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Collabo-Review #2: Wild Turkey Rye 101

After our horrendous run-in with Rebel Yell, which was memorably bad, Jason, Sku and I decided we’d do another group review. At the time, we kicked around a few options and Wild Turkey Rye was one on the list. Little did we know what would come to pass in just a few weeks.

As of the time of this review, the status of Wild Turkey Rye, 101 proof, is somewhat murky. A few weeks ago, rumors circulated that it was being discontinued in favor of an 81 proof version. At the time, Campari (the owners of Wild Turkey) said point blank that 101 was discontinued and 81 was the way forward. That was all that was needed for rye whiskey fans to take note and start stocking up like crazy. Unfortunately, the 101 was already somewhat scarce on shelves. Chuck Cowdery then posted an article saying the reality was that stocks of 101 would be scarce through 2012 but in 2013 and 2014, you’d see 81 and 101 coexisting on shelves much like the bourbons are at this point.

Others have speculated that this is a sign the 101 will return with a new price point or as a special edition. Whatever the case, this is look at a whiskey that is currently hard to find and of questionable availability going forward for the next few years. I’m sure Jason and Sku have much more in-depth knowledge of the subject from the business standpoint.

Unlike the “what the hell” approach we took with the first collaborative review, choosing Rebel Yell as a half-dare, half-joke, Wild Turkey Rye is a much more serious choice. No one’s seriously eyeing that Rebel Yell when they’ve got a jones for a good bourbon… but Wild Turkey has released some good whiskeys in the past. However, making good bourbon is one thing… what about a good rye? By all accounts it’s a much harder grain to work with. Not everyone gets a rye whiskey right – the Woodford releases were far off the mark. (As I keep saying, more on Woodford soon…) Beyond that, if you’re not producing your own rye, you’re likely to be bottling LDI rye – which is great, but who needs yet another LDI product when the market has some stellar examples of LDI rye already? It seems like a tough category to work in – and yet demand is increasing ahead of supply.

The nose on Wild Turkey’s rye is nice – it’s clean up front and has a big floral rye presence. However, it’s got some body to it. When you dig in, you get some pepper and a slightly piney note. The body is anchored and weighty – it’s a mix of cinnamon and a bready grain presence. Honestly, it seemed a lot like cinnamon toast to me. There’s cherry and butterscotch hanging around the edges of the nose as well. Left to develop, it will lose the more sharp rye notes and settles in on wood, pepper and a little leathery presence as well. Water focuses the nose even tighter on the pepper notes and it’s massive black pepper with a little bit of wood.

The body is not unsurprisingly light at first entrance. It’s slightly bitter and thin initially but really quickly opens up, becoming sweet with maple syrup, honey, and nutty toffee notes. The body gains a bit of sweet, syrupy weight pretty quickly. It’s got some real heat to it but isn’t overbearing – cinnamon, black pepper and a hint of cayenne. The fruit from the nose is there as well; cherries sort of frame the top notes and there’s a bit of orange zest too. There’s some woody bitterness and some black tea tannins that start to develop though. Adding a splash of water unfortunately causes it to lose some of the dimension and it is kind of a poor mix of rye sharpness and muddled sweetness.

The finish is led by those tannins; they’re very up-front and dominant with the black tea note giving way to a more straightforward woody cask note. Things dry pretty constantly and you get a celery root note. It also has some bready body to it – really, this is a substantial finish – but it’s not as tied to the cinnamon as before. That’s not to say there’s no heat… it’s got plenty, but it’s not overpowering. There’s a surprisingly strong straight rye note in the finish. Overall, this finish lasts and lasts…

For a mass market rye, this one is pretty surprising. I don’t think it holds up to Rittenhouse 100, but it’s pretty well balanced and fairly reasonably priced. It’s a bit more bitter than I’d like, but it’s got a lot working for it. The nose and body have a lot more weight and presence than I’d expected. It’s got nuance and some interesting notes that work well together. Really, this is a pretty good deal for the money.

Unfortunately, as I said earlier, this good deal is in increasingly short supply. If you see a bottle on the shelves, you should definitely give it a try. If you’re new to rye whiskey it’s a good starting point and will be about as difficult to find currently as Baby Saz or Rittenhouse (at least in Southern California). You can find Masterson’s and Whistle Pig reasonably easy on the shelves but that’s a serious cash outlay. IF you find the Wild Turkey 101, I think it’s worth it. I can’t say what the 81 proof version has in store or how it will stack up. My dilutions didn’t leave me hopeful, but it’s possible Wild Turkey has some tricks up their sleeve.

Read the review at Sku’s Recent Eats

Read the review at Sour Mash Manifesto

At a glance:

Wild Turkey Rye 101 – 50.5% ABV
Clean nose with plenty of floral rye up front – a little pepper when you dig in and some slightly piney notes. Very faint cherry note with a little butterscotch far off in the distance. A little grainy, bready presence and some cinnamon – definitely has a cinnamon toast body. The nose settles down and reveals a little more wood and peppery presence after a while, with some leathery tones to it as well.  
Light body. Slightly bitter initially and a thin palate but it opens up quite fast – a little more sweetness present with some light maple syrup, some honey, some nutty toffee notes. Cherries hang out at the far edges of the palate and there’s a definite hint of orange zest; heat is there and fairly notable – cinnamon, maybe a bit of cayenne, and some regular black pepper. Slight bitterness to the wood; a bit of black tea tannins. With water it softens the bitterness a bit and gets sweeter, but loses what makes it interesting. 
Warm but not overbearing. The tannins from the body hang around in a  big way; there’s wood from the cask and a slightly dry celery root note. It again has a bit of that bready body but not as intensely tied with the cinnamon as before. Rye is quite present on the finish as well. 
For a mass-market rye, this is not a bad one at all – and available at a pretty reasonable price. It leans just a bit more bitter than I like but that said it’s still a solid whiskey.