Before vodka took over the spirits scene in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Wild Turkey 81 didn’t exist. The only widely available Wild Turkey you could get was 101 proof (50.5% ABV). However, when the vodka era did take over, the market no longer wanted boozy whisky; they wanted tasteless spirits that went down easily. It was a dark time for whisky (and taste!).
When I was at the distillery, Eddie Russell told me the story of Wild Turkey 81. Iconic Master Distiller of Wild Turkey, Jimmy Russell, didn’t care much for this change to lower proof whisky. He knew how he liked his whisky. When every bourbon distillery lowered the alcohol content to 40% ABV (80 Proof) whisky, he refused to do the same with Wild Turkey.
When sales started to drop, Jimmy Russel reconsidered, and he did briefly make a Wild Turkey 80 Proof. It wasn’t well received. Later, Jimmy Russell released the low-proof Wild Turkey product he could be proud of, and so Wild Turkey 81 (40.5% ABV) was born. That rebellious extra 1% of alcohol made all the difference. Low-proof whisky is no longer popular, however, and the previously named Wild Turkey 81 has been renamed to Wild Turkey Bourbon Whiskey. It’s still bottled at 40.5% (81 proof), and the flavour is unchanged.
Wild Turkey Bourbon Whiskey can be sipped. It's gentle on the palate, but there's some character there. I'm not a cocktail expert, but it strikes me as too soft on flavor to truly make itself seen in a modern (old fashioned?) cocktail. However, there are ways to drink Wild Turkey 81 that just make sense—take a tall glass, fill it with ice, fill it with Wild Turkey 81, and maybe at a splash of sparkling water. Boom, you have yourself a delicious drink.
It's said that Jimmy Russell drinks a tall glass of Wild Turkey on ice throughout the day. Whether or not this is true, I can't verify, but I can say that Wild Turkey Straight Bourbon fits well for that purpose.
Wild Turkey Straight Bourbon
Wild Turkey Distillery
Category: Straight Bourbon, No-Age Statement
Nose: What you’d expect: caramel, orange zest, and red apple notes.
Palate: Horn husk, light pepper when combined with sweetness, and caramel notes. Nutty finish.
Whisky Cabinet Rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ Good whisky, but not a ‘must-have’
A fine made bourbon that's not quite expressive enough for a whisky-forward cocktail, and a little too light to sip straight. It does, however, come alive when poured over ice and makes for a great drink during the warmer summer months. Whisky enthusiasts, intended on drinking whisky neat, are likely to be happier with all the other Wild Turkey products that come from the distillery.
*Whisky Cabinet Rating Explained:
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ Not recommended
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ Good whisky, but not a ‘must-have’
★ ★ ☆ ☆ Your great regular rotation whisky that'll come and go
★ ★ ★ ☆ Excellent, a near must-have
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary, memorable, and original