Triskaidekaphobia? Not in Lawrenceburg!
Say what you want about Wild Turkey, but they don’t seem to be the superstitious types. I should know; I grew up with an Italian grandmother who was constantly warning me of the perils of spilled salt, broken mirrors, and the Malocchio. I once lived in a building with no thirteenth floor. The buttons on the elevator went 11, 12, 14…
My musing on this star-crossed number occurs because the three whiskeys I’ll be considering today all bear a 13-year age statement. Looking back on my whiskey journey, I can’t recall very many other expressions bottled after this unlucky period of maturation. The last 13 year old bourbon I had was the Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond, one to which I will not soon be returning. While I have written before about the talismanic properties of the 18-year age statement in malt whisky, the reverse seems to be the case of the unfortunate 13 year old, based on the relative scarcity of bottlings of that age.
Can I tell you the truth? I don’t care about any of that stuff. All of the above was an exercise in self-distraction. In reality, I’m trying not to psych myself out because, from the minute I learned of the planned release of one of these bottles, I knew I wanted to try it… and I also knew that my chances of getting it were entirely based on luck.
That bottle is the Russell’s Reserve 13 Years Old. While I have an only-partially-deserved reputation as the scourge of Wild Turkey, in reality I pay close attention to their slate of coming expressions. While not all of them land for me, the ones that are good are very, very good indeed. As an added bonus, I cannot point to a release from Wild Turkey that I feel was cynically priced, based on the specifications of what was in the bottle, and in consideration of competing options from other distilleries.
That pricing represents the sharpest of double-edged swords, however. When I can find one of Wild Turkey’s limited editions at suggested retail price (SRP), I am elated, and I typically snap up the bottle immediately. Those I haven’t tried I open and share. Those I have tried but disliked, I pass along at cost to someone in the wide network of Turkey enthusiasts, who I know will similarly open, enjoy, and share the bottle.
I would love to believe that everyone was so purely motivated, but… empirical evidence would argue strongly to the contrary. As I eagerly scanned local store shelves to no avail, my social media feeds started filling with images of bottles acquired by others. “Good for them,” I thought, “my day will be coming soon.” That day, you might have guessed, has yet to come. My friendly local shopkeeper doesn’t even wait for me to ask anymore; my arrival at his store is greeted with a rueful shake of his head in the negative motion.
Meanwhile, the bottles in the photos online seemed more rabbits than turkeys, given the rate at which they appeared to be multiplying. One bottle became two, then three, then six, then a dozen, then 13. The bourbon of which I craved but a sip was – in the best case – being hoarded. I suspect worse, though, based on reports I have received of the outlandish markups these fetch on the secondary market. It is always thus in the sick, sad world of whiskey in the year 2021.
My hopes were not completely dashed, however, because I know of the generosity of the good folks in the bourbon community. For every opportunist flipping bottles, there are at least two kind-hearted souls who share samples and bottles, often at their own cost, for no other reason than to share. One of those, you may be aware, is my friend David Jennings, a.k.a. Rare Bird 101. Surely the man who literally wrote the book on Wild Turkey would be among the first to snag a bottle of this new release?
As it turns out, David was facing his own issues securing his quarry. You can read all about it on his site, which also contains a longer-form mediation on the themes I briefly touched on above (as well as some sage prescriptions for the correct behavior in this world of bourbon gone bonkers). David eventually landed a bottle courtesy of our mutual friend Brett Atlas, who is another of those aforementioned magnanimous fellows that deserves more attention and praise that he gets. A sample of that bottle was shared with me by David, and I’d like to once again extend my thanks to both these gentlemen.
While I waited for my first taste of the bourbon, I pored over the details in the press release on David’s site, which only heightened my anticipation. The label alone is the stuff of bourbon lovers’ dreams: a double-digit age statement, barrel proof (114.8 proof/57.4% ABV), non-chill filtered, SRP of $69.99. Even if there were no profit motive and no desire to stockpile these, I’m pretty sure they would have flown off the shelves based purely on these specifications. The price, in particular, is far more restrained than we have come to expect.
Now I’m in the danger zone. To quote Oscar Wilde, “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” I have gotten what I wanted, in the form of a taste of this elusive bourbon. But… how will it taste? To say my expectations are elevated would be an understatement of the most sheepish variety. High hopes can be a reliable predictor of disappointment in whiskey, and this is easily my most anticipated bourbon of the year.
To prolong the agony, I’m going to taste through a pair of different, more obscure 13-year-old Wild Turkey whiskeys prior to finally sinking my teeth in to the most recent release. Think of these as the opening acts at a concert, before the headliner takes the stage.
The first is an export-only bottle, exclusive to Japan. This is the Wild Turkey Distiller’s Reserve Aged 13 Years; as always, David has done a more thorough and detailed exploration of this expression than I ever could. Kindly read his thoughts on it if you’re interested. As far as details: this comes to us at 45.5% ABV, and carried a retail price of around $50. This sample was shared by David, who cannot be thanked enough on this occasion, as well as most others.
Wild Turkey Distiller’s Reserve Aged 13 Years – Review
Color: Medium-pale gold.
