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Wild Turkey isn't the most divisive whiskey maker in the U.S., but collective perception of the brand might be least unified. Depending on who you ask, it's college kid whiskey — something cheap and good (enough) swirled together in a tub with god knows what else. It's also a collector's whiskey, but not because it's joined the industry-wide conga line of pushing old, pricey and very limited bottles annually (usually in the early fall) — its Turkey's bottles from the '80s and early '90s that sell for hundreds of dollars in whiskey's grey markets. Still, some may know it — likely for its 101 expression — as the standard bearer for well-made, well-priced American bourbon without the fuss brought on by the 2010s. But that's not how new bourbon enthusiasts that congregate on Instagram, /r/bourbon and private Facebook groups view them; they'd point to Wild Turkey's exceptional single barrel offerings as the brand's calling card.
Point is, Wild Turkey isn't a label that's easily fenced in. Its roots are mythical and its whiskeys diverse, and, since the Russell distilling dynasty took the reins in the mid-1960s, it's remained at the top of the American whiskey craft — something few brands can claim. Here's everything you need to know about Wild Turkey whiskey.
Wild Turkey Need-to-Knows
The house the Russells built: Between them, Jimmy and his son Eddie Russell have accrued more than 100 years on the job at Wild Turkey (Jimmy's father and grandfather are also said to have worked there, before they called it Wild Turkey), most of them as Master Distiller. Jimmy, whose many accolades and personal accomplishments are impossible to summarize briefly, is best known as the Buddha of Bourbon. Together, the pair have worked to guarantee the Wild Turkey of today is as close to the Wild Turkey of 50 years ago as it can be. Mike Veach, a Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame inductee and bourbon history authority, put it best in a review of the brand's most famous bottle, 101: "For those wanting to taste whiskey that tastes the way it did in their grandfather’s time, Wild Turkey 101 is as close as you can find in the market today."
A controlled experiment: It's not a sexy story you can build a marketing campaign around, but Wild Turkey's consistency is one of its greatest strengths. There is only one bourbon mashbill and one rye mashbill, every whiskey is made with the same yeast strain (the same one that's been used since at least the 1950s), each aging barrel is given the same #4 alligator char and every spirit goes into the barrel at the same proof (115). There are almost certainly more through-lines connecting each Wild Turkey expression, but the gist is this: the only thing that changes, bottle to bottle, is time spent in barrels, bottling proof and aging warehouse position.
The Wild Turkey "kick": What does Turkey taste like? It shares many writ large tasting notes with the category: caramel, vanilla, toffee, nuttiness and so on. But Wild Turkey whiskeys also have a tendency to bite back at the drinker, a trait that's gone by many names. David Jennings, author of American Spirit, a book that covers Wild Turkey "from Ripy to Russell" (the Ripys ran the show before the Russells took over in the 1950s), characterizes it as a kick, and attributes it to the distillers long-time use of a mysterious yeast strain.
"It has a boldness to it. It's not necessarily spicy, but it does have a kick. It's not ethanol, it's a flavor kick. It's not the rye content I don't think, I think it's the yeast. They've been using the same yeast forever. It kind of musty, punchy, nutty and richness."
Big in Japan: Bourbon wasn't always booming. In '70s and '80s, clear spirits were king, which led to a reshuffle of longtime whiskey makers and the first era in which the best of American whiskey wasn't necessarily available in America. Thanks to its scotch whisky roots, Japan was a savior for a number of American whiskey makers at the time, and few capitalized more swiftly or effectively than Wild Turkey. The distillery has continued shipping a significant amount of whiskey — most of it well-aged, as higher age statements are always in demand in a country dominated by scotch — to Japan, including bottles you can't get in the U.S.
Wild Turkey Mashbills
Unlike competitors Buffalo Trace Distillery, Heaven Hill, Brown-Forman and so on, Wild Turkey does not experiment (with publicly available product, anyway) with mashbill. Despite bottling more than 20 expressions, there are only two grain ratios that dictate the foundation of all Wild Turkey whiskey — one for bourbon, one for rye.
Bourbon Mash: though it's never been confirmed by the brand, it's widely understood all its bourbon whiskey products start with a mash of 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% malted barley (Wild Turkey 101, Russell's Reserve, Longbranch, Wild Turkey Master's Keep, etc.).
