Continuing our Wild Turkey coverage, today we’ll be considering the distillery’s range of rye whiskeys.
Rye is not a newcomer to the Wild Turkey portfolio, which has had a rye whiskey bottled under the label since at least 1954. After two decades of sourcing rye whiskey from Baltimore Pure Rye in Maryland (and later from Pennco/Michter’s in Pennsylvania), the Austin, Nichols company (then owners of Wild Turkey) started producing rye in Kentucky around 1974. As with all things Turkey-related, our friend David Jennings a.k.a. Rare Bird 101 has produced an introduction to Wild Turkey Rye with a great deal of granular detail. I’ll refer you to that piece if you’re curious about the genesis of Wild Turkey’s rye portfolio.
Fast-forwarding to the current day, Wild Turkey maintains a growing portfolio of rye whiskey expressions. Similar to the bourbons, Wild Turkey ryes run the gamut from an entry-level offering (81 proof; $22) to the Cornerstone entry in the Master’s Keep series, of which I was not a fan.
Those of you expecting a hard-edged rye whiskey will likely be disappointed; Wild Turkey’s rye whiskey is from a mash bill of 52% rye, 36% corn, and 12% barley. It’s just over the legally stipulated 51% for being labeled a rye whiskey, and I’m expecting a heaping helping of corny sweetness throughout these as a consequence.
We’ll be starting with the 101 Rye. The label states that this was aged in #4 alligator char barrels. This particular bottle is labeled LL/HH, indicating a bottling date of August 2019. This is bottled at (you guessed it) 101 proof (50.5% ABV). I paid $45 for 1L, though a quick perusal of the world wide interwebs dot com shows this available as low as $20 for 750 ml, depending on your jurisdiction. ou can purchase this release via The Whisky Exchange for £32.75, or via Amazon for £27.95.
Wild Turkey 101 Rye – Review
Color: Pale yellow gold.
On the nose: Sweet and delicate. Lemon meringue pie, freshly cut spring flowers, whipped cream, and a very subtle hint of orange rind. I’m getting some more characteristic rye scents of aloe vera and stainless steel here, but mostly this is a light and airy presentation of aromas. There’s a noticeable creamy sweetness from the corn component of the mash bill.
In the mouth: Starts with a weak and watery flavor and texture. This has a nutty bitterness of almonds at midpalate and the manufactured wood flavor of particle board as the most salient notes. Again turning dilute, this finishes with a synthetic vanilla flavor and the vaguest grainy nip as the sole reminder that this is, in fact, a rye.
This is a far cry from its numerical sibling (the 101 bourbon) in terms of both flavor and value for money. I reserved judgment after nosing this but, once the whiskey hit my palate, I felt very disappointed. This was worse than innocuous, with some odd tastes accenting what was otherwise a weak and bland whiskey.
Moving on, we’ve got a bottling of the Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Rye from a few years back. Introduced in 2007 as a counterpoint to the Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old bourbon, this is a small batch with an age statement.
This bottle is labeled LL/CD, which tells us that this particular whiskey dates from April 2014. This is bottled at a lower strength of 90 proof (45% ABV). I found this lingering on the bottom shelf of a liquor store at the price of $35 for 750 ml.
Russell’s Reserve 6-Year-Old Rye (2014) – Review
Color: Identical pale yellow gold.
On the nose: Immediately presents a note of grape bubblegum so convincing that you could chew on it. Violets and lavender provide some floral and herbal nuance. There’s a bit of candied sweetness here, but with a more syrupy quality than on the 101 Rye. With some extended sniffing I am getting a provolone cheese scent, a first for me in any whiskey.
In the mouth: This tastes like a moderately mature grain whiskey. It’s got a brittleness in terms of texture, and little but a vaguely creamy buttery flavor. If I really swirl, I can elicit some of the grape candy flavors from the nose, but it’s a stretch.
This is a slight improvement over the 101, in the sense that there are no off aromas or flavors. The nose held promise, but they palate again underwhelmed. This combination of rye and corn doesn’t seem to be working for me, as I’m not getting any of the notes that I love from Wild Turkey bourbon, and yet the rye is not allowed to stand on its own.
When I announced to the Twitterverse that I was considering Wild Turkey’s ryes, I was met by insistence that I include the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel expression. Being a highly suggestible sort, I procured a bottle for review.
