“You’ve got to try this – you’ll hate it!”
A certain type of person habitually gets the short end of the stick. Others are so delightfully articulate in their disdain (A.A. Gill falls into this category, and before him H.L. Mencken) that their negative reviews are more fun to read than their positive ones. Others of us, myself included, are just gluttons for punishment.
To put a positive spin on my self-chosen misfortune: I feel that this imparts some much-needed perspective into my critical assessment. After all, if you’ve never tasted bad whiskey, how do you know how good the good stuff really is? As a consequence, I am always up for a dram (hopefully no more) of subpar whiskey, as a point of education and calibration.
With that in mind, let me tell you the story of a star-crossed bottle that recently forced itself into my hands. To break the monotony of quarantine, I took the family for a week away in the country. We were still isolated from others, but at least we had a chance to get more fresh air than would be available to us in our normal urban environment.
The change of scenery, for me, meant new and different liquor stores to peruse (using appropriate social distancing and sanitary measures). The fact that we were in a more rural area was an added bonus, and my thoughts quickly turned to the potential dusty old bottles hiding in the back of… how shall I put this? Less “slick” retailers.
Entering into just such a merchant of modest stature, I scanned the whiskey bottles on the shelf behind the counter. Nothing jumped out at me, so I asked if they had anything special in the back. Apparently, I just missed the last of the Weller Antique 107. Dejected, I was preparing to leave until I caught a glimpse of a curious-looking bottle on a lower shelf. Could it be? An old label bottle of Rare Breed?!?
This expression has quickly become near and dear to me. I was bowled over by my first taste of Rare Breed (from the LL/HD, 116.8 proof batch in 2019) and since then my home bar hasn’t been without an open bottle on the shelf. There’s some batch-to-batch variation, with subsequent bottles not quite providing the sublime splendor of that first experience. However, at barrel proof and costing just above $40 a bottle, these Turkeys are always toward the top of the quality-to-price standings.
With that in mind, I quickly paid the friendly shopkeeper and departed to my station wagon, where my impatient wife and children awaited my return. Thrilled at my discovery, I snapped a photo and shot it to our friend David Jennings of Rare Bird 101 fame who… well, let’s just say his response was uncharacteristically downbeat, given it’s David and we were talkin’ Turkey. He described this as his “least favorite” of the Rare Breed releases. This perhaps explains why it was still sitting on a store shelf more than half a decade after its release.
So, we’ve got a maligned and unloved bottle here. Once again, I’m in my element. I’m tasting this against a recent bottle of Rare Breed pulled off the store shelf, just for fun.
To start, this is the 112.8 proof (56.4% ABV) bottling of Rare Breed. The bottle code of LL/CG101944 tells us this was bottled on July 10th, 2014. I paid $40 for 750 ml.
Rare Breed 2014 – Review
Color: Dusty copper.
On the nose: Corn, rye, and barley. Jokes aside, I feel like each of the components of the mash bill present themselves individually, with characteristics that are easy to discern. There’s the fat, milky sweetness from the corn; the steely spiciness of the rye, and the grainy goodness of the barley. Deeper inhalation yields sweeter candy notes of Fralinger’s salt water taffy and ripe banana. Clove cigarettes, rosemary, and marshmallow all make appearances.
In the mouth: Lithe, lean, tight, call this what you like. Just don’t call it “smooth” or flavorless. This has an intense texture. It enters the mouth softly before blooming into a rich, warmly corny note balanced against a dry underlying stony flavor. As the milky, grainy notes fade, they make way for a more austere mineralic presentation. There’s a drying quality to the finish, which accentuates the persistent heat that pulses in the mouth after this is swallowed. Perhaps the best part of this is a lingering mineral note. I can sit and smack my lips for a full minute after the last swallow, and I am still tasting the stone.
Look, I get it. This is grain-forward and dry, which is not a classic Wild Turkey profile. I think it performs well; there’s complexity on the nose and intensity in the mouth, without any off-notes or awkwardness. The worst you could say about this is that it tastes somewhat young, though I don’t feel that is a weakness in this case, given the overall presentation. In light of this and considering the price, I’m happy to give this a solid score bang in the middle of the range.
By way of comparison, I’ve got this Rare Breed from a few years later. This period marks the ascendancy of Rare Breed, culminating recently in a bottle beating the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (all of it) in a blind tasting by a prominent critic. More generally, this has been given pretty good marks by those who have tried it, so my expectations for this are as elevated as they were depressed for the prior bottle.
The facts: this is the 116.8 proof (58.4% ABV) version. Based on the bottle code of LL/FH011138, I am able to ascertain that this was bottled on August 1, 2017. I was able to snag a bottle of this for just $35, ironically from a retailer that habitually overprices almost everything else.
Rare Breed 2017 – Review
Color: Lighter dusty copper.
On the nose: A sticky-sweet note of maple syrup is the dominant aroma here. There’s some slow-cooked pork shoulder, unsalted butter, and an herbal whiff of fenugreek, but I’m struggling to coax much else from this.
In the mouth: Similarly inexpressive to the nose, this feels like it is 95% texture and 5% flavor. At the front of the mouth, there’s a brief kiss of tart cherry and some dark chocolate. A rough, drying sensation comes to dominate the palate as this moves across the top of the tongue. I get some dusty notes as this transitions to an off-bitter, citric finish.
This wasn’t horrible – Wild Turkey rarely is – but it also wasn’t great. Being reasonably priced and bottled at barrel proof keeps this from falling too far short of average, but I’m certainly not a repeat buyer of this era of this batch in particular.
The twist here is that the (very slightly) disappointing bottle was not the one maligned broadly, but rather the one that had been a seeming crowd pleaser.
One could draw several inferences from this. Perhaps I’m a nitwit with a rubbish palate and terrible taste in bourbon. It’s been suggested before. Perhaps I’m the only sane one and the rest of the world is crazy. In that case, you should be grateful for my uniquely clear perspective, dear lunatic reader.
I’m willing to bet, though, that the real answer is something along the lines of: I have my preferences, others have theirs, and these will not always correspond. This is fine; it’s better than fine, perhaps. What a dull world it would be if we all were in constant consensus!
This is why I encourage our readers to pay more attention to the tasting notes than the scores. This is why I instruct novices to taste widely and patiently, reflecting at each step of the way on their own perceptions, rather than on whether those perceptions correspond to awards handed down from on high by big-name professional critics.
More than anything, it’s why I keep an open mind and an exploratory spirit. I could have seen this bottle, pulled up negative reviews on my phone, and moved along. I’d be sadder for it but no wiser. I’m glad I didn’t and I’d entreat you, to the extent possible, to try to form your own opinion independent of what is said in reviews… even this one.