On the nose: Very similar in its initial presentation to Kentucky Spirit, this has the soft and rich sweetness of honey, as well as a pleasant note of buttered cornbread. A sprig of mint and some different, candied sweet aromas add a layer of complexity; there’s also a fruity note of underripe plum and a subtle accent of limestone. There’s some wood influence here if I really sniff, but mostly it folds in seamlessly with the other scents.
In the mouth: Subtle to start, this has a faint fruitiness that takes on a tart flavor as is moves up the tongue. There’s a more tightly-wound stone note that becomes the dominant flavor in the middle of the mouth, with some dilute wisps of ripe cherry thrown in at the periphery. This more or less performs a disappearing act on the finish; there’s a grainy texture that lingers on the roof of the mouth with a slightly bitter flavor, and a watery aftertaste of wood that creeps along the gum line, but little else.
In case you needed another reminder: age ain’t nothin’ but a number. Whatever additional flavors were imparted by the extended maturation were subsumed by the lower bottling strength, which leaves this feeling thin and brittle in places. Lower bottling strength isn’t always a bad thing in the case of Wild Turkey, but it pays to be selective. There are many wonderful reasons to visit Japan but securing a bottle of this expression isn’t one of them.
Moving along, we have “Father and Son,” a charmingly-named travel retail exclusive limited edition. This is 86 proof (43% ABV), a notch lower than the Distiller’s Reserve and toward the bottom end of what Wild Turkey releases commercially. A liter bottle runs around €65; again, I have David to thank for this sample.
Wild Turkey Father and Son Aged 13 Years – Review
Color: Identical medium-pale gold.
On the nose: Vernal aromas of freshly-cut, dew-dampened wildflowers create an enchanting first impression. There’s a yeasty note of unbaked bread dough that starts to dominate, but deeper inhalation reveals some more diverse scents of bittersweet baking chocolate, unripe peach, ground nutmeg, and lychee. After some time in the glass, I start to pick up a buttery aroma of baked pastry.
In the mouth: More watery on the entrance than the prior bourbon, this never really regains its form as it progresses through the mouth. There’s a vague sweetness as this ascends the tongue, where it stops dead in its tracks. There’s only the faintest of dilute woody flavors at this hits the top of the mouth, at which point it takes on a slightly sour apple flavor and then disappears completely.
One of the lesser Wild Turkeys I have had. This suffers from all of the drawbacks of its predecessor. Particularly on the palate, this has become so texturally weak, with the flavors toned down and muddled together in a way that makes them indistinguishable. I would pass on this if I saw it at the Duty Free shop; going out of my way to find a bottle and pay a secondary market premium is completely out of the question.
While the undercard underwhelmed, there’s still hope for the title bout. As noted above, this is presented at barrel proof (114.8/57.4% ABV) and comes non-chill filtered. I’ll be using the $70 retail price as my benchmark; it’s my sad duty to report that I have seen retailers asking $200 for this, and that secondary market prices are reported to be closer to $400.
Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve 13 Years Old – Review
Color: Medium-dark gold with auburn glints
On the nose: This immediately opens with the prized Wild Turkey notes of tobacco and aged, dry leather. Turning spicy, I am sensing a varied and wonderful bouquet of licorice, anise, Herbes de Provence, and a garrigue note often found in Rhône wine. Rich, fecund nutty aromas of fresh walnuts and hazelnut meet with the dark, thick stickiness of bitumen. There are some leavening notes of potpourri and sandalwood incense, but mostly this is anchored in the serious and spicy end of the spectrum.
In the mouth: The palate is an energetic dance between two broad groups of flavors. On the one hand, there are sharp, dry notes of citrus peel, chalk, and cayenne pepper. On the other side there are sticky and sweet tastes of maple syrup, caramel, and candied cherries. To pick a minor nit: as the woody elements crescendo near the top of the tongue, they become slightly bitter and take on a tannic astringency, which is a risk always attendant bourbon getting into its teenage years. Still, this quickly is brought back in check by a pitch-perfect marriage of limestone and cherries. This finishes with a quiet elegance; the burly flavors recede and allow more delicate ones to step to the fore. This lingers at the back of the mouth with a woody note of freshly sanded pine and a deft touch of Asian fivespice.
This approaches the heights of the Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond, which is perhaps my favorite Wild Turkey of all. Despite the younger age, I feel like the wood is more forcefully expressed here, especially toward the back of the palate, where the bourbon loses a bit of balance due to the bitterness of the tannic influence. As noted above though, that is a relatively small misstep rendered nearly insignificant by a whiskey that is otherwise superlative from the first sniff through the finish. At retail price and up to, perhaps, $100, I’d be an enthusiastic repeat buyer of this bourbon.
For those of you enticed by my positive review, who might be thinking about going out and paying a premium to a reseller for this whiskey: please re-read David’s piece and think twice. There is no bourbon so good that it’s worth contributing to the degradation of our hobby and the enrichment of the types of folks who detract from this community. Trust in karma, be generous yourself, and good luck will find you… just don’t walk any under ladders now, you hear?