This is, again, Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, bottled at 104 proof (52% ABV). This bottle is coded LL/HK, indicating a bottling date of November 2019. This can generally be found for $50-60; I paid $67 for 750 ml at a smaller local retailer. You can purchase this release via The Whisky Exchange for £74.95.
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye – Review
Color: Medium-dark maize.
On the nose: This smells like a very mature grain whisky, with an overall sweet and buttery aroma. There’s a sugary and spicy scent of apple cider, as well as the hallmark rye whiskey note of freshly cut aloe vera leaves. There’s a hint of milk chocolate, some crushed spearmint leaves, and a wisp of dried firewood swirling around the periphery. Leaving this bottle open for a while results in a more Christmas-y nose, with a coniferous perfume.
In the mouth: A silky texture on the entrance yields to a rounder, more nutty flavor as this moves toward the middle of the mouth. Right when I expect a crescendo of flavor, this stops in its tracks all of the sudden. The whiskey becomes very vague at the back of the mouth, having the most subtle flavor of black licorice and a faintly dry and hot texture, but little else. After some time, I am able to sense a reprise of the aloe note from the nose, as well as a faint and chalky chocolate flavor of Sno-Caps candy. After letting this air out a bit, the overall impression is of a synthetic, chemical-tasting, sickly-sweet vanilla note that sits oddly in the middle of the mouth.
Better (in places) but also worse than the Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old, this is the most complex of the bunch thus far. Again, the promise of the nose was left unfulfilled in the mouth, as this performed an inexplicable disappearing act right in the middle of what should have been the main event. The “vanilla” note that emerged over time also demanded that this be improved by virtue of being incorporated as a Manhattan component, which is what happened to the remainder of my bottle. That function can be fulfilled with whiskey at a fraction of this price, hence my score below the middle of the range.
Finally, we have the newest entrant in the Wild Turkey rye whiskey family. After years of fan requests, Wild Turkey finally obliged by providing a barrel strength rye to match the bourbon in the Rare Breed series. Will generously provided this sample to me; cheers for that, Will!
This bottle was coded LL/IE, telling us that this was bottled in May of 2020. As with the Rare Breed bourbon, these are bottled at Barrel Proof, with strength varying depending on the batch, with this one coming to us at 112.2 proof (56.1% ABV). Though no bottles have yet appeared on shelves near me, going rates for this appear to be in the $55 to $65 range.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed Rye – Review
Color: Yellow gold.
On the nose: More classically rye-like than any of its predecessors, but also more exuberant. There are some buttery, corny scents, but better balanced against some offsetting aromas of aloe vera, eucalyptus, and menthol. This has the spicy citrus note of pink grapefruit, which is a highlight for me. The comparatively high strength is noticeable in the form of a slight burn inside the nostrils.
In the mouth: Sedate on the entrance, this turns hot and sharp as it hits the tip of the tongue, with a note of key lime. The creamy, baked sweetness of chess pie is the emergent flavor impression at midpalate, balanced by some more tannic woody notes as well as a peppery nip that leaves a lingering tingle on the tongue and cheeks. The whiskey’s strength is again noticeable, as this creeps across the roof of the mouth and rises up into the nostrils, in the manner of spicy English mustard. The transition to the finish is marked by a creamy corniness (there it is!). There’s no finish emanating from the back of the throat but, as noted above, there’s plenty of residual spice in the front of the mouth, such that this whiskey is not forgotten after it’s gone.
The most rye-like of the “ryes” from Wild Turkey. Presenting this at barrel strength allows the whiskey to maintain some of the more forceful aromas and flavors that I normally associate with rye. It’s not a world-beater, especially for the price, but it has at least salvaged the category of Wild Turkey rye for me.
I was prepared to write off Wild Turkey rye entirely until the Rare Breed. While it’s not my favorite rye by a long shot, it at least convincingly justifies the consideration of this grain as more than a component of the Wild Turkey bourbon mash bill. Given the preponderance of evidence, I’m not sure I’ll be buying another Wild Turkey rye for a while… but if I do, it will definitely be Rare Breed Rye.
Lead image from Wild Turkey, the remainder kindly provided by The Whisky Exchange. And we also have commission links above! This ties in nicely when we talk about prices, whisk(e)y’s and value to you, the reader.