How The Wild Turkey Whiskeys Stack Against Each Other
By Richard Thomas
Wild Turkey is one of the Kentucky Majors, with a legion of diehard fans (including our own April Manning), and it seems to me that every fan of “The Bird” has his or her own favorite expression. Some swear by that bang-for-your-buck classic of Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon, while others swear by Kentucky Spirit. I decided to settle the matter, at least insofar as my own satisfaction is concerned, and I did it in my usual fashion: by collecting data.
For this ranking, I drew on the opinions of my colleagues and our readers; a pool of published reviews; and factored in price. Only whiskeys in current and regular release are considered, which excludes the Master’s Keep series and defunct items like Forgiven. Also, I have excluded the whiskeys in the Russell’s Reserve series, and for two reasons: first, this list is long enough as it is; and second, I intend to circle back around and deal with the Russell’s Reserve line separately at a future date.
1. Wild Turkey Rare Breed Bourbon: By far and away, the most popular bourbon in the line up is Rare Breed. Introduced in 1991, during the early days of the Small Batch era, Rare Breed is draws on some of the oldest whiskey used in a regular Turkey release. Wild Turkey (WT) 101 reportedly draws on 6 to 9 year old stock; Russell’s Reserve typically on 8 to 10 year old stock; and Rare Breed on 6 to 12 year old stock. At $50 a bottle, it’s an excellent buy.
An interesting paradox about Rare Breed is that it’s curiously low proof for a cask strength whiskey. These often come out at well above 60% ABV, whereas Rare Breed is usually about five points lower. The reason for this is the lower barrel entry proof used at the Lawrenceburg-based distillery.
2. Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon: I’ve often heard this bourbon mentioned in the same breath as the phrase “accept no substitute.” As mentioned above, it’s arguably the classic of bang for your buck bourbons; certainly it is hard to beat it’s blend of 6 to 9 year old, 101 proof whiskey. As the flagship of the brand, it makes quite a statement at $25 a bottle, sitting between the true mass market bourbon brands and the pricier premium bourbons.
3. Wild Turkey 101 Rye: Very nearly tied for second place with WT 101 Bourbon is its sister expression, WT 101 Rye. That is because a wholly separate group of fans, outside the corps of Bird lovers, adore this expression. Those are rye whiskey enthusiasts.
Rewind to 2011 and 2012, when the Rye Craze exploded onto the drinking scene and swept the shelves of most rye whiskeys. It’s simply amazing that anyone would ever have talked about a “bourbon shortage” (except as an exercise in yellow journalism, that is), when the last decade saw a much more substantial shortage in rye whiskey. WT 101 Rye is the crowning example, because Wild Turkey actually withdrew it from the shelves for a few years in response to a demand that was impossible to meet.
Turkey’s rye had grown near and dear to the hearts of most rye enthusiasts, a small and hardcore bunch before 2012, as it was the boldest and fullest rye whiskey that was widely available in those days. Things have changed since then, but like its sister bourbon, WT 101 Rye remains an affordable ($43 for a 1 liter bottle) favorite.
4. Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit: Kentucky Spirit was Wild Turkey’s second brand extension in the 1990s Small Batch era, coming out in 1994. It was also only the second single barrel bourbon brand, after Blanton’s was introduced several years before. Clearly, single barrel was a concept that took a while to catch on. Wild Turkey wouldn’t release another single barrel expression, excepting a couple of one-shot or travel retail expressions, for almost 20 years.
Like WT 101, Kentucky Spirit is bottled at 101 proof. Reputedly, the stock chosen is give or take 9 years old, with the individual barrels chosen by the Master Distiller. So this is essentially WT101 in a single barrel form, but focused on the elder end of the blending range used. That probably explains why it isn’t more popular with the Wild Turkey faithful: a bottle of Kentucky Spirit often goes for $65, more than Rare Breed and more than twice as much as WT101.
5. Wild Turkey Longbranch: This expression is the product of Turkey’s creative and advertising collaboration with actor Matthew McConaughey, so it’s essentially the McConaughey bourbon. This latter point is underscored by the story behind its creation, which points to his roots in both Kentucky and Texas. Stocks of 8 year old bourbon are filtered with oak and mesquite wood charcoal (post-barrel dump, oak charcoal filtration are used in making Ezra Brooks and the defunct Jim Beam Green Label), smoothing the whiskey and adding a mesquite smoke note. Although Longbranch earns high marks for the most part, it is a newer entry in the Wild Turkey line up. As we shall see below, that translates into it having become a staple item for few experts and enthusiasts, lowering it’s buzz and ranking. That said, I expect it to climb in a few more years, seeing as how it is usually available for $35 to $45 a bottle.
6. Wild Turkey Rare Breed Rye: Another example of a great Turkey whiskey that hasn’t been around long enough to become anyone’s fan favorite is Rare Breed Rye. It was introduced just last year! That said, I expect it to garner quite a bit of attention from rye diehards in the next few years.
7. Wild Turkey American Honey: Although arguably the best of the mass market bourbon honey liqueurs, and a real institution of that class, the very fact that it is a liqueur guarantees it will be eclipsed. That said, the expression has its fans, and I am among them: for almost three decades, this has been a bottle I sometimes pick up for summertime sipping on the rocks. Beyond that, plenty of other folks swear by it for cocktails and cooking.
8 and 9. Wild Turkey Bourbon and Wild Turkey Rye: The 81 proof versions of Turkey’s bourbon and rye are the favorites of very nearly no one. Seeing as how a bottle of the WT 81 bourbon costs $20 to $22, and the 101 proof version is can be had for about five bucks more, these expressions may sell well at bars, restaurants and with casual drinkers. Among enthusiasts, though, they are pretty much ignored. Reviewers prefer the stronger versions overwhelmingly.