Rye Mash: again, neither Campari or Wild Turkey have officially confirmed this, but Turkey's rye products are thought to start with a mash of 52% rye, 36% corn, 12% malted barley (Wild Turkey Rye, Rare Breed Rye, Russell's Reserve Rye, etc.).
Wild Turkey Pricing
From mass-produced products like 101 to highly limited releases like Master's Keep, you could make the argument that Wild Turkey is the only major American whiskey maker whose lineup hasn't been compromised by the Bourbon Boom. Its products are available widely at or near their suggested retail price, and are generally ignored by rare whiskey hunting communities that have driven many a bottle to extinction. This makes Wild Turkey whiskey — weighed by price, age, proof — one of the best brands for value in the whiskey world.
In fact, the only Wild Turkey whiskey that regularly sells for more than its makers value is the old stuff. Vintage Wild Turkey bottles, especially those made before the early 1990s when the company switched from cypress fermentation tanks to an all-steel setup, are regularly bought and sold online by collectors and brand enthusiasts for hundreds of dollars.
Wild Turkey Brands
Editor's Note: a number of Wild Turkey expressions are available for purchase online and delivery. Note that the prices the bottles are available for online is subject to the retailer, not the company's suggested retail price.
Wild Turkey Bourbon
Price: $20 - $30
Age: 6 - 8 year blend
Bottles: Wild Turkey Bourbon, Wild Turkey 101
Wild Turkey's flagship whiskey is, and has been for some time, 101. The high-proof, high-potency bourbon is consistently recognized by reviewers, tasting competitions and best-selling lists. Its combo of price, proof and availability makes it one of the best values in whiskey.
Introduced in 2011, the 81 proof variant is less revered, but has its place (particularly as a punch whiskey). And while 101 packs a far greater punch than 81, both are the product of enormous batch production (something like 1,500 barrels per batch, according to the brand), aged in Char #4 barrels and carry no age statement, though the blend of whiskeys is said to be comprised of 6-, 7- and 8-year-old spirit.
Wild Turkey Rye
Price: $25 - $40
Bottles: Wild Turkey Rye, Wild Turkey 101 Rye
Where Wild Turkey bourbon features more rye in the mash than is industry standard, its rye features less. The estimated rye content in the mash sits at 52 percent, just 1 percent more than is legally required to be called rye whiskey. This means that, unlike many of today's popular Indiana-style ryes (which are made from mashes carrying 90-plus percent rye), it drinks a whole lot more like bourbon than drinkers expect. Just like its mainline bourbons, Wild Turkey splits its large batch rye into an 81 and 101 proof offering, the latter only available in 1-liter format, and at a moderate price hike. Expect Wild Turkey's signature bite, but don't assume its status as a rye whiskey means you'll need a glass of milk handy to deal with the heat.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed
Price: $50 - $60
Age: 6 - 12 year blend
Bottles: Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Wild Turkey Rare Breed Rye
Rare Breed was introduced in the early 1990s as Jimmy Russell's answer to his friend and competitor Booker Noe's landmark release a few years prior, Booker's. Released in 1988, Booker's has a legitimate claim to have lit the fuse of the Bourbon Boom to come. It was a premium bourbon bottled at barrel proof and proved to the spirits community — including Jimmy Russell and Wild Turkey, clearly — that whiskey drinkers wanted more than affordability and flavored spirit.
Today, Rare Breed is in contention for most affordable barrel proof bourbon on the shelf. After many years of waiting, Wild Turkey rye fans' prayers were answers, as the company introduced Rare Breed Rye in summer of 2020.
Wild Turkey whiskey has a lower barrel entry proof than any major whiskey producer. This yields barrel proof whiskey that doesn't reach the palate-scorching proofs you might find on the shelf next to it. A warning: do not let its slightly lower proof — usually 110 to 118 or so — lead you to believe this is a calm sipper. Rare Breed throws a black pepper, leather and baking spice haymaker at you on first taste, and mellows as the minutes pass, winding up in a sweet, fatty finish.
