Believe it or not, the last time I reviewed a “Cheesy Gold Foil” Wild Turkey 101 was over six years ago. Well, there was that mid-2017 blind comparison of two different CGF releases, but anyhow. It’s been a long time. Having been graciously gifted a 1988 CGF by the Wild Turkey Saint himself, Mr. David James, it only felt right to dive in and revisit this revered expression in depth. Thanks again, David.
I once asked Eddie Russell what makes Cheesy Gold Foil so desirable, as he’s made it clear it’s a personal favorite on more than one occasion. While there are numerous factors to consider – lower barrel-entry proof, lack of chill filtration, cypress fermentation tanks, non-RO water, etc. – he placed one factor above all others: a significant amount of older whiskey. It’s entirely possible there could be as old as 20-year-old bourbon in some CGF batches, which largely accounts for the variation in profile from year to year. But more on that later.
It was 1988, and the bourbon industry was in rough shape. The year prior saw bourbon’s lowest reported production figures in modern times, with 1988 being the second lowest. It’s commonly referred to as the “Glut Era,” as distillers had more whiskey aging than they knew what to do with. As a result, choice stocks ended up in everyday products, enhancing the profiles of expressions from the bottom shelf to the top.
Sounds great, right? Mature whiskey for a steal of a price? Not so fast.
The flip side is that the Glut came at a hefty price for producers. Distilleries closed their doors – some forever. Hard-working individuals lost their jobs. Communities lost long-standing pillars of employment. And though Wild Turkey survived, thanks largely to Jimmy Russell’s stubborn determination, it suffered consecutive annual losses taking years to overcome. One might even say we’re lucky the brand exists today.
The Glut is Coming
For those tuned into whiskey social media, phrases like “here comes the glut” are worn-out tropes. Sadly, there are folks who seem to champion the thought. While I get it’s nice to pay low prices for top-notch hooch, a bourbon glut era similar to what took place in the 1980s would be devastating – not just for Kentucky, but for tens of thousands employed throughout the U.S.
Take a minute and think about that. Is a new glut era truly a good thing?
I’ll be the first to admit that I have no expertise in economics or market trends. My focus is on whiskey, specifically Wild Turkey. But I understand that what’s popular now won’t be popular forever. It’s human nature. That being said, some products have found ways to stay mainstream. Take sodas, for example. In my 46 years walking this planet, soda variety and consumption has grown significantly. What once resided on a few shelves at my local grocery store now occupies an entire aisle. Considering the triviality of the product, that says something. One doesn’t require Coke or Shasta to live. There are plenty of low-cost alternatives – water, coffee, tea, fruit juices, milk, etc. Yet, we love our sodas. To my knowledge, there’s never been a “Soda Glut.” If anything, it’s a never-ending influx of new products. Hell, people pay good money for Liquid Death and it’s essentially water in a can.
One could argue that alcoholic beverages are a completely different category (they are), intertwined with times and initiatives of moral opposition, abstinence, and social/political motivations. The consumer audience is also narrowed. Yet, that doesn’t explain the Glut Era, which took place decades after Prohibition. Booze was considerably popular at the time; bourbon simply wasn’t.
Can bourbon (or whiskey in general) find a way to maintain its current state of popularity? With a record number of barrels aging in Kentucky alone (and more in production), can a second glut era be avoided? It may appear daunting, but I have faith that it can. I’d love nothing more than a sea of delicious and diverse whiskeys ten years from now. That can’t happen in times of glut. Sure, you might have an amazing Wild Turkey 101 or Old Grand Dad, but imagine what you’d give up in exchange.
Wild Turkey 101 “Cheesy Gold Foil” (1988)
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Age: 12 years
Misc.: bottled by the Austin, Nichols Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: deep rosy copper
Nose: (fragrant, dusty) dense butterscotch, funky rum, fermented blood orange, boozy English toffee, herbal-floral perfume, hints of medicinal grape
Taste: (intense w/ an oily mouthfeel) honey-maple, caramel chews, sweet funky oak, molasses, pipe tobacco, antique leather, “sticky” spice
Finish: long & flavorful w/ waves of vanilla spice, rich brown sugar, savory orange peel, nutmeg, clove chewing gum, white pepper
Impression: Every Cheesy Gold Foil is undoubtedly special, but as a buddy of mine recently stated, 1988’s hits differently. And he’s right. If I were still assigning numerical ratings, this Turkey would easily score a perfect 5/5. If you’re in the market for CGF, you can’t go wrong with the flavor profiles of 1988-1990. To me, they’re the best of the lot (though I’ll stress again that none are losers).
As for the specifics of this ‘88 CGF’s profile, it’s exactly what you’d expect and more. The dusty Turkey profile is in full force, with heaps of butterscotch, fermented fruit, and fragrant, well-rounded herbal-floral spice. There are elements on the nose that remind me of 2015’s Master’s Keep 17-Year, Russell’s Reserve 2003 on the palate, and the recent export Wild Turkey 101 12-Year on the finish. Of course, none capture the magic of Cheesy Gold Foil, but each hearken back to it in their own way. If obtaining a CGF seems an impossible task, I’d highly recommend those three expressions as alternatives.
I suppose it’s odd to lead by discouraging talk of a new glut era, only to sing the praises of an original Glut Era bourbon. What can I say? It’s damn fine whiskey. But truth be told, I’d happily give up CGF for a wider world of unique and tasty bourbons. In fact, the greater the variety the better. There’s so much room for exploration and innovation, a bourbon glut would only hinder that.
As I nose the last of this ‘88 Cheesy Gold Foil, I can’t help but reflect on the sacrifice of exceptional barrels that went into this whiskey. I think about the distillery workers responsible for batching and bottling it and wonder if they feared losing their jobs. Maybe not with Jimmy around, as I’d wager he was a comforting source of confidence and levity. Even so, as incredible as this bourbon tastes, it means very little when you can’t put gas in the car or food on the table.
We don’t need another bourbon glut era. Those who claim we do probably aren’t looking at the big picture. Outside of selfish satisfaction, the negatives far outweigh the positives. Besides, there’s plenty of quality whiskey to be discovered, with new expressions hitting retail shelves regularly. I could be wrong, but I feel that supply will eventually reach a healthy balance with today’s rampant demand. Time will tell. In the meantime, think positive, drink more Turkey, and the next time you find yourself sipping Glut Era bourbon, consider the sacrifices of bourbon’s past.
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I’m with you. Cheesy Gold is amazing, but not worth a return to the glut. We’ve got more good bourbon now than we ever have.
These CGF have gotten so expensive I wonder if they are susceptible to counterfeiting.
I’d imagine so. Haven’t heard of a for-sure fake one yet, but it’s highly likely they exist.
Besides the human impact you discuss, people forget that there were so many fewer products available that were aimed at enthusiasts. Now there are barrel proofers, single barrels, and private selections available for almost every mash bill from the major distilleries. But it wasn’t that long ago that you couldn’t even buy Four Roses straight bourbon in the United States, to pick just one example. So I certainly don’t wish for a true glut. But I do wish that distilleries would do a little less chasing of fads and introducing of new labels and a little more focusing on the availability and quality of their existing releases. Wild Turkey has done a commendable job of this. While the Russell’s Reserve LEs probably fall into the category of things you are unlikely to find at the already significant MSRP, they have maintained quality and availability of most of their bourbon and rye portfolio.
Agree that it can seem like there’s too many trend-chasing expressions out there, but I appreciate the variety. As you stated, some producers are better than others.