Comparison: Wild Turkey 101 / W.B. Saffell / Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel

WILD TURKEY 101

Bottled in 2001

MASH BILL – 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% barley

PROOF – 101

AGE – NAS (rumored 6 to 8 years)

DISTILLERY – Austin Nichols Distilling Company

PRICE – $60 for 1L from an acquaintance (contemporary WT101 1L bottles run ~$30)

W.B. SAFFELL

Batch #1 (2019)

MASH BILL – Wild Turkey (75% corn, 13% rye, 12% barley)

PROOF – 107

AGE – NAS (blend of 6, 8, 10, and 12 year bourbons)

DISTILLERY – The American Medicinal Spirits Co. (Wild Turkey)

PRICE – $50 for 375ml (shipping from NYC brought it to $60)

RUSSELL’S RESERVE SINGLE BARREL BOURBON

Bottled in 2013

MASH BILL – 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% barley

PROOF – 110

AGE