Wild Turkey’s Taste Isn’t For Everybody. Fine By Me.


July 5, 2020

When I started professionally reviewing whiskey, I never understood why many critics were low on Wild Turkey.

They all expressed love for master distillers Jimmy Russell and his son, Eddie, but never seem to quite have the same feelings on their whiskey. 

In 2016, I gave Wild Turkey 1998 its highest-ever review in Whisky Advocate…

94 Points, Russell’s Reserve 1998, 51.1%

This is the Wild Turkey limited edition bourbon we’ve been waiting for. Only 2,070 bottles exist. Deep amber hues and non-chill filtered, it opens up to straight-from-the-woods campfire smoke, caramel, vanilla, fresh-baked macaroon, leather, woodworking shop, and cigar box. But it’s not a smoke bomb or saturated in sweet; its delicate baking spices meet hatch chile, cinnamon, hints of mint and citrus. It finishes strong and long with a lingering caramel chew. (This review originally appeared in Whisky Advocate, Spring Issue, 2016)

After this review, I got a few notes from readers that my palate was off, because it was a Turkey product. I chalked it up as weird commentary from folks and moved on. 

Then, Wild Turkey developed a “tough guy” complex and became a biker bar favorite, while marketers tried to position the sweet Jimmy Russell as a rebel even encouraging pictures of him flipping off a camera.

It worked.

But even before the “Give ‘Em The Bird” campaigns, Wild Turkey rivaled Maker’s Mark for growth in the 1980s and 1990s and dominated / developed export markets like Australia. Marketers were only developing campaigns around their base. And let’s face it, for a long time, Wild Turkey felt like the ultimate blue collar bourbon.

There’s also the actual taste to Wild Turkey, a funk of sorts that’s in just about every bottle. There’s typically an earthiness and spice in Wild Turkey that does not appeal to some, just as Islay’s peaty Scotches are turn offs and sweet tooths hate Jamaican rums. Some folks don’t like that taste; I happen to. A lot. 

I have always loved Wild Turkey. And this year’s Bottled-in-Bond release may be the greatest Turkey of the past decade. I will always hold 1970s Turkey, when Jimmy was in his prime, above most of today’s. But it’s extremely special and has a shot to win my whiskey of the year competition.

(To learn more about Turkey, check out my buddy’s book, The American Spirit.)