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

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.) 

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2 Replies to “Wild Turkey’s Taste Isn’t For Everybody. Fine By Me.”

  1. Dude, stop drawing attention to WT. We don’t want it to get too popular 😉
    The current situation of BT snagging the awards, headlines and attention of the “collectors” while WT churns out great whiskey one hair under the popular consensus is perfect for the seal cracking drinkers among us.

    I’ve never understood the perception of Wild Turkey as “rotgut”. I saw it from the outside growing up and when I finally had WT 101 it was love at first sip; if this was rotgut sign me up.

    It’s been my favorite American distillery ever since and, like you, gave the ’98 my highest mark ever and was my first distillery deep dive. We disagree on the BiB, though definitely agree on it needing time/3 tastes, but I love the attention it’s getting these days and enjoyed reading this snap shot and your BiB posts.

    Cheers!

    P.S. I can’t recommend David’s book enough as well, very well done.

  2. My Grandfather drank Wild Turkey as did my Dad and my uncles. I have grown up with it. At 53 years of age Its my go to whiskey.
    Its hard to find in Arkansas, but there are some of BIB around.
    I love the Wildbranch and the Rare Bird.
    Keep up the good work, love the youtube channel and your excellent writing.

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