“My reputation’s never been worse…” – the other Taylor.
I hate Wild Turkey, apparently. That comes as a surprise to me. Despite my general positive predisposition toward the distillery, my specific fondness for several of their marquee expressions, and my sincere respect for the Russell family, I can’t beat the rap that I loathe the produce of the pride of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.
If I may offer a few exhibits in my own defense: I’m almost never without a bottle of Rare Breed or Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel on my bar shelf. If I were on my way to a party (remember those?) in a hurry, I’d likely snag a bottle of 101, contented in the knowledge that I would be arriving with something that won’t disappoint, even if it may not change anyone’s life.
However, Adam has accused me of scoring the distillery’s range as “middling at best,” which illuminates the limitations of averages more than any acutely felt sentiment on my part. For every standout bottling like the Revival and Bottled in Bond releases from the Master’s Keep range, there’s a Diamond Anniversary or a Decades that misses the mark, especially considering the price. And fine, I don’t really like any of the rye whiskey from Wild Turkey.
The net result of the above is that my average score for the Wild Turkey expressions I have tried (22, prior to this review) is 5.2/10. That’s in comparison to my overall average of 5.6, a difference that I would consider statistically insignificant. If anything, Wild Turkey is likely handicapped by the fact that a number of these bottles have been in the $150-and-up price range, where it’s nearly impossible for a bourbon to garner a high score unless it is epic and excellent.
Still, even those (like Adam) who are familiar with Malt’s price-sensitive scoring bands and our typical curmudgeonly approach (including to those distilleries we hold dear) are forced to form a mosaic out of the shards they’re given. While I like to judge each review as an isolated evaluation – informed, but not necessarily influenced, by my preconceptions – I can admit that viewing the picture in totality might support a different conclusion from how I know I feel inside.
Having dispensed with my apologia, I can re-commit to my ongoing struggle to maintain objectivity and remain as impartial as a weak and flawed human being can be. Let’s see what has flown out of the Turkey coop today?
Thanks to another generous gift from Scott, we’ve got a pair of Wild Turkey 1855 Reserve samples for evaluation. I’ll admit, I was scratching my head when these arrived, as I was unfamiliar with this label. As always, bit of research helped illuminate things.
My go-to source on all things Turkey related, our good friend David Jennings, has (of course) already expostulated on these at length. From the information provided on his site, I am able to tell you that these are “reported to be a blend of 6, 8, and 12 year bourbon whiskeys at barrel proof.” The 1855 label (referencing the year of the distillery’s founding) was an export-only exclusive, released in 1992 by then-owners Austin Nichols, which had been purchased by Pernod Ricard a dozen years prior.
As David points out, that would make this a kissing cousin of Rare Breed, which is alleged (though not confirmed) to be a similar blend of six, eight, and 12 year old whiskeys. However, the expression is labeled “Straight,” whereas 1855 Reserve is not. This is likely a calculated omission on the part of Pernod Ricard, which likely surmised that the “straight” designation doesn’t carry the same authority overseas as is does back here in the U.S.A. Another amusing wrinkle is that the back label copy refers to Jimmy Russell as “Jim,” perhaps in an attempt to shed any hillbilly connotations associated with the more informal moniker?
Regardless, the whiskey isn’t a shy one, as it comes to us at barrel proof. These two editions clock in at 109.6 (54.8% ABV) and 112.2 (56.1% ABV), respectively. Note that the barrel-entry proof in the early 90’s was the prior 107 (changed to 110 in 2004, and then to the current 115 in 2007). At the least, it will be educational to taste any differences between these and the current Rare Breed that may arise therefrom.
Finally, as regards price: I’m not sure what SRP was at the time of release (other than it would probably make me cry wistfully), but our friend and (legit) Turkey enthusiast Ryan Alves informs me that the current going rate for these bottles is around $400.
Wild Turkey 1855 Reserve (109.6 proof) – Review
Color: Medium-dark amber.
On the nose: Immediately presents a bifurcated nose, with a piquant whiff of varnish against a rich and sticky-sweet scent of taffy apple. This starts to present wonderfully exotic notes of jasmine incense, dried flowers, celery salt, and djarum clove cigarettes. This also has a meaty funk to it that is common to older whiskeys (from a temporal, not maturity perspective) fermented in cypress tanks. The whiskey is so diversely and heavily perfumed that I am not certain I would have pegged this for bourbon if I were nosing it blind. Regardless, it’s a pleasure to nose repeatedly and over a long period of time.
In the mouth: This immediately presents a sharply sour, citric note of lemon that carries with it a dry overlay of limestone. This lightens up for a moment as it moves toward the middle of the tongue, with the airy sweetness of confectioner’s sugar. The high point are richly sweet notes of maple syrup and butterscotch that meet intertwined woody and nutty flavors as the whiskey eases into the finish. There’s another, more subtly sour note and yet more of the drying, stony texture that linger toward the back of the mouth.
This shows a few of the appealing characteristics of some of the other dusty whiskeys I have enjoyed. That funky note on the nose, while not as pronounced as in the Old Weller Antique 107 from 1973, is still a delightful throwback to whiskey making techniques of yore. That intersection of sweetness, wood, and nuts at the center of the palate is also really excellent.
Wild Turkey 1855 Reserve (112.2 proof) – Review
Color: Similar medium-dark amber, perhaps with a shade of rosewood
On the nose: The butterscotch makes an appearance straightaway in this case, twinned here with a thickly green note of vegetation and key lime. There’s an additional sweet and smooth note of peaches and cream in here, as well as some ashy nuances and a brief whiff of salted cashew. This is another surprising one from an aromatic profile perspective; I’d probably have embarrassed myself by guessing this was a rye whiskey in a blind tasting.
In the mouth: This makes a charming entrance, with round and juicy note of ripe navel orange. Tightening up toward midpalate, that drying limestone sensation returns before this falls oddly mute at the top of the tongue. This regains its form with some orange juice notes, similar to its predecessor. Through the finish, this takes on a slightly astringent and spicy texture, which plays nicely off some of the lingering citrus fruit accents.
This is perhaps more approachable but ultimately less interesting than the 109.6 proof incarnation of 1855 Reserve. I’m especially missing that funk, of course, but there’s also just less here both on the nose and in the mouth. There are no flaws or off-notes; rather, this tastes like a perfectly average batch of Rare Breed.
Man, I love this distillery! Seriously, though: bottles this old are fascinating tastes of the past. The 109.6 proof, in particular, had so much of that character which has been lost as production methods modernize. With that said, could I see myself paying Four Hundred and 00/100 for these? I’d likely pass on the 112.2 but would feel strongly tempted by the 109.6, for the reasons just mentioned. Do with that what you will, but definitely give these Turkeys a try if you ever get the opportunity.
Images kindly provided by Rare Bird 101.