A wild turkey appears over the hill, while a herd of buffalo roam the valley beyond. In the background, a paddleboat steams down the Ohio River loaded — of course — with barrels of Bourbon whiskey making their way to the port of New Orleans.
Perfect. Ain’t that the most American thing you can imagine?
We’ve painted this scene to set up our brand comparison between Wild Turkey 101 and Buffalo Trace bourbons — two brands representing the most American of spirit categories. Each label features a black-and-white image of wildlife, so it’s only natural we’d take advantage of this imagery to introduce them.
Wild Turkey 101 and Buffalo Trace might be the best two ambassadors to introduce the world to the big, bold, in-your-face flavor of the American bourbon whiskey category. So in addition to fostering an appreciation of North America’s pastural tradition, we’re also laying the groundwork to understanding what to look for tasting bourbon. And because each bottle offers an incredible return on investment in terms of their price range, they’re great brands with which to become well acquainted.
So, let’s dive right in.
Wild Turkey began not with a distiller but with a shopkeep. Austin Nichols sold wine and spirits in his store near Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, and became a wholesaler for the whiskey distilled at the nearby Old Moore Distillery on Wild Turkey Hill.
Post-Prohibition, the Austin Nichols Company bottled the Wild Turkey brand as a non-distiller producer — or NDP. In 1954, Jimmy Russel joined the company, beginning a 60-years-and-still-going relationship with the brand. Under Jimmy’s leadership, the Wild Turkey 101 profile that we recognize today came into its own. In 1971, Austin Nichols purchased the distillery of their largest supplier and renamed it the Wild Turkey Distillery. Then, in 1980, Wild Turkey was purchased by French drinks producer Pernod Ricard. And in 2009, the brand was purchased by Italian spirits producer Gruppo Campari, or the Compari Group.
During the 1970s and 80s, Jimmy stood firm with his old-school approach to bourbon making. His 101-proof bottling strength was an homage to the Bottled-in-Bond Act – a term that may resonate with today’s bourbon aficionado as a mark of quality, but represented a style that had gone out of favor in the darker days of the category. Customer trends at the time favored the lighter, mellower profiles of blended Irish and Canadian whiskeys as well as unaged spirits like vodka and gin. While other master distillers followed those trends, bottling at the lower 80-proof minimum allowed by law rather than the 100-proof required for bonded bourbon, Jimmy held firm and stuck with his 101-proof expression.
Another innovation came from Jimmy in 1976 — the launch of Wild Turkey Liqueur, which was re-branded as American Honey in the 2000s. It was the first bourbon liqueur and helped to act as an introduction to Wild Turkey’s flavor profile and brought new drinkers to the overall bourbon category.
Today, Jimmy’s son Eddie Russel operates as active master distiller, while Jimmy still maintains an ambassador role.
The Buffalo Trace story begins in 1812, when the distillery now known as Buffalo Trace Distillery was built in Frankfurt, Kentucky. Over the centuries, it was operated by numerous owners and was known as the Old Fire Copper Distillery — or O.F.C. — and as the George T. Stagg Distillery.
In 1992, the site was purchased by the Sazerac Company, based in New Orleans, Louisiana. The distillery’s name was changed to the Buffalo Trace Distillery, and the bourbon brand by the same name was released later in the decade.
Wild Turkey is owned by Gruppo Campari, a mid-sized international spirits producer most well known for the Campari liqueur brand. Wild Turkey is Gruppo Campari’s only bourbon brand, but it did recently acquire the Forty Creek Canadian whisky brand.
In addition to opening a new distillery near the original site in 2011, Gruppo Campari opened a new visitor’s center and made additional improvements to its facilities.
Buffalo Trace is owned by the Sazerac Company based in New Orleans, Louisiana. It is also a mid-sized producer of international spirits.
An impressive number of products were made at the Buffalo Trace Distillery over the decades, many of which are available on today’s market, including Colonel E.H. Taylor, 1792, Weller, Blanton’s, Eagle Rare, Benchmark and, of course, Pappy Van Winkle. Other Sazerac brands include the rye whiskey of the same name, Booth’s Gin, Fireball, Southern Comfort and Goldschlager liqueurs, Corazon Tequila and Caribou Crossing Canadian whisky.
