The first ever moment I became aware of Wild Turkey, it was when I was watching the move "American Yakuza," a just-okay crime drama where Viggo Mortensen becomes a part of the Japanese mafia.
Basically, as a reward for a job well done, the mafia boss gives Viggo a very special gift. "Wild Turkey," the Yakuza dude says. Viggo pulls the bottle from a brown paper bag and smiles in sincere approval. Here is what that communicated to me: Wild Turkey is something you can always buy for your roughneck American friends when you have no idea what to get them. It's a Hallmark card in liquid form that reads, "Thank you for breaking that guy's legs for me."
This mental image, along with Wild Turkey 101's pretty low price, didn't give me high expectations. Admittedly, that wasn't really a fair reading. Thankfully, what I know at this point after giving the bird its day in court is that Wild Turkey's popularity is indeed well-earned. Color me surprised.
So, first up: Wild Turkey's master distiller Jimmy Russell as been at this a very long time. As in sixty years, making him the longest-tenured master distiller in the world. He's been so important to the state of Kentucky that three separate governors made him an honorary Colonel. His son Eddie runs things now, but if I were in his position I'd make sure I had my hand on the wheel only to keep the boat pointed in the same direction it was when dad left. Say what you will, but Wild Turkey has provenance.
That's not lost in the glass. Although they don't state it explicitly, Wild Turkey 101 typically spends anywhere from six to eight years in the barrel, and the Russell family's method of distillation involves taking wide cuts during the distillation process in order to make a spicier whiskey. I'm dumbfounded as to the science there, but it does a lot to explain the experience of actually tasting the stuff.
When I sat down with my seventeen dollar bottle, I just flat-out wasn't prepared for Wild Turkey 101 to be as tremendously flavorful as it was. If you like those "red hot" candies, this is the whiskey for you. Your palate will explode with cinnamon, due in part to a higher level of rye in comparison to a lot of bourbons on the shelf. This is a bold, peppery whiskey that has a seemingly endless finish. The flavors literally dance on the tongue like a fistful of Pop Rocks.
Here's the only real downside: it's vigorous, but blunt. The nose has all of the aggressiveness of a backyard rodeo. There's booze, oak, and actually some dusty earthiness. And also bit of funkiness that reminded me a little of wet dog. Not an unpleasant smell, but certainly a distinctive one to pet owners. And booze. Lots of booze.
When I drink Wild Turkey 101, I like to set the mechanical bull to the "low" setting. This stuff takes water like a champ, and diluted to about 43% ABV (down from 50.5%), I think it fares a lot better. Here, I can taste much more of the barley malt from the mash bill. Additionally, the sweetness from the corn has a bit more interplay with the ample cinnamon spice. Oddly enough, the 80-proof Wild Turkey isn't nearly as flavorful as the 101 diluted to an equivalent strength. Different formulas, probably.
In the end, Wild Turkey 101 might not fall into my category of favorite favorites: it's an unsophisticated, loud-mouthed kind of bourbon that goes for a shock-and-awe approach to flavor instead of nuance.
That said, I'm not missing the forest for the trees here: the flavors are distinctive, the value is great, and it's a well-crafted bourbon that can stand neck and neck with bottles costing three times as much. An unexpected surprise for what was totally a cheap impulse buy. Being wrong is seldom so much fun.