans very much modern in profile. As such, it’s more refined – one might even say sweeter – than its predecessor. There are some who may prefer those attributes, but for me – I’ll take the “funkier, oakier” iteration all damn day.
4. Master’s Keep (2015)
Seventeen years is quite the age statement – notable enough to rally both excitement and concern in the most seasoned whiskey enthusiast. Thankfully, 2015’s Master’s Keep did not disappoint, though its 86.8 proof was a head-scratcher for many. While some assumed significant dilution, it turns out the bourbon was within two points of batch strength (legally “barrel proof” as defined by ATF ruling 79-9). This was largely due to its peculiar aging conditions, spending time in both stone and wood/clad rickhouses.
As for the inaugural Master’s Keep’s flavor, there’s an elegant complexity that falls between Wild Turkey profiles of the past and present. Here one finds luxurious oak, antique leather, cedar, and sweet & savory herbal spice. Eddie Russell calls Master’s Keep 17 the most unique Turkey ever bottled; I have to agree. It’s quite lovely as well.
3. Father & Son
As recounted in last week’s post, the 2020 travel-retail Wild Turkey Father & Son came as a complete surprise to me. I was certain I’d be sipping a slightly diluted relabel of the thirteen-year Distiller’s Reserve. I was wrong.
For an 86-proof expression, Father & Son is loaded with mature intricacies found more frequently in limited editions like Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond and the previously discussed Master’s Keep Seventeen-Year. Its mouthfeel is somewhat lacking in texture, but don’t let that stop you from giving this one a try. Given one’s mood, it checks boxes that simply can’t be checked with modern core releases. And much like Master’s Keep Seventeen, there’s plenty of delicate oak and savory spice to draw you in. I should also mention that Father & Son is a liter bottle and can be found at various travel-retail vendors for around $79.
2. Russell’s Reserve 2003
In many ways, 2020’s Russell’s Reserve 2003 is a “love it or hate it” expression. On the hate-it side there’s low availability, a hefty $250 retail price, and a surprisingly low 89.5 proof to wrap your head around (especially considering past Russell’s Reserve vintage releases). It also rarely stands up well in tastings alongside bourbons higher in proof (regardless of its impressive age).
On the love-it side, the whiskey itself is the last of the old 107 barrel-entry proof employed by Jimmy Russell through 2004 (and full barrel proof, to boot). It was also well-curated, presumably on lower floors, to maintain the bourbon’s exemplary attributes and arguably throwback character. Personally, if I could sip Russell’s Reserve 2003 every day, I would. Alas, that would require hocking a kidney, which I’ll need if I’m to continue writing about Wild Turkey.
1. Russell’s Reserve Ten Year Old
Speaking of sipping Russell’s Reserve every day, this list wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of my daily favorite, Russell’s Reserve Ten-Year. Folks, if you’re passing this bottle by (trust me, it’s easy to do), you’re missing out on possibly the best value bourbon on the planet. Best value over Wild Turkey 101, you say? Yes. For a $35 ten-year Kentucky straight bourbon from the longest-tenured master distilling team on Earth, it’s a steal. In a hobby where double-digit, age-stated mysterious NDP releases are popping up all over the place (many with triple-digit price tags), it’s comforting to know that any decent liquor store will have plenty of Russell’s Ten-Year waiting for you.
But outside of a respectable age statement, what’s so great about Russell’s Reserve Ten-Year? At only 90 proof you might expect little to write about. With options like the 110-proof Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon and the 116.8-proof Rare Breed priced just above the ten-year expression, that argument certainly holds water. That being said, the list of quality, reliable age-stated bourbons at/around 90 proof is short. Sure, there’s Eagle Rare (which I quite enjoy), but finding it can be a chore, location depending. There’s also Bulleit Ten-Year, but you’ll pay a good bit more for it. Bulleit Ten is also contract distilled and/or sourced, so who knows who made it?
With Russell’s Reserve Ten-Year you’re getting classic-bourbon vanilla and caramel with the added bonus of oak, cherry, and leather straight from the Russells. It’s affordable, available, and consistently delicious. But don’t just take my word for it. Get out there and give it a try if you haven’t! All the same, revisit it if you have before and weren’t initially impressed. If I can change my opinion on Russell’s Ten (I wasn’t always a fan), I’m pretty sure you might just too.
So, there you have it – five lower-proof Turkeys that bring a smile to my face over and over again. Perhaps they will, or presently do, for you as well. All it takes is a little time, an open mind, and an appreciation for whiskey that doesn’t blow you away with brute strength. Besides, life is too short to run full speed. Believe it or not, slowing down and enjoying something easy going is a pleasant change of pace. It has been for me. Stay safe, take care of yourself, and when life gets you down, seek the occasional comfort of a lower-proof pour. Sometimes the light side is the bright side.
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