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To Drink Wild Turkey Is to Understand Whiskey. Here's Why

One of America's greatest whiskey producers have created a catalog uniquely suited to whiskey self-education. Welcome to the Wild Turkey Masterclass.

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Wild Turkey

Welcome to Chasing Whiskey, a monthly newsletter delivering barrel-proof takes on whiskey, new bottles to look out for and recommendations from Gear Patrol readers. Subscribe here to get it, and other great gear news delivered directly to your inbox.


New Whiskeys to Look for from May

Wolves Whiskey (Spring Run): An expensive, highly giftable, very odd whiskey. This release is a blend of whiskey made from stout and pilsner beers, rye whiskey and American single malt whiskey. It's thick, spicy, chocolatey and a bit oaky. $200 / 6 to 10 years old / 105 proof

George Dickel Bottled-in-Bond: One of the best annual releases in the whiskey world. Though a whole $9 more expensive than the first drop a few years back, you'd still be hard-pressed to find 13-year-old whiskey at this price. $45 / 13 years old / 100 proof

Laws Centennial Straight Wheat Whiskey: The Colorado-based craft distillery focuses on making bonded whiskeys with high-end grains. Made with both fresh and malted wheat, its straight wheat whiskey is floral, sweet and light. Drink on the porch over ice. $75 / 6 years old / 100 proof

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Want to Understand Bourbon? Drink Wild Turkey

Of all those it shares a place within the pantheon of legendary whiskey labels, Wild Turkey is probably the most unassuming. Few bourbons (or distilleries) better represent the 2010s than Buffalo Trace, which went from relative obscurity to the bourbon brand in record time. Family- and Kentucky-owned Heaven Hill Distillery is home to hallowed brands like Elijah Craig, Old Fitzgerald and Henry McKenna, and still finds the time to push out the world-beater that is Evan Williams en masse. Maker's Mark's excellent bourbon has managed to be overshadowed by its equally excellent marketing and wax-dipped bottle neck. Everyone has a calling card except Wild Turkey. Maybe that is its calling card.

Apart from smaller craft operations, Wild Turkey is the closest thing to a control experiment in whiskey. From 101 to its high-end Master's Keep releases, all Wild Turkey bourbon is made with the same mash (unconfirmed, but most believe it's 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% malted barley). The mash feeds on a single, proprietary yeast, too, which bourbon whiskey author and authority Fred Minnick says you should pay more attention to.

"How is it, this wonderful bourbon continues to have this beloved, often storied so-called Turkey funk? Well, my belief is it's the yeast, our most underrated ingredient in bourbon. Turkey makes their own yeast, have their own yeast cultures and have used the same yeast for 65 years," Minnick told me.

All unaged Turkey hooch enters the barrel at the same 115 proof point. They don't even play with barrel char levels; all bourbon ages in deep, dark No. 4 alligator charred barrels.

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What this means: whether you're new to whiskey or a fully fledged bourbonite, Wild Turkey's bourbon lineup serves as the best way to understand the category. What does proof do for flavor? Try Wild Turkey 81 and Wild Turkey 101 side-by-side; both are made with blends of 6- to 8-year-old juice, and everything but the 20 proof difference is the same. What does age do for flavor? Sip 101 and Russell's Reserve 10-year together; the former is more youthful and 11 proof points more stout, but the latter's 10-year minimum shines through clear as day (if you find it at a bar or collecting dust at your liquor store, the 17-year-old Bottled-in-Bond Master's Keep release is an even better comparison). What's the difference between batched whiskey and single barrel whiskey? Reach for 101 again, but drink a single barrel Kentucky Spirit with it. The brand is almost built for side-by-side tastings and teaching the drinker what levers a whiskey maker can pull to change the spirit.

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"Wild Turkey has never been big or bold in their pursuit of innovation or envelope pushing, and that's fine. They clearly deliver the best control experiment a bourbon drinker could want, and also afford," spirits reviewer Jay West told me.

The consistency is driven by the Master Distiller father-son duo of Jimmy and Eddie Russell, who have a combined 100-plus-years at the company. Bourbon production has remained as close to what it was 50 years ago as possible. The Russells fought tooth and nail to keep the barrel entry proof, one of the brand's historical hallmarks, lower than the industry average of 125. They only replaced the cypress wood fermenting tanks with stainless steel ones in the last few years. One of the few differences in barrel-to-barrel production is the brand's use of palletized and standard rack aging warehouses, but the vast majority of the bourbon rests in the latter. Of the 31 warehouses used to age Wild Turkey, only 5 are palletized, and Eddie Russell himself leans toward the rack warehouses anyway.

"I prefer the rack warehouses for us. We only use one mash bill and one yeast, so we need the different levels to produce different tastes. Some distilleries basically only use palletized but if they’re working with a variety of different types of [products]," Russell said.

Russell also noted the brand doesn't rotate barrels anymore — the practice of moving an aging barrel to different parts of a warehouse — because they have many expressions. Instead, they use different heights and positions in the warehouses to influence flavor.

In a review of Wild Turkey 101, Mike Veach, Kentucky whiskey history expert, affirmed this: "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."

Minnick echoed Veach's point. "The beauty of Wild Turkey is its got one of the most unique flavor profiles in all of whiskey. Not just American. But whiskey. Period. And you can taste a semblance of yesterday's Turkey in today's."

Written by David Jennings, American Spirit provides lush detail on the brand's history, and put me on to this idea (perhaps inadvertently). Better known as RareBird101, Jennings is a self-professed Wild Turkey obsessive.

"It's amazing what diverse profiles a single bourbon and rye whiskey recipe can produce in the hands of true masters. When it comes to bourbon, no one has done it longer than the Russells. And it damn sure shows," he said.

One Good Bottle

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"We visited Limestone Branch Distillery and sampled a 100% malted rye from their Experimental Collection which was only available on site. I haven't found a match for that since, and any 100% malted rye out there is pricey and hard to obtain (here in New Hampshire anyway).

Still chasing that 'malty high,' I've tried some of the American single malts, but most recently tried the Woodford Reserve Malt Whiskey. I found my vice. Woodford has always offered a consistent experience, but the Straight Malt might be one of the more unexpected offerings in recent times. It's an easy-drinking whiskey that is an excellent gateway malt for the curious — vanilla, chocolate, toasty oak, nutty, and just enough heat. I think I'm on my sixth bottle — which might be nothing to be proud of — but at only $35 for a 750ml bottle, it's not a financial line item I have to make up an excuse for at the end of each month." Adam Fitzgerald, Editor-in-Chief, Iron & Air

Tell us about (in two to four sentences, please!) the One Good Bottle you've been enjoying for a chance to get featured in our next email by reaching out to wprice@gearpatrol.com with the subject line "Chasing Whiskey."

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