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Wild Turkey Bourbon Whiskey

Wild Turkey is one of the iconic bourbon brands, with its distinctive label among the most recognizable in the liquor store. It has historically been thought of as an everyman's drink, inexpensive and built to stay that way, found at tailgates, dive bars, and other settings where the point is to get alcohol into your system as rapidly as possible with taste being a lower priority.

In recent years, however, the owners have looked to burnish the Wild Turkey image and endear it to those who are more inclined for the small batches and trendier blends of its rivals. This has given consumers who like the way Wild Turkey makes its bourbon a lot of options. It also caused the brand to be among the most confusing as to what it stands for. Therefore, it helps to have a sense of what the difference is between the various options available to avoid getting a headache trying to figure out what the deal is with all the different bottles and prices.


First, the basics.

Wild Turkey prides itself on its craftsmanship.

Each batch goes through two distillations at a lower proof than federal requirements in order to achieve a better flavor. Because it is distilled at the lower temperature, Wild Turkey does not have to add water to the mix in order to keep the final proof down to the customary level. The company's master distillers liken it to making soup -- you simmer and simmer the broth and it gets richer as the water evaporates. So, too, is it with bourbon -- think of it as what your grandmother used to make, if your grandmother had a still and made bourbon in her backyard.

And boy, does Wild Turkey make a lot of bourbon. Wild Turkey 101 is its signature product these days, and offers the best combination of quality and value. In many ways, it’s also the biggest surprise of the Wild Turkey offerings.

A lot of bourbons at the 101 proof have a strong burn, and an ethanol bouquet that overshadows any other aromas. The Wild Turkey is much smoother than others in its class, with strong vanilla and subtle spicy undertones that make this a very good sipping beverage. You might want to have some fun with bourbon snobs and include this in a random tasting with higher-end brands… the results will probably surprise you.

One caveat: the Wild Turkey 101 is sneaky strong. Because it is smooth going down, and because it’s very reasonably priced, it’s easy to overindulge. You won’t wake up the next morning in a different city with a phone number written on her arm and no idea how you got there, but you might be a little lightheaded and in need of an aspirin.

Drinking the 101 neat is the best option. It’s fine to use a couple of ice cubes if that’s how you like your bourbon, but just know that you’re undoing some of the distillers work when you do so by watering down the flavor.

Many of the other Wild Turkey varieties differ mainly in how strong they are. The Wild Turkey 80 Proof is ... drumroll please ... an 80-proof bourbon with the least alcoholic content of the options (though still potent enough to pack a punch). It’s a nice drink, and if you do plan on serving this at a football tailgate, this is the better option.

There's also a Wild Turkey 86.8, which I guess is for those who think the 101 is too strong but there's just a littttttttttttttttle bit lacking in the 80. That extra 3.4% of alcohol makes enough of a difference to require a separate bourbon, though it is for smarter people than me to figure out why. (The 86.8 proof version is available in New Zealand and Australia. Have not seen in in the U.S. for years. - ed)


Premium Wild Turkey Brands

Then you have the collection of Wild Turkey premium products, which is considerable.

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit is a 101-proof single-barrel bourbon, and if you could tell that from the label the much fancier bottle it comes in would be a big clue. It has a rich and complex flavor, and the company’s recommendation that it be enjoyed with a fine cigar is a good one.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed

Rare Breed

For those wanting something slightly different, the Wild Turkey Rare Breed is a potent 108.4 proof bottle billed as a "barrel-proof bourbon." If you are like me and reacted by saying “what in the heck does that mean?" it indicates that this is "bottled directly from a variety of barrels at the proof it reaches in those barrels, with no added water to lower the proof or dilute the flavor." There’s your fact of the day to impress your bourbon-drinking friends. No need to thank me. And the significance of that is that it means you don't want to have this over ice, since that dilutes the flavor and eliminates the whole point of the product. The distillers there suggest you put your bottle in the freezer instead. Rare Breed combines 6, 8, and 12 year old barrels.

Russell's Reserve, named after the brand's master distiller, is a 10-year-old bourbon that's notable for its combination of sweetness and peppery spiciness, another very good sipping drink. Meanwhile, Wild Turkey American Spirit is the company's most high-end option, a 15-year bourbon that is limited to an annual run of 24,000 bottles.

There's also the Wild Turkey 8-year-old, a 101-proof bourbon that has a more powerful and flavorful finish. And a 12-year-old version takes that to another level. And pre-mixed bottles of Wild Turkey and Cola, and Wild Turkey and Dry, for those who feel like the merging of beverages is too much effort to spend before drinking.

The company also makes Rye Whiskey under both the Wild Turkey and Russell's Reserve label which are both very easy to mistake for the company's bourbon products given the similarities of the labels. Be careful to read before you buy.


American Honey

In addition, Wild Turkey American Honey is a liquor that features pure honey and Wild Turkey bourbon at a 71-proof level. The big caveat here is that this is NOT bourbon, and it will be a rude shock if you buy a bottle expecting that. However, unlike the rye whiskeys, this comes with a different logo and label so it's not easy to make that mistake. The drink is definitely much sweeter than the rest of the Wild Turkey catalog, as one would expect from a beverage that combined it with such a sweetener. Whisky and Honey is an old home remedy for coughing. You can also get an American Honey calendar at their store.

(Oh, and a recent bottle of the 101 that I bought came with a free bottle of Wild Turkey barbecue sauce, which tasted fine on a medium-rare hamburger).


Wild Turkey Options

That's a lot of options -- perhaps too many. Unless you're going to a Wild Turkey bourbon tasting -- which seems like a great way to spend an evening -- there are enough choices here to cross anyone's eyes. Drinking through the entire Wild Turkey catalog bottle by bottle is time-consuming, not recommended, and can keep the bourbon enthusiast from sampling new brands, one of the small pleasures of life. If you pick up a bottle of the 101 for the routine drinking, and another of the more exclusive Wild Turkey varieties, that should be plenty to sustain you for the short term. You can always circle back to it later – perhaps there will be even more options to choose from by then!