Wild Turkey 101 might be one of the most underappreciated bourbon brands on the market.
Yeah, that’s a loaded statement. But hear me out.
First, it’s an incredible steal at the lower end of the standard segment. Its high-proof, rye-forward style is an homage to pre-Prohibition bourbon traditions that might have otherwise been lost had Master Distiller Jimmy Russell not stepped in.
But for decades, this combination of high-proof and low-price resulted in a bad rap. Critics judged the contents low-brow.
There’s just no pleasing some people.
Well, that’s fine. Bourbon geeks know what’s up. And today, the brand is beginning to get some of the recognition it has always deserved.
But listen to me, I’m ranting again…
Let’s learn more about the brand to put these thoughts into context.
Where should we start — the brand, the distributor or the distillery?
Wild Turkey Bourbon doesn’t have the linear story of many brands. It took the joining of a few pieces for this bird to take off.
The Austin Nichols company began as a wholesaling operation at the end of the 19th century. The ‘Wild Turkey’ name supposedly came during a hunting trip in 1940. An executive from the firm took some barrel samples on a hunting trip. The game they were after that weekend were wild turkey. Afterward, the samples became so popular that the friends hounded him for more bottles of that ‘wild turkey bourbon.’ No one knows if any fowl were shot during that hunting excursion.
As those hunting buddies can attest — it’s always good to have a friend in the booze industry.
One of the most critical dates in the history of the brand was September 10, 1954. That’s when a young man named Jimmy Russell joined the Austin Nichols company. Over the next six decades, he would have a monumental impact on the bourbon industry.
Austin Nichols operated as a Non-Distiller Producer — or NDP — which meant they purchased whiskey barrels from other distilleries and dumped, diluted, packaged and sold bourbon bottles to customers. The highest-volume supplier to the company was the Boulevard Distillery in Tyrone, Kentucky.
In 1971, Austin Nichols acquired the Boulevard Distillery and changed the name to the Wild Turkey Distillery. As master distiller, Jimmy Russell was able to control all aspects of fermentation, distillation, maturation and production.
We pause here to take a look at the macro-economic picture of the time.
Bourbon whiskey was on a nationwide sales decline. It was seen as an old-timer’s drink. The rebellious Baby Boomer generation was coming into adulthood and took issue with many traditions held by their parents. That included the liquid in their glass.
As a result, bourbon demand was on a steep decline as the youths who packed bars and discotheques took to a new imported craze that was hitting the nation — an exotic clear liquid called Vodka with a mysterious origin story out of the Soviet Union. This opened new worlds to bartenders, who used its flavorless profile to create new cocktails like the Harvey Wallbanger and Moscow Mule.
At the time, a high-proof bourbon that harkened to pre-Prohibition traditions might have been seen as tragically square.
It was into this economic picture that French drinks company Pernod Ricard stepped into, purchasing the Wild Turkey brand in 1980. To their credit, the ownership allowed Jimmy Russell and the Wild Turkey production team to continue to offer a high-proof, high-rye bourbon while other brands were chasing consumption trends, going for more mellowed flavor profiles and lower alcohol content.
For that reason, Jimmy Russell — along with fellow distillers Booker Noe at Jim Beam and Elmer T. Lee at George T. Stagg / Buffalo Trace — has been hailed as a stalwart protector of old-school Kentucky bourbon traditions.
It’s a good thing, too.
Today, whiskey lovers across the globe benefit every time they enjoy a well-matured, single barrel, small batch, barrel-proof or bonded-proof Bourbon whiskey.
To make whiskey, you must first make beer.
‘Mash’ is a term whiskey makers use to describe the cooking and fermenting processes. And just like brewers, each whiskey has its own recipe.
The mash bill is the list of grain ingredients the master distiller uses in the mash. But unlike beer brewers, there are a few additional rules distillers must follow.
By law, all whiskey must be made from 100 percent grain. Unlike beer made for consumption, whiskey mash does not contain any hops, and no sugar can be added to boost fermentation.
Bourbon is a type of whiskey. By law, all bourbon must contain at least 50 percent corn.
The Wild Turkey mash bill contains 75 percent corn, 13 percent rye and 12 percent malted barley. Some additional product attributes that make Wild Turkey unique are a proprietary yeast strain cultivated in-house, 100 percent non-GMO grain and the use of the sour mash process, which includes a portion of terminal beer as a catalyst for the next mash.
After the grain ingredients are ground into the mash and heated to induce saccharification, the mash is cooled, and yeast are added. After about five to seven days, a beer with about 10 percent alcohol by volume is created, which is then distilled to produce spirit.
Distillation & Production Techniques
In 2011, Gruppo Campari opened the new Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. It replaced the original distillery where the bourbon had been produced since 1971. In addition to new stills, the site also opened a new visitor’s center and other facilities.
Like most nationally distributed bourbon brands, Wild Turkey is produced using column distillation. The use of a reflux column still allows the beer to enter one end, and through a series of plates, be distilled into clear distillate in one pass.
Wild Turkey does not have an age statement and is considered a NAS — or Non-Age Statement whiskey. But there are a few clues we can use to decipher its age profile.
First, it is labeled as a Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. To be labeled as a bourbon, the whiskey must be matured in new American charred oak barrels. To carry the term ‘Straight’ on the label, it must be aged in wood for a minimum of two years.
Wild Turkey claims five-year maturation on its website and in marketing materials. While this is likely true, we must note that these claims do not carry the weight of an age statement on the label. Because they are regulated by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau — or TTB — label statements require distillers to ensure each barrel used in the batch has been aged for a minimum of the years claimed.
Wild Turkey is owned by Gruppo Campari, a moderately sized Italian-based beverage company. The Campari Group is best known for its authentic liqueurs, which include Campari, Aperol, Gran Marnier and Cynar.
Wild Turkey is the only American whiskey brand in the company’s portfolio. The group also owns Glen Grant Single Malt Scotch Whisky and recently acquired Forty Creek Canadian Whisky.
The Wild Turkey brand has offered many brand extensions in recent years. Many of these releases have coincided with the trend of ‘premiumization’ in the overall whiskey category, in which producers have sought to take advantage of increased customer demand and enthusiasm by offering more expensive and exclusive products.
In addition to the standard 101 bourbon offering, they recently released an 80-proof expression created primarily for the on-premise cocktail scene in mind. Longtime bourbon enthusiasts may have become familiar only after having ordered a pour of ‘Wild Turkey’ at your local whiskey bar expecting to receive a glass at 101-proof…
Wild Turkey American Honey has a history that dates back to 1976 when it was released as Wild Turkey Liqueur. It has been given credit as one of the first bourbon-based liqueurs, and paired the sweet honey notes found in the whiskey with the taste of natural honey. Today, it is a popular bar call as a shot and has helped to introduce countless new customers to the bourbon category.
In recent years, Jimmy Russel and his son Eddie Russel — current active master distiller for the brand — have developed new expressions aimed at elevating the brand. These include:
Wild Turkey Rye, offered in 101 and 80-proof bottlings.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed (See: Review) — barrel-proof bourbon and rye expressions.
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel bottled at 101 proof.
The line of Master’s Keep bottlings includes single barrel, bottled-in-bond and a host of other offerings.
And a line of Russell’s Reserve offerings that include 10-year bourbon, 6-year rye, single barrel rye and bourbon and specialty bottlings.