Love it or hate it, it’s time for the inevitable year-end “top whiskey” lists to flood social media. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing. Sure, some are pure clickbait – even worse, paid promotionals. But given an honest perspective and a proper dose of substance, lists of annual favorites can be informative and fun. At this point, this blog wouldn’t be complete without one. For the last four years, I’ve shared what I feel are the most noteworthy Wild Turkey expressions. 2021 will prove no different.
As with previous posts in my “Best of” series, the premise remains the same: recognize Wild Turkey releases that aren’t just quality pours, but offer traits one could argue as unique or special. Ratings will factor into my selection process, though it’s important to note they aren’t the sole determining factor.
My rules are simple (no changes from prior years). To be eligible for selection a release must be as follows:
- Produced at Wild Turkey Distillery and bottled and/or initially available for sale within the same calendar year. (That means no “dusties” or bottles from previous years.)
- Private single barrels, independent bottlings, and Campari Whiskey Baron releases are all potential selections (so long as they’re confirmed as Wild Turkey produced).
- While some whiskeys are eligible for multiple categories, each category will have an exclusive winner. In other words, you won’t find a particular whiskey winning multiple categories.
And now, Rare Bird 101’s The Best of Wild Turkey 2021.
Best Design (2021) – Wild Turkey 101 / Wild Turkey 101 Rye
If I’m being completely accurate, the new Wild Turkey 101 (and 101 Rye) bottle design first hit shelves in December of 2020. However, it was only 1.75 liter bottles (commonly known as “handles”). A few months down the road, Wild Turkey formally launched the new “embossed Turkey” glass design in multiple sizes: 750ml, 1 liter, as well as the aforementioned 1.75 liter. Unfortunately, the spartan paper-label 375ml bottle isn’t much to brag about, nor is the plastic 750ml “Traveler” bottle (frequently found in 2021 thanks to glass shortages), but I’m not including those (nor minis) in this award category.
What do I love most about the new embossed Turkey design? Primarily, it’s simplistic elegance, though it’s notably reminiscent of Wild Turkey 101 half-gallon bottles from the 1970s. As hot as vintage Wild Turkey is at present, it only makes sense that a semi-throwback design (whether intended or not) would be a hit with whiskey enthusiasts. That being said, not everyone is a fan. I’ve received numerous comments on Instagram wishing the new design never existed. I get it. Change isn’t always an easy shot to swallow. But for me, at least in this case, it goes down smoother than Longbranch. Frankly, the embossed Turkey design is stellar and I commend Campari for moving forward with it in a less-than-ideal year for change.
Best Core Expression (2021) – Russell’s Reserve Ten Year Old Bourbon
Few whiskeys meet my lips as often as Russell’s Reserve Ten-Year. It’s my modern-day rock – my go-to pour on any given day of the week (good or bad). Sadly, I’ve seen far less of it available in my area. While many speculate bourbon’s meteoric rise in popularity as the primary culprit, I’m guessing the issue has more to do with supply than demand. Not that there isn’t a growing army of Russell’s Ten-Year fans out there. I see the love shared more and more each day. I just don’t believe it’s reached Eagle Rare or Henry McKenna Ten-Year’s status just yet.
As for why I love Russell’s Reserve Ten-Year so much – why it made this list – it’s fairly straightforward. Russell’s Ten checks virtually every box in what I’m looking for in a daily bourbon nowadays. It showcases a mature but easy-sipping flavorful profile. It’s surprisingly affordable for its double-digit age statement. And, it never lets me down. Whereas some whiskeys come and go or lean heavily on one’s mood, Russell’s Ten is always an appropriate pour. It may not be a perfect bourbon in the universal sense, but it’s perfect enough for me.
Best Straight Rye (2021) – Rare Breed Rye
There’s a helluva lot of heavy-hitting rye whiskeys out there. That wasn’t always the case. Rye whiskey’s popularity may have shocked some, though certain veteran bartenders could’ve told you twenty years ago it was bound to happen. And here we are.
Let’s face it – Wild Turkey is late to the barrel-proof rye game. It wasn’t until 2020 when the Russells finally gave us what fans had been shouting for since Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye came onto the scene. And, they answered with Rare Breed Rye.
This year, Rare Breed Rye once again wins my Best Straight Rye category. Why not Wild Turkey 101 Rye or Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye? Both are incredible representations of Wild Turkey’s quality rye whiskey, but Rare Breed Rye proved the most versatile of the bunch. One could argue each of the brand’s rye expressions is perfect for cocktails, blending, or just plain neat sipping. Hell, I could argue that easily. But Rare Breed Rye … it just seems to work whenever and however I need it. It’s also pretty damn bold any which way you sip it. If there’s one Wild Turkey offering that never loses its edge, it’s Rare Breed Rye.
