Is Wild Turkey The Most Underrated Bourbon Around?
By Richard Thomas
A couple of years ago, one of the popular memes in American whiskey writing was to declare that “most craft whiskeys suck,” and the strangest undercurrent of that meme was to name Jim Beam White as a very underrated bourbon and use it as a yardstick. Comparative values aside, I remember thinking at the time, “Jim Beam White underrated? How?”
Beam is the third-ranked whiskey in the world, after Johnnie Walker and Jack Daniel’s, so just how could it be ever classed as underrated, let alone severely so, escapes me. Instead, whenever I think of underrated bourbons it is Wild Turkey 101 that tops my list.
Underrated By Popular Acclaim?
I am not alone in thinking of Wild Turkey as so egregiously overlooked by casual drinkers and diehard enthusiasts alike. Jimmy Russell’s signature statement appears on many an underrated whiskeys list, on blogs, in forum threads and in the media. This is so much the case that one might wonder if it is so widely appreciated as an underrated bourbon, how could it remain underrated?
Because that passion on the part of some doesn’t translate well into actual drinking on the part of many. Wild Turkey 101 was last year’s 18th-selling whiskey brand. That ranking places it far behind even Evan Williams, another popular choice as an underrated bourbon.
The situation with calling Wild Turkey 101 underrated isn’t the same paradox with saying that of Jim Beam White at all. Beam’s mass market label may—may—be underrated, but only among serious whiskey fans who have moved past it and since forgotten it. Turkey 101, on the other hand, is neglected across the board.
The Proof Is In The Numbers
Some bourbon drinkers just don’t like a particular brand, and that is fine by me. If your taste buds have run the circuit of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and you’ve drawn the conclusion that what they are doing at Wild Turkey ain’t your thing, that’s you and that’s great. But when it comes to whether their bourbon is underrated, that isn’t a matter of individual taste and the numbers prove it.
Think about those sales numbers and then compare them to the numbers that go into a bottle of Wild Turkey 101. First, that number “101” refers to the proof, an abv of 50.5%. That higher alcohol content matters because bourbon drinkers generally like stronger whiskey, something demonstrated by the way so many bourbons are 86 proof or higher. This is the strongest of the mass market bourbons, and by a wide margin at that, yet at the same time it’s not a fearsome tiger that scares novices away. It’s potent, but mellow, and that is something that comes out another set of numbers: the age.
Wild Turkey 101 is drawn from six to eight year old stock, leaning more toward the upper end of that range. That makes it older, as well as stronger, than other mass market bourbons, and goes a long way to explaining why a whiskey that is just over half alcohol doesn’t have a big bite on it.
The final number is the price tag: $20 to $23 in most of the United States. Compare that to a whiskey with very similar numbers, Knob Creek. This popular, premium bourbon from Jim Beam was always more expensive than Wild Turkey 101, but in recent years the price gap has widened, with Knob Creek now going for $40 to $50 in much of the U.S.
Now, Knob Creek is a proper small batch, and widely regarded as a whole order of magnitude better than Wild Turkey 101. Still, it is only slightly older, approximately the same proof, and now almost twice as expensive. Think about that and take another look at Wild Turkey 101.