A few months ago I was lamenting the end of my bottle of Wild Turkey Rare Breed (the 116.8 proof batch). Finishing the last of that bottle, the taste just struck me as so deep and rich. I had also been tasting the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel (110 proof) and remember thinking to myself that the Rare Breed was a little bit better than the Russell’s. I made a mental note that I should do a blind comparison between the Russell’s and the Rare Breed at some point. (Looking back, I have done a blind between the RR and a store pick of Kentucky Spirit, but the Rare Breed is closer in proof to the Russell’s so another similar blind tasting is still in order.)
For those who haven’t done the deep dive into Wild Turkey, let me offer a brief overview of their products. his is in now ay a comprehensive discussion of their products. Those that desire additional information should seek out what I consider one of the most in depth sites focusing on Wild Turkey—rareBird101.com a bourbon enthusiast who has dedicated his site to all things Turkey.
Wild Turkey uses a single mash bill for all the bourbons that they produce. That is to say, despite any differences in taste, all Wild Turkey bourbons start from a mash of 75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% malted barley. Essentially the same yeast is used in the fermentation of all their bourbons.Currently there are at least 10 different Wild Turkey bourbons available. These would include:
- Wild Turkey (an 81 proof bourbon)
- Wild Turkey 101 (101 proof)
- Longbranch (an 86 proof with a Texas Mesquite charcoal finish)
- Kentucky Spirit (think of this as the single barrel version of 101)
- Rare Breed (this is their barrel proof offering)
- Master’s Keep Revival (a 101 proof, sherry cask finished version)
- Master’s Keep (a 17 year old, 86.6 proof bourbon)
- Decades (a blend of 10 to 20 year old bourbons)
- Russell’s Reserve 10 year (a 90 proof, 10 year old bourbon)
- Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel (a 110 proof single barrel, non-chill filtered)
- Russell’s Reserve 2002 (small batch, barrel proof)
Any differences in taste (excluding the Longbranch and Revival, since they have a finishing influence) would be mainly due to the time in the barrel, the location in the warehouse and the proof of the final product.
One of the unique things about Wild Turkey is the history and longevity behind their master distillers. While the company is now owned by Campari, Jimmy Russell is the most tenured master distiller in bourbon. He’s been with Wild Turkey for more than 60 years. In the early 80s, his son, Eddie Russell started learning the craft, and in 2015 Eddie took over as the master distiller in his own right. I’ve listened to several podcasts where Eddie was interviewed and learned that he really didn’t want to change many of the things that Jimmy had created, which is what led to the Russell’s Reserve brand and gave Eddie a chance to bring in some of his own influence.
I’ll have to admit, when I started this blind taste test, I came in with some bias. And, as I’ve said before, the best way to eliminate bias is by tasting blind. Part of my bias was remembering that last glass of the Rare Breed and how good it was. Part was due to the “Jimmy factor,” knowing that Rare Breed was his barrel proof version of Wild Turkey, but also wanting to see how it would stack up against Eddie’s influence. And, just to make things interesting, I thought a “standard” WT101 would work well in a three glass blind flight.
Each of the three were poured into a Libbey 9217 Master’s Reserve glass (see my glassware post here) which were numbered, with my wife holding the “answer key” to be revealed at a later time.
I noted that glass #1 seemed to be the darkest of the three, #2 the lightest, and glass #3 being somewhat between the others. Given color alone, I assumed that #2 was most likely the “standard” Wild Turkey 101.
I nosed each of the glasses. As expected, all had similar characteristics. The first glass had slightly fruity notes— dark fruit like cherry, and also had a nose of vanilla and caramel. Glass #2 was less “in your face,” somewhat tamer and, upon swirling, had somewhat thinner legs. Glass #3 had a nose that was almost exactly the same as glass #1 and also had long, slow legs.
I made a note that glasses one and three were most likely the higher proof whiskeys, and from color alone, I noted that my guess was that glass #1 was the Rare Breed and glass #3 was the Russell’s Reserve.
Upon the first taste, I made the following observations:
- Glass #1: Warm and wonderful, long finish, caramel, slight cinnamon, a little oak
- Glass #2: thinner mouthfeel, caramel, finish not as long, good whiskey—I’d use this as an “everyday” whiskey, not as special/good as #1 (maybe this was because I had somewhat decided that this was the WT101).
- Glass #3: similar mouthfeel and taste profile as was in glass #1, not as much cinnamon, fut the finish wasn’t as satisfying. I’d classify it as a medium or short/medium finish compared to glass #1.
At the end of the first tasting, my ranking was (favorite to least favorite) #1, #3, #2.
After a little water and crackers to cleanse the palate, I tasted again, yet in a different order. The following was observed:
- Glass #3: very balanced between a sweetness and woodiness, I wouldn’t call it overly sweet or overly woody. What I felt was missing in number three was the finish. While it is a medium finish, you don’t get a big “Kentucky Hug” in your chest. I noted that this one seemed just a little “flat.”
- Glass #1: Best mouthfeel and finish of the three. I could still feel the tingle on the lips and tongue long after the sip. Well balanced—not too sweet, not too much barrel char, just a well rounded pour.
- Glass #2: I noted that I liked it better than in the round one tasting, maybe not enough for it to change positionally, but I’d give it a higher score on the second tasting. It’s a solid bourbon and would be a great one to use to introduce to new bourbon drinkers.
Following the round two tasting, I noted that I was sticking with my initial ranking of #1, #3, #2. I also noted that I’d drink any of the three any time—they were all solid bourbons.
It was time to reveal the answer key, and what it showed was:
- Glass #1: Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel (110°, Buster’s Liquors Store Pick)
- Glass #2: Wild Turkey 101
- Glass #3: Wild Turkey Rare Breed (116.8°)
My closing thoughts on this tasting:
I had the “regular” WT101 nailed from the color and initial tasting right off the bat. Don’t get me wrong, this is still an excellent bourbon—one of the most underrated in my opinion. I’d drink this as an “everyday” bourbon any day. It’s solid, findable/available, reasonably priced, and oh so good.
I’m somewhat surprised that the Russell’s came out on top. Maybe it was because I was wanting the Rare Breed to “win” for whatever reason—the fact that it was a “Jimmy” creation rather than Eddie, or that it was a barrel proof, or that I had a memory of that last bottle. That being said, the Russell’s is a single barrel which means that each barrel will be somewhat different. This particular Russell’s was a store pick as well, which may have a slightly different flavor profile than others. Additionally, the Rare Breed was freshly opened, which may or may not have played into the final results. I’ve noticed that many times bourbon can “open up” somewhat after the bottle has been opened and poured.
What I did learn from the process is this: oftentimes I enter into a tasting wanting something to come out on top. In some ways, I was disappointed that the Rare Breed wasn’t the “winner.” Having had time to think about this, I’ve decided that I shouldn’t (and wouldn’t recommend to you) enter into a tasting, especially a blind tasting, with preconceived ideas of what will be best. In a single blind test (you know what bourbons but you don’t know which glass), you probably already like each of them, so does it really matter which is best? When it comes down to it, both Rare Breed and Russell’s Reserve Single barrel are excellent bourbons, and about the same price.