Best Single Barrel (2021) – Single Cask Nation Wild Turkey Barrel #20-0202
In a sea of single-barrel offerings, there’s one label that immediately catches the eye – Single Cask Nation. I’ve been impressed with Joshua Hatton and Jason Johnstone-Yellin’s “independent bottling company that could” since I first tasted their 2016 Whisky Jewbilee. J&J Spirits’ Single Cask Nation is a brand loaded with unique, thought-provoking hits, and Wild Turkey barrel #20-0202 is surely one of them. Its distinctive fruity-herbal character is best summarized in the following excerpt from my July 2021 review:
If you’ve ever wondered what Fruity Pebbles might taste like as a whiskey, give this bourbon a try. The hard-to-place fruitiness is intense. It’s not the everyday orange, cherry, or apple you find in Wild Turkey at this age. Instead, something funky, herbal, even tropical, is revealed. This is the type of barrel that stands out – one that’s desired and remembered fondly when it’s gone.
Admittedly, I wasn’t much of a rickhouse E bourbon fan when barrels first hit Wild Turkey’s private selection program in 2020. But this Single Cask Nation selection … This is something else. In fact, it’s so atypical, fans of the familiar “core Turkey” profile might find themselves struggling for sure footing. Fortunately for me, I’m mesmerized by its syncopated intricacies and oddities. Single Cask Nation #20-0202 is a genuine stunner. It won’t be everyone’s jam, but it’s damn sure mine.
Patron’s Choice (2021) – Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon
For the last several years I’ve asked my amazing Patreon supporters – my community of diehard Wild Turkey fanatics – which expression was their annual favorite. This year – well, let’s just say there were no surprises. Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon holds tightly to its crown. In a crazy new world where Wild Turkey limited editions are nearly impossible to find, it’s comforting to know that Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon is reasonably obtainable (fingers crossed). Be it the standard retail offering or single-barrel private selections, 110-proof, non-chill-filtered Wild Turkey for $65 is hard to beat.
But if one were to focus solely on 2021 Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel private selections, I’d have to say that McBrayer B was my overall favorite. There were certainly winners from rickhouse K, F, and CNA (among various holdovers from 2019 and 2020), but McBrayer B offered something unexpected – a grape-like “crushable” profile uncommonly found in modern-day Turkey. Whether or not my patrons agree with me, you’d have to ask them. But I’d wager most who have tasted the range of 2021 selections would.
Best Whiskey Overall (2021) – Russell’s Reserve Thirteen Year Old Bourbon
There are three words that I can guarantee will either get you an emphatic “hell yes” or an exhaustive eyeroll, and those words are “Russell’s Reserve Thirteen.” We all knew it was coming, but what we didn’t know is how insane the demand for Russell’s Thirteen would be. That demand only drove an even more insane whiskey secondary market value, making the appropriately retail-priced expression ripe for profiteers and charlatans. Unfortunately, bad behavior continues to this day. In fact, I just blocked and reported a Twitter account offering a “buy three, get one free” Russell’s Reserve Thirteen “deal.”
Shenanigans aside, Eddie Russell should be immensely proud of Russell’s Reserve Thirteen. The artful combination of thirteen-year and nineteen-year bourbon – involving barrels from both the Camp Nelson and Tyrone campuses – is a whiskey tour de force. Credit should also be given to Wild Turkey’s resident Food Scientist, Shaylyn Gammon, who assisted Eddie with dialing in the masterful batch using only her nose (Shaylyn was pregnant at the time). An undeniably impressive bourbon by an impressive team of talented individuals. Is it worth secondary valuations? Not to me. That said, Russell’s Reserve Thirteen-Year is better than a grand majority of whiskeys regularly flipped for significantly higher amounts. It’s my whiskey of 2021, and it’s likely many others’ as well.
In a year of whiplash-inducing highs and lows, it’s comforting to know that Wild Turkey (again) gave us quality whiskey to rely on. Some expressions were harder to find than others – one in particular didn’t make this list, Master’s Keep One. I’ll spare my defense for the comments section, but understand that it’s okay for us to disagree on what’s best. It’s one of the things that makes whiskey enthusiasm a great hobby. If we all agreed on everything … Where’s the fun in that?
With 2021 in the rearview mirror and 2022 on the horizon, I encourage everyone to look forward to brighter days. Will we see them? Hard to say. 2021 was arguably 2020 Part II. But it’s better to hope than despair. As for Wild Turkey, it will be interesting to see how its brands evolve. At present, Wild Turkey, Russell’s Reserve, and Longbranch no longer share space on the same Wild Turkey website; each brand has its own.
I think it’s safe to assume Wild Turkey will continue its present course. We’ll see the same familiar bottles on shelves, so long as pandemic-related supply chain issues resolve. Russell’s Reserve may release a second thirteen-year batch (let’s hope). And Longbranch … I believe McConaughey’s baby is destined for expansion. It could be a rye whiskey; it could be a liqueur. Only time will tell. Regardless of what happens (or doesn’t), I’ll be here to write about it. That, you can count on.
Have a happy and safe New Year. Cheers!
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