Wild Turkey is one of those famous whiskey brands that everyone knows. It’s been around forever, popularized on TV and in movies — but even so, I’ve never actually had a single sip. I was curious what’s kept this spirit on the shelves throughout the decades so I bought a bottle to figure it out for myself.
Thomas Ripy built the Old Hickory Distillery in Tyrone, Kentucky in 1891. This first incarnation of the distillery closed down during prohibition and Thomas died in 1902, but the distillery was resurrected once that dark period ended and became a successful wholesaler for bourbon, which other brands bottled under their own labels.
Legend has it that in 1940, Thomas McCarthy, an executive for one of the wholesalers buying from Old Hickory brought a bottle of the bourbon on a wild turkey hunt. The bourbon was so popular that his friends continued to ask for “that wild turkey bourbon” and in 1942, McCarthy’s company, Austin Nichols, began distributing a Wild Turkey branded bourbon.
In 1971, with the massive success of the brand, Austin Nichols purchased the distillery and renamed it the Wild Turkey Distillery. The brand changed hands over the years but is currently owned by the Campari Group, who built a new distillery near the original building in 2011 where the whiskey continues to be produced to this day.
The bourbon reportedly starts as a dry mix of 75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% malted barley. From there, the mash is fermented and distilled.
The spirit takes a rest in charred oak barrels for a while — there’s no age statement provided but some claim it’s as long as four years. After that, it’s bottled and shipped out to store shelves.
This used to be called Wild Turkey 81 (because at 40.5% ABV it’s 81 proof) but they seem to have dropped that in favor of a plain “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey” appellation on this latest batch.
Just like the manufacturing process, there’s nothing remarkable here. The bottle looks like a standard liquor bottle with a screw-on top, and the label is bland and uninteresting with the exception of a wild turkey illustration to brighten things up.
What I smell primarily from this glass is caramel. There’s a hint of vanilla underneath, but the primary thing that punches you in the nose is that sweet, sweet caramel with a bit of toffee.
Things get a little more interesting when it hits your tongue, with orange peel being the primary flavor. There’s the caramel and vanilla behind it, but that citrus-y orange flavor is the primary thing that comes through. It’s overpowering and unpleasant, more medicinal than anything.
On the aftertaste, there’s a bit of pepper and nuttiness which is appreciated.
There’s no burn or unpleasantness, it’s not objectionable to drink. The only big issue that ruins it for me is that overpowering orange zest flavor.
Things actually get a whole lot better with some ice. The primary flavors that I get are now that caramel and vanilla, with the orange zest relegated to an aftertaste. There’s more nutty flavor and pepper thrown in for good measure, as well.
The problem is that while it’s better, it still isn’t very good. There’s no balance, no pleasant tones, just a harsh citrus aftertaste.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
The orange is back, and it ain’t great.
When taken neat, the orange is almost overpowering. Adding in some ice improves the situation. But when you add orange bitters, it returns the orange flavors to their full power — which isn’t necessarily a good thing. This might work well with a significant amount of sugar but at that point, you might really just want to find something else to use as a spirit.
In order to make a good Kentucky Mule, the underlying bourbon needs to have some significant character to make itself known through the ginger and the lime juice. In this case there’ just not enough there to make a difference.
There’s some nuttiness and pepper in the spirit, but it’s not a significant flavor. It only makes itself known at the end, when everything else has gone. In this case the flavors aren’t strong enough to make it through all that mess and the only thing that I get even a hint of is some sweet caramel.
The bourbon parts are pretty good, but in my opinion the citrus and orange flavors are too overpowering to be pleasant. And the rest of the flavors aren’t strong enough to balance it out or make for a good mixer. It’s not undrinkable, but it’s not my first choice.
Wild Turkey Bourbon Whiskey
Owner: Campari Group
Production: Tyrone, Kentucky
Classification: Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Grain bill: 75% Corn, 13% Rye, 12% Malted Barley
Proof: 40.5% ABV
Price: $23/ 750ml
Overall Rating: 2/5
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