Last week I participated in a live tasting and web video chat with Wild Turkey’s master distiller Jimmy Russell and associate distiller Eddie Russell. Prior to the event I’d been sent samples of Wild Turkey 101, Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, Russell’s Reserve 10 year old Bourbon, Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Russell’s Reserve 6 year old Rye, and Wild Turkey American Honey. The event was Jimmy and Eddie leading a group of bloggers in a tasting of each of this bottlings and sharing their stories from two lives of making whiskey.
I’d met Jimmy Russell briefly last year at a Wild Turkey tasting at Bourbon in DC. He was just as affable with a half dozen bottles of whiskey and a camera in front of him as he was in person.
One of the things that stood out in this tasting was the extent to which making bourbon is a family affair, with progress measured in the time frame of a person’s lifetime. Jimmy Russell has been making bourbon since the 1950s and his vision for Wild Turkey is the one that largely drives what the distillery does. I asked Jimmy and Eddie if they’d considered selling an unaged or white whiskey. Jimmy pointed out that in eastern Kentucky, his friends call that moonshine. While tastings of unaged whiskey are available at the distillery, Jimmy said that he doubted they would start selling moonshine while he was alive. And this was something that we heard at least three or four times over the course of the tasting – experiments or different types of bottling would not be tried while Jimmy was alive.
Anyway, on to the whiskeys.
We started with Wild Turkey 101. This is a bourbon that has always been a favorite, as I could get it at most bars (including a lot of great East Village dive bars). It’s mostly made with seven year old bourbons, but has some six and eight year mixed in as well. It starts with heavy caramel smell on the nose, but doesn’t have an alcohol scent even with the higher proof. The taste is a classic bourbon taste – caramel, honey, and vanilla stand out. There’s a big, bold finish and the taste lingers for a while. Something that you see with the 101 but is common throughout Wild Turkey’s bourbons is that the finish actually leaves the tongue slightly cool. Jimmy and Eddie say this is by design and seeks to make the whiskey refreshing.
Next we tried Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, a single barrel bottling. Jimmy hadn’t wanted to make the Kentucky Spirit because he wanted all the bottles of a product sold to taste the same and it’s really hard to do this with single barrel bottling, because there is a different taste between barrels. The Kentucky Spirit starts off with more alcohol on the nose than the 101, with hints of vanilla and fruit. I start off with a toffee taste and richness of oak. There’s also a rye flavor on the tip of the tongue that has a peppery pop to it. It’s actually more mild than the 101 and has an oily mouth feel. There are also really long, thick legs on the glass.
Russell’s Reserve 10 year old Bourbon was one of my favorites of the evening. Apparently Jimmy was reluctant to have a product line with his name on it. But once they moved forward, he wanted a well aged bourbon. The Russell’s Reserve starts as a 101 proof, but is lowered to 90 proof with water. It has very thin legs and a very strong alcohol and caramel bouquet on the nose. Up front, the Russell’s Reserve bourbon has a light taste of honey and nuts, but a really strong finish. The finish is a big, thick vanilla flavor; I also tasted rootbeer coming through. There’s a burn on the back and sides of the tongue. This was a good example of how everyone’s palate is different and will taste different flavors in a whiskey.
We next tasted Wild Turkey Rare Breed, a twelve year old bourbon. It is barrel proof – bottled straight from the barrel – at 108.2 proof and only made in small batches of barrels. It has a really big nose and great woody profile. It had what I found to be the richest, oiliest mouth feel and an intense caramel color. The bourbon starts with lots of spice and a rich caramel sweetness up front. It has an incredibly long finish, with notes of dark chocolate. It really doesn’t taste as hot as you would expect a 108 proof bourbon would taste.
We next moved to taste the Russell’s Reserve six year old Rye. It had pretty thick legs and a nose of honey and lemon. While there’s a good deal of flavor in the rye, it is much more earthy than bourbon. The flavor is salty, earthen, and a little bitter up front, with a slightly sour finish.
Jimmy and Eddie both credited modern craft bartenders and the younger generation with bringing rye back to prominence in American drinking. Eddie said, “Not many people drink rye, then all of a sudden, the younger generation is using rye. [Modern mixology] is the biggest thing that is driving rye production in the industry.” When they first made Russell’s Reserve Rye, they sold out within the first few months. Right now, Jimmy and Eddie predicted that they will need three to four years before they can supply enough rye for what people need. The size of the phenomenon seems to have caught them by surprise and this isn’t the sort of product that you can magically create when there is month to month or year to year demand.
The tasting finished with Wild Turkey American Honey, a bourbon-based liqueur. I’m pretty familiar with it, as a number of women I’m friends with swear by it. It’s really a dessert product that Jimmy and Eddie recommended be poured on top of ice cream or added to lemonade. American Honey has a very thick and creamy mouth feel – a lot like honey. The flavors are fairly straightforward – bourbon, honey, and a light bit of lemon. It’s a great product for people who don’t like bourbon, but a bad one for people who don’t like honey.
A couple other notes from the tasting…
- Eddie said that as long as Jimmy is here, Wild Turkey will not make a wheat bourbon.
- In response to a question about if they would consider trying to finish any of their bourbons in a sherry cask, Jimmy said that they had tried finishing Russel’s Reserve Bourbon in a sherry cask. They’d sold it in duty free shops, but they really didn’t like it. Jimmy said, “We wasted a lot of good bourbon putting it in sherry casks and we don’t do that any more.”
- Jimmy and Eddie believe the thing that separates Wild Turkey from other bourbons is their tradition. Watching these two talk about their lives’ work for an hour plus makes me think that tradition truly is something that drives what they do.
While the event was really fun and interesting, the quality of the production was unfortunately not up to snuff. The audio quality was pretty horrible on both the live stream and the conference call audio line. I’ve done a lot of events like this in my professional life and there are lots of things that can go wrong, but doing things right is also manageable with experience. Hopefully if they do another event like this, there will be better a/v setup. Of course, the quality of the live stream didn’t diminish the quality of the bourbon. The event on whole was great and I’m appreciative of the folks at Wild Turkey for pulling it together.
Disclosure: This post was made possible because I received free samples of Wild Turkey 101, Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, Russell’s Reserve 10 year old Bourbon, Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Russell’s Reserve 6 year old Rye, and Wild Turkey American Honey.