Classification: Straight Bourbon
Company: Campari Group
Distillery: Wild Turkey
Release Date: Ongoing
Age: NAS (Aged “up to five to eight years” per the back text on the label)
Mashbill: 75% Corn, 13% Rye, 12% Malted Barley
Color: Light Amber
Price: $20 (2022)
Wild Turkey Bourbon bottled at 81 proof was first introduced in 2011, replacing the 80 proof version that had been introduced back in 1974. Bottled just 1 proof higher than bourbon’s legal minimum requirement of 80 proof, Wild Turkey Bourbon is essentially a lower proof version of Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon intended to offer a milder experience by comparison.
Wild Turkey uses a single mashbill for all of their bourbons. Wild Turkey’s barrel entry proof (the proof the distillate enters the barrel for aging) is relatively low at 107 to 115, up from 105 at one time, resulting in a low bottling proof by comparison to competitors’ barrel proof products which typically go in at the maximum allowable 125 proof.
This bottle of Wild Turkey Bourbon sports the bourbon’s redesigned packaging and label, consistent with packaging changes across Wild Turkey’s lineup. Notably, the large “81” that once appeared on the label was removed in favor of a more simple “Wild Turkey Bourbon” moniker. Those familiar with the former packaging design will likely refer to it as ‘Wild Turkey 81” and not simply Wild Turkey Bourbon.
Caramel, vanilla, and a splash of rye spice form a familiar and delicate base. Hints of oak and toffee tease in the background, but only slightly and with a strong inhale. A touch of cinnamon mingles in. Notably light, but pleasant and easily approachable at the same time.
Caramel chews and baking spice provide a nice sweet-spicy mix. Muted notes of vanilla and seasoned oak tease their way in, along with a dash of rye spice. While the intensity of flavor is quintessentially light, there is just enough oomph to allow the flavors to make their way through. Maybe most shocking, the weight of bourbon is more than expected considering the proof, offering a satisfying mouthfeel.
Rye spice reaches its highest point in the finish, though it still feels subdued in nature. Light cinnamon and a touch of caramel cap the finish off, which is short to medium length. Consistent with the rest of the sip, the finish offers a light, easy-going experience and lacks any unexpected surprises.
Wild Turkey might be owned by a large, globally recognized spirits company, but it is still a family affair. Wild Turkey’s two generation master distiller team started in 1954 when Jimmy Russell, following in the footsteps of his father, began working at Wild Turkey. His first job was sweeping floors, but by the 1960s. he worked his way up to master distiller, the highest position within a distillery’s operations. Still at it, he is now the longest tenured active master distiller in the global spirits industry. In 1981 Jimmy’s son, Eddie Russell, joined the family business as what is described as the “lowest rung of the ladder” at Wild Turkey Distillery. 35 years later, in 2015, Eddie earned the same title as his father. 2022 marks 68 years at Wild Turkey for Jimmy, and 41 for Eddie, a combined tenure of 109 years. One thing has rung true during the Russells’ lengthy tenure at Wild Turkey - they’re straight shooters, and don’t pretend to be anything they are not.
Like the Russells, and like all of their other products, 81 proof Wild Turkey Bourbon doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. “The icon but a little milder than the 101,” Wild Turkey isn’t trying to reach bourbon enthusiasts who tend to gravitate towards bourbons hovering closer to the 100 proofpoint with this 81 proof counterpart.
Instead, Wild Turkey Bourbon is meant to compete with the likes of Jim Beam Bourbon (white label), Four Roses Bourbon (formerly referred to as “yellow label”), Evan Williams (black label), and other bourbons offering a similar proof and price point. It hits above Jim Beam for sure, but finds a sort of “which one of them do you prefer?” ground among the rest of the bourbons mentioned. It’s the spiciest of the bunch, not quite as sweet as Evan Williams which puts sweet notes on display, and not quite as refined as Four Roses Bourbon which is a testament to their blending expertise.
All in all, Wild Turkey Bourbon is not meant to be unique per se, it’s meant to be approachable for masses and it is exactly what the company intends it to be.
Undoubtedly, Wild Turkey Bourbon’s most notable attribute is its price. At $20, and often less, Wild Turkey Bourbon is intended to reach a wide audience at an affordable price point.
Rather than compare it to other bourbons, let’s start by comparing Wild Turkey Bourbon to other spirits in general. I point this out here because in the $20 range, and at a proof closer to that typical of other spirits, any $20 bourbon will also contend with some general competition for the buck - those simply looking for something to drink. It also falls in the price and proof range of those who might be a bit curious about bourbon, but have not yet delved into the spirit and don’t want to break the bank or burn their taste buds. For $20, you can pick up a low-to-middle-end vodka, rum, or gin, for example. I would wager that just about every other spirits option, aside from other bourbons or ryes, offers far less value by comparison. Considering the 4 or more years aging in barrels (likely closer to 4-6, though the label does say “up to five to eight”), capability, and skill set of its makers, just about any $20 bourbon has the capability to offer a tremendous value.
When bringing the comparison back to other bourbons, the greater landscape of bourbon and its overall value proposition can put lower cost, lower proof, and lesser aged bourbons in a different light. Wild Turkey Bourbon is priced in a similar format to others noted above such as Jim Beam Bourbon, Four Roses Bourbon, and Evan Williams, opening up some options at the price point. However, if you draw in a similarly aged and proofed bourbon such as Basil Hayden’s, an example of the trend we are seeing in bourbon right now as it offers two things Wild Turkey Bourbon does not - premium packaging and premium market positioning - Wild Turkey Bourbon really starts to shine. Put simply, Wild Turkey Bourbon is a better bourbon, for less than half the price.
Finally, as noted by Wild Turkey themselves, the 81 proof version is essentially a lower proof version of their 101 proof. Wild Turkey 101 is $25 against the 81 proof Wild Turkey Bourbon’s $20 price tag. The 81 proof version offers about 80% of the proof, at 80% of the price compared to the 101 proof version. The simple fact is, if you prefer a more easy-drinking experience, Wild Turkey Bourbon offers an equivalent value to Wild Turkey 101. If not, the fact also is that you can take the proof out of a bourbon (by adding water), but you can’t put the proof back in. So if Wild Turkey Bourbon tastes too watered down for you at 81 proof, there’s no fixing it or adding more flavor. Thankfully, you’re only out $20 and chances are most of your non-bourbon enthusiast friends will enjoy it.
Wild Turkey Bourbon is up front about what it is, offering milder Wild Turkey flavor at $20 or less - a tremendous value for some, but not quite enough intensity for others.
We recently ran a Twitter poll and respondents of the poll came back (overwhelmingly) preferring a proof in the 100-115 range. But the fact is, not all bourbons were made for them, and there is a wide and far reaching audience that doesn’t approach bourbon with the same criticism bourbon enthusiasts might, they just want an affordable, easy-drinking pour. Wild Turkey Bourbon is intended for the mainstream audience, and among other options - especially non-bourbon spirits options - offers a tremendous value. It doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not, and incidentally offers a complementary experience when compared directly to other value-oriented low-proof bourbons offered by major Kentucky distilleries. If you like a higher proof and great value, Wild Turkey 101 is for you. Or more widely, anything low proof probably is not for you. But if you prefer a milder spirit and still want something with some flavor and just a bit of oomph, Wild Turkey Bourbon hits the spot.