I can’t overstate the value of having good friends in whiskey, especially good friends who appreciate Wild Turkey. One such friend is David James, Wild Turkey aficionado and collector extraordinaire. David literally owns a museum dedicated to Wild Turkey, with bottles and memorabilia spanning back to the earliest days of the brand. In an act of immense kindness that I’ll likely never be able to repay, he provided me with a generous sample of an eight-year, 101-proof Wild Turkey Straight Rye from the 1950s.* I have no idea what that bottle would be valued at today, but it’s easily four figures. David, you are a true gentleman and I sincerely appreciate your thoughtfulness.
The history of Wild Turkey’s rye prior to the 1980s is shrouded in relative mystery. We know it was sourced, primarily from Maryland and Pennsylvania, though on rare occasion Illinois (likely Hiram Walker). My research led to Baltimore Pure Rye as the primary source in the 1950s, at least until the distillery was purchased by Seagram’s in 1957 to produce Four Roses and Paul Jones whiskeys, though it’s always possible that contract continued afterwards.
By the early to mid 1960s, Wild Turkey’s rye whiskey was produced by Michter’s/Pennco in Pennsylvania. I was able to confirm this with the late Dick Stoll, former master distiller of Michter’s, when writing my book, American Spirit: Wild Turkey Bourbon from Ripy to Russell. He stated the Michter’s/Pennco rye mash bill as 65/23/12 (rye, corn, barley) and presumed the Maryland recipe contracted by Austin, Nichols & Co. for Wild Turkey was the same or similar. That being said, Baltimore Pure Rye was well known for a “RYE-E-RYE” mash bill of 98/2 (rye, barley), so it’s possible that was used for Wild Turkey 101 Rye as well.
All things considered, there’s a lot of assumptions and unknowns, and the exact production details may very well be lost to time. Thankfully, some whiskey still exists, with folks like David allowing me a chance-of-a-lifetime look into what Wild Turkey’s rye was like back in the 1950s. So without further ado, that’s precisely what I’ll do.
Thank you, David. You’re everything whiskey enthusiasm should represent.
*Regarding this bottle’s year of production: The glass stamp on the bottle’s underside reads “52,” “54,” and “57;” the front label, however, states “New York, NY.” Prior to 1958, Wild Turkey bottles commonly stated “Brooklyn, NY.” As such, I’m hesitant to date this bottle a specific year and have opted for a more approximate “late 1950s.”
Wild Turkey Straight Rye Whiskey (late 1950s) – 101 proof – aged eight years – “distilled in Maryland,” bottled by Austin, Nichols & Co., New York, NY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: rosy copper
Nose: (crazy-unique dusty) cherry pie filling, fermented apple jam, butterscotch, funky caramel popcorn, orange candy, vibrant spice, sugar wafers, tangy minerals, hints of cereal & malt
Taste: (silky mouthfeel) vanilla-glazed jelly doughnut, boozy punch, Froot Loops cereal, delicately funky oak, Red Zinger herbal tea, flavored tobacco … prickly, zesty, zingy
Finish: notably long & remarkably flavorful (ie: a palate rollercoaster) – dense vanilla, lemon-cherry, sweet charred oak, blood orange, blueberry-maple syrup, smoky grapefruit, leather, clove chewing gum
Overall: Truly unlike anything you’ll find on the market today, particularly from Wild Turkey. There’s a quality about this 1950’s Wild Turkey rye that simply can’t be replicated. While I freely admit that anything is possible (at least in theory), you’d have to employ some serious quantum-physics acrobatics to bring this whiskey’s profile to life in the twenty-first century. In fact, I’m struggling to put into words exactly what I’m tasting. Granted, it’s loaded with dusty whiskey “funk,” but this isn’t your everyday dusty.
I can’t help but contemplate this Wild Turkey Straight Rye Whiskey mash bill. While the logical part of my brain wants to steer towards 98/2 (being the most recognized recipe of Baltimore Pure Rye), I’m getting notes that I typically associate with corn and malted barley. It’s definitely worlds apart from the high-rye recipes currently employed by MGP and Alberta, for whatever that’s worth. Maybe Dick Stoll was right. Maybe it’s the same recipe Michter’s/Pennco used. I suppose we’ll never know for sure, but as of today my palate is banking on 65/23/12.
Believe it or not, I received this sample well over a year ago. Why did I take so long to review it? I honestly don’t have a good answer. I tasted it on a YouTube livestream in early 2020 and it struck me as being so incredibly different, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I guess you could say my tongue was tied, so I decided to save it for another occasion. After learning I’d be participating in a webinar with David James for Wild Turkey’s Behind the Barrel, I headed straight to my sample box to retrieve this long-lost rarity. I’m so glad I did.
This is the part of the review where I usually assign a score. I won’t be doing that today. While I’m confident it would fall between 4 and 5 Turkeys on my 5-point Turkey scale, the chances of finding Wild Turkey rye whiskey prior to the 1980s is slim – even more so for mid-twentieth-century bottlings. Besides, when it comes to pours like this, the sentimental value far outweighs any secondary market value.
If you’re fortunate enough to own vintage Turkey – or vintage whiskey in general – consider David James’ philosophy: Whiskey is made for drinking and sharing. The amount of excitement and joy one can impart through acts of goodwill and fellowship exceeds financial gain. Cash is nice, though fickle and never exchangeable for memories. I’m grateful for those willing to share their hard-to-find bottles. Hell, this blog wouldn’t exist were it not for a considerate stranger (thanks, Chris). Let’s hope as this hobby continues to grow in popularity, the appreciation for what matters most remains the primary focus. Without that, all we’re left with is shiny bottles of glorified booze.
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