Wild Turkey has been making rye since before the “rye renaissance” began – starting some time in the 1980s, using a “barely legal” mashbill of 51% rye, 37% corn, and 12% malted barley. Around 2012 when bartending morphed into “mixology” and birthed a renewed customer fervor for rye whiskey, Wild Turkey’s workhorse 101-proof rye disappeared from shelves and forced the company to create and promote an 81-proof budget variant to stretch stocks. Only last year (2017) did Wild Turkey 101 Kentucky Straight Rye reappear, and only in the restaurant- and bar-oriented 1-liter format. It also sported a new label and a higher price tag, at around $40 a liter.
Wild Turkey is known for using a lower barrel-entry proof than competitors, with the goal of pulling the spirit off of the stills with more flavor compounds intact. The barrels are number 4 char (also called “alligator” for their scaly appearance), and bottles are filled at (duh) 101 proof, aka 50.5% ABV. Note that aside from the 81-proof rye, the company also sells a rye in the pricier Russells Reserve line.
Nose: Sweet, with distinct notes of cherry liqueur, blonde fudge, and a background of pine sap. Some oaky vanilla in there too, but not much in the way of traditional rye “spices”. Maybe some cinnamon.
Palate: Medium body. Dry woodiness greets the tongue, followed by a robust tongue burn, appropriate for 101 proof. Barrel tannins, cherry juice, and sweet corny bourbon notes march in line. More astringent than expected from the aroma, and still only limited spices (clove this time).
Finish: On the short side. A touch of bubble gum, a ghost of pine resin, and not much else. Forgettable.
With Water: A few drops of water brighten the palate, adding some marshmallow and orange peel. It also seems to improve the finish by allowing some of those fruits to linger, adding balance. Water is a good idea here.
Overall: This tastes like a reasonable budget rye. I think it’s a bit dumbed-down, trading in rye spice for corn sweetness, and it has a disappointing finish without timely addition of water. Unfortunately, it is allocated in some markets and surprisingly pricey when you can find it. The 81-proof is available for $25 a bottle, which is also high for what it is. If your purpose is to find a rye for cocktails or ice and don’t want to shell out an extra few bucks for the superior-in-every-way Hochstadter’s Vatted, then this isn’t a bad choice, especially considering you know where it was distilled unlike most of the cheap NAS rye on the market right now. If you really want bang for your buck, though, look no further than Rittenhouse Rye 100… at least until Wild Turkey increases production and decreases the price to something reasonable, like $25 (the 81 ought to be $20).
Despite the price, I’ll give this a Recommended rating… but it’s by the skin of its hen’s teeth. Get it? Hen? Turkey?… ok yeah that was bad. I apologize.