Wild Turkey has a traditional bourbon mash bill, with 75 percent corn, 13 percent rye and 12 percent malted barley. Wild Turkey uses a proprietary yeast strain cultivated on-site and used in its bourbons since shortly after Jimmy Russel was named master distiller 60 years ago. The brand also claims to use 100 percent non-GMO grain. Wild Turkey uses a sour-mash process, which includes a portion of terminal beer as the seed for the next mash.
Buffalo Trace does not disclose its mash bill. By law, a product must contain at least 51 percent corn in its list of grain ingredients to be called bourbon. The rest of the mash bill is most likely a split between corn and malted barley based on its taste.
Each brand is labeled as a ‘Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.’
In order to be labeled as a straight bourbon whiskey, the contents inside must be aged for no less than two years inside new American charred oak barrels. But neither brand has an age statement on the label, so we cannot determine the specific age of each batch.
Distillation & Production
Wild Turkey’s distillery is located near the Kentucky River in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Bourbon is produced under the hand of current master distillers Jimmy Russel and his son Eddie Russel. Within the bourbon community, Jimmy Russel is a legend. After 60 years on the job, he has the distinction of being the longest-tenured distiller not only in Kentucky, but the world!
Buffalo Trace is produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfurt, Kentucky, near Long Lick Creek. Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley has been with the company for 25 years. It’s hard to be compared to Jimmy Russel’s legendary 60 years, but a 25-year silver anniversary with a distillery is an impressive feat. He’s held the title of master distiller since 2005.
Price Point & Value
They’re practically giving this stuff away…
Buffalo Trace costs about $27 for a 750mL bottle, which places the bottle in the standard pricing segment. It is bottled at 90-proof, or 45 percent alcohol by volume.
Wild Turkey 101 is bottled at 101-proof, or 55.5 percent ABV and has a suggested retail price of about $25 for a 750mL bottle. It is also in the standard pricing statement.
Gruppo Campari is a publicly-held company, making sales data available to shareholders. If you are a nerd for domestic and international sales figures, these data offer some compelling insights.
For example, we know Wild Turkey’s year-on-year off-premise sales grew over 25 percent in 2020, thanks in part to pandemic-related drinking habits skewing towards home consumption. This is emphasized by a 180 percent jump in sales between March and May. In some international markets, stocks of Wild Turkey Bourbon were entirely sold out.
As a family-owned company, Sazerac does not publicly share precise sales data on its brands.
Taste preferences aside, Wild Turkey’s higher proof and lower price makes it an incredible buy. But each is a solid investment to the bourbon fanatic hoping to add a solid anchor to their home bar.
Buffalo Trace Bourbon
Description: In the glass, Buffalo Trace has a deep amber color, with nice legs at 90-proof.
Nose: Complex aroma, with notes of oaky wood barrel flavors, leather, tobacco and hints of vanilla.
Tongue: Wide range of flavors. Bold spicy rye character with black pepper and walnut notes.
Finish: Spicy, earthy with lingering toffee and notes of cinnamon.
[Related: Complete Buffalo Trace Bourbon Review]
Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon
Description: In the glass, Wild Turkey has a red-brown auburn color, with incredible legs at 101-proof.
Nose: The aromas of caramel and new oak, with toffee, chocolate and honey, with notes of leather and tobacco.
Palate: Corn sweetness with honey, vanilla, cinnamon and baking spices flavors, with notes of cherry, tobacco and leather.
Finish: Black pepper spice, with lingering tobacco, leather and a hint of maple syrup.
[Related: Complete Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon Review]
In the respective standard expression price range, bourbon drinkers are hard-pressed to find better bottles. Whether you are new to the bourbon category and want to see what all the fuss is about without breaking the bank, a seasoned bourbon enthusiast returning to an old ‘budget bourbon’ favorite or a bartender or spirits on-premise bar manager looking for big bourbon flavor to build craft cocktails — you will be pleased by a pour of either of these brands in your glass.
Each is well made and complex enough to be enjoyed neat, or on the rocks. With the higher-proof Wild Turkey 101, it is an example of why some seasoned bourbon drinkers of a certain age might order a glass of bourbon with water on the side. A splash of high-grade mineral water does a great job of opening up the nose and bringing floral and honey to the fore of your senses.
The best part of comparing these two brands might be their low price. A side-by-side tasting of these two legendary bourbons might help you learn more about the category. Or not. Either way, you end up with two really nice bourbons in your glass.