By Richard Thomas
In the world of mass market bourbons, Wild Turkey has stood apart for at least modern memory, if not before. The most obvious reason is right there on the current version of label. Whereas most mass market products are bottled at 80 proof, and a few are a notch stronger at 90 proof, the classic Wild Turkey expression is 101 proof (50.5% abv). One of the small changes recently made at the Austin-Nichols Distillery so as to keep on top of supply was to raise the proof of the new make going into the barrel, but for decades before that the whiskey would come out of the barrels just a little stronger than its bottling proof, requiring minimal cutting.
Another tweak places it beyond the norm of the mass market range, one that isn’t on the label. Whereas most mass market products draw on stock aged between four and six years, Wild Turkey 101 averages as an eight year old. The whiskey is just one step behind the age and proof of your typical premium cask strength bourbon, and has been since the mid-20th Century, long before anyone started taking small batch or single barrel.
When you add it all up, it’s not surprising that Wild Turkey 101 has always had its devotees, from the fictitious Boyd Crowder to the very real Hunter S. Thompson. What is surprising is that there aren’t many, many more of them.
In the glass, the bourbon has the benchmark mid-amber coloring. The nose has a crisp character, in keeping with the bad boy reputation this bourbon often carries. A vanilla and cirtus-zest sweetness balances evenly against the scent of cedar wood, with just a pinch of spice.
Turkey 101 isn’t fancy, so the flavor follows from there. The woody side spreads out to embrace oak and cedar, with thick corn and vanilla sweetness in even measure. Once again, that dash of spice is there, just within reach.
The finish has a very light bite to it, the only reminder a seasoned whiskey drinker should get as to just how high the alcohol content of this bourbon is (until they try standing up after having a couple, that is). The vanilla lingers on in the aftertaste, but otherwise the wind-down is simple, warm, and lasting.
Wild Turkey 101 isn’t fancy, nor should it be. Jimmy Russell, the living legend master distiller at Austin-Nichols, is very particular about the kind of bourbon he likes and this is his standard example. What Turkey 101 is instead is just plain good. Wild Turkey was my bourbon of choice through the 1990s, after which I spent about 15 years exploring other offerings before returning to it as my idea of a go-to bourbon.
This is the penultimate bang for your buck whiskey, going for between $20 and $23 per 750 ml bottle in most of the United States. For that price, what you are getting is a bourbon that is just one step below your typical premium whiskey, but at a $10 or $12 discount. In the UK, it is often priced at a more unfriendly £25 to £27.