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit
Age: 8-ish years
Bottles: Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit
Added to the Turkey portfolio in 1994, this is Wild Turkey 101 in single barrel form. Bottles at your local store will change over time as the distillery releases them, the labels bearing the rickhouse the whiskey aged in for eight or so years. This makes each buy a roll of the dice — will the profile be close to standard 101, or something far afield? For Wild Turkey purists, bottles with "CN" somewhere on the rickhouse info are prized. The acronym stands for Camp Nelson, a secondary barrel-aging location (most barrels mature at the Tyrone, Kentucky facilities) that is said to imbue the whiskey with different flavors. It could also be no different at all; just fluff dusted up by Turkey completionists that want their more rare Camp Nelson single barrels to be more special (or, my cynically, sell for more on the secondary market).
Wild Turkey Master's Keep
Bottles: Released annually
Released once annually for the last five years, Master's Keep is typically the most limited (and expensive) Wild Turkey whiskey by some distance. Subsequent releases have set various brand records for oldest whiskey released in the U.S., including last year's Cornerstone Rye release (9 to 11 years) a pair of 17-year-old bourbons and Decades, a blend of bourbon aged 10 to 20 years. Most of the releases range in price from $125 to twice that at liquor stores, but this particular super-premium one-off release has something going for it: the folks who buy and sell rare whiskey on Facebook and elsewhere aren't scraping it up.
Most limited releases from major distilleries are gobbled up by thirsty drinkers or greedy flippers before regular folks have a chance. For whatever reason, the hype train skipped Master's Keep and continues to feast on allocated bottles like Blanton's, Weller 12-Year, Four Roses Limited Edition, Michter's single barrel releases and so on. Don't ask why, just be thankful the retail prices you find aren't being pumped up by illegal sales on Facebook.
Russell's Reserve Small Batch
Age: 6 to 10+ years
Bottles: Russell's Reserve 10 Year Old Bourbon, Russell's Reserve 6 Year Old Rye
Why Wild Turkey sets the price of its small batch Russell's Reserve bourbon expression at $40 is a mystery worth contemplating over a glass of Russell's Reserve bourbon. Buffalo Trace's Eagle Rare is the only American bourbon that rivals Russell's Reserve's double-digit age with a $40 SRP, and Eagle Rare is significantly more challenging to track down (and is far more likely to be marked well above its SRP).
It is the oldest and lowest proof bottle in Wild Turkey's main collection of bourbon, features that paint it as an ideal value sipper, especially for those who aren't attracted to Wild Turkey's 100-plus proof products.
The same collection's 6-year-old rye offering is less of a mystery. At $45 and 6 years old, it faces huge competition from all corners of the rye category, which offers huge value buys in the $25 to $30 range (Old Forester 100 Rye, Wild Turkey 101 Rye, Rittenhouse Rye, etc.) and plenty of more premium choices (Pikesville Rye, Knob Creek Rye, etc.). That said, it holds up. Expect a more bourbon-like nose and initial taste, with the warmth typical of rye whiskey coming through on the finish.
Russell's Reserve Single Barrel
Age: 8 - 10 years
Bottles: Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Rye
It's unconfirmed, but rumor is what separates Russell's Reserve single barrel bottles from, say, Kentucky Spirit single barrel bottles, is the former barrels are selected by the Russells themselves. Bottled at a sturdy 110 proof, it's available in both bourbon and rye forms, with the former proving more popular than the latter. Both versions share the same extra-bold flavor profile and both are popular with bourbon communities for the company's in-house private barrel program. If you're after the most sought after barrels, look for bottles aged in warehouses A, B and D from the distillery's Tyrone facilities, or Camp Nelson A and F. Last note: Russell's Reserve whiskey (all of it, not just single barrel expressions) are the only regularly available Wild Turkey whiskeys that aren't chill-filtered, a feature (or lack thereof) that's become appealing to whiskey geeks.
Wild Turkey Longbranch
Age: 8 years
Bottles: Wild Turkey Longbranch
Designed with Matthew McConaughey and "inspired by McConaughey's Kentucky and Texas roots," Longbranch garners criticism for not fitting in with Wild Turkey's obsession with consistency (or perhaps drinkers are put off by a celebrity spirit). The truth is, it's a low proof, 8-ish-year-old bourbon filtered through regular oak charcoal (a standard practice) and mesquite charcoal (an uncommon practice), lending it a distinct but not overpowering smokey nose and profile. It's not Wild Turkey for purists, but it's an interesting experiment in flavor bending.