“Where does discontent start? You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you. You have been loved, but your yearning wanders in new fields. And to prod all these there’s time, the Bastard Time.” – John Steinbeck
Wild Turkey has given whiskey enthusiasts one incredible expression after another for longer than I’ve been alive. Even limiting our scope to the past three decades, we’ve been blessed with the debut of Eddie Russell’s love letter to livers everywhere: Russell’s Reserve, which in 2001 began its life as a 10 year age stated 101 proof expression. Prior to that, in 1994, we were introduced to Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, a 101 proof non-age stated offering in single barrel form which is said to be in the 8 year range.
We’ve also more recently seen the emergence of Wild Turkey Master’s Keep One, which hit the classic 101 proof mark and featured a blend of bourbons up to 14 years old with an additional toasted barrel finish. Time and again Wild Turkey has delivered critically acclaimed releases that carry the classic “1 over 100” proof point, and at each point fans of the brand have received them with open arms… but also quiet criticism. To quote Don Draper, “What’s happiness, but a moment before you need more happiness?”
The seed of this discontent can partially be traced back to 1992, when Wild Turkey dropped the 8 year age statement on domestic Wild Turkey 101. Were there raucous demonstrations, riots in the streets, and rabbles roused from coast to coast? I don’t know, because I was somewhere watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at the time. I do, however, know that fans of the brand were displeased.
Any change to a beloved bottle of whiskey – whether it’s an alteration in label design, or a more significant shift like the loss of an age statement – tends to be met with derision. To that end, it’s likely that every whiskey brand on the market has heard their fair share of gripes from folks who want one simple edict to rule the day: don’t change a damn thing.
That’s the rub though, right? The only constant in life is change, and so through barrel entry proof tinkering, revamped bottle designs, and the fluctuating appearance of age statements, the essence of what Wild Turkey once was has inevitably transformed into what Wild Turkey now is and in the future will be.
Decry it all you want, but the fact remains that the Russells know what they’re doing, production methods have only become more advanced and efficient over time, and the number of high quality Wild Turkey offerings has never been more extensive. What is presently unfamiliar or even unwelcome in the consumer mind will in time be considered part of the “good old days.”
Ask Wild Turkey historian David Jennings who in his upcoming book, Wild Turkey Musings: A Whiskey Writer’s Retrospective claims:
“Folks, we are without question living in a New Golden Age of Wild Turkey. Enthusiasts exploring the brand now have more variety to choose from than any generation before it. There’s truly something for everyone. As for you old-school enthusiasts stuck on dusty expressions, take a few minutes and put the “forward-facing turkey” bottle back in the cabinet. Drive to your local and pick-up a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel private selection. Take a chance on Decades or the 17-year Master’s Keep (if you can find them). Hell, grab a new bottle of Wild Turkey 101 or 101 Rye and pop the cork with an open mind. Yes, dusty Turkey is phenomenal, but it’s a dying breed. Give today’s Wild Turkey a fair chance and I’m confident that everything I’m saying will make perfect sense in rather short time.”
That brings me to my consideration of this contemporary expression, the 2022 Wild Turkey Distller’s Reserve 12 Year 101 proof export release. What makes this release notable (for those partial to the brand’s history) is that it marks the return of a 12 year age statement on a 101 proof bottle of Wild Turkey, a set of specs that hasn’t been seen in the global market since 2013.
Furthermore, some of the most sought-after Wild Turkey releases of all time happened to carry those same specs such as “Cheesy Gold Foil” and “Beyond Duplication,” bottles that collectors continue to fervently chase. Because of this, there’s been a great deal of excitement around the expression I’ll be reviewing today.
Despite that excitement, there’s also been a round amount of discontent stateside about the fact that – as it was between 1999 and 2013 – 12 year 101 proof Wild Turkey is only available overseas. Yes, we’re spoiled with some excellent Wild Turkey bourbon in the U.S. at the 101 proof point, as there’s no real shortage of standard 101 or Kentucky Spirit single barrels on store shelves, but at this stage in the bourbon boom there’s also no shortage of enthusiasts who yearn for age stated products. The wildly popular Russell’s 13 is certainly an example of that. So with that in mind I’ll be considering the following question: is 12 year old 101 really that exceptional compared to its slightly younger brothers Wild Turkey 101 and Kentucky Spirit? Let’s find out!
The specs on 2022’s Wild Turkey 12 Year 101 are as follows: the mash bill is 75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% malted barley, it carries a 12 year age statement, the proof is 101 (50.5% ABV), and it is priced anywhere between $60 in Japan (as reported by David Jennings) or as high as $250+ via online retailers. I was able to procure the bottle I have in hand at $200 in Kentucky, however I will be using the $60 international cost as my baseline for Malt’s price-sensitive scoring.
Wild Turkey 12 Year Distiller’s Reserve 101 Export Release (2022) – Review
Color: Medium honey.
On the nose: Cooked cherry right off the bat resplendent with fresh pie crust, clove, brown sugar, just a cornucopia of beautifully developed sweet notes. Over time there’s a lemon custard note that develops along with a touch of leather and faint cinnamon. I even sense some rye spice, rosemary, and nutmeg. Additionally I get a note that reminds me a bit of freshly made lentil samosas (think garam masala and a touch of turmeric with coriander sizzling in oil) buried just under the aroma of oak.
In the mouth: Again the cherries just leap right out at you and steal the show. Compared to the MK17 BiB cherry note, which skewed a bit medicinal for my palate, this has more of a candied cocktail cherry flavor. On second pass the caramel and oak are ensconcing that cherry note with just a kiss of dark chocolate. Now, taking hearty third and fourth sips, I’m getting maple syrup and noticing just how robust this is on the palate at 101 proof. It has a nice medium to long finish and there’s some vanilla frosting that joins the cherry and oak on the back end that makes it a pleasure to sit with before indulging in continued sips. The more interesting spices from the nose are absent on the palate where nutmeg and ginger present themselves most prominently, along with a touch of the aforementioned rosemary on the finish.
I absolutely loved this pour and I think that while it may be a bit sweet for some and still others may crave the additional proof and punch of Russell’s Reserve 13 year, this expression delivers nuance in spades. Frankly it’s difficult to identify anything that would cause me to take points off from this expression, and my more measured score mostly reflects the fact that not every aspect of the tasting experience ascends to the lofty heights achieved by the nuance of the flavor. For instance, the finish is exceedingly enjoyable but not exceptional. The mouthfeel is robust but not captivating, and though the sweet flavors exist in harmony with the oak, leather and spice, a bit more spice would hit on the classic Turkey profile that many enthusiasts have become accustomed to.
As you can see I’m splitting hairs, but that’s because this is indeed a delicious expression that is definitely worth seeking out at a reasonable price. At $200 on the domestic secondary market I think it’s a tough sell but, in comparing the $60 retail cost in Japan to the $100 cost of Russell’s Reserve 13 and $55 for Kentucky Spirit, it’s an absolute steal. In fact it’s the best value of the bunch, but sadly it’s also the most difficult to find. With that in mind I’ll neither deduct a point for availability nor add a point for the pocket-friendly (in Japan) price. Let your yearning wander in new fields, preferably an international market that has this bottle available on store shelves. Perhaps in time we’ll be able to easily access something comparable here in the U.S. of A.
Interior label photo courtesy of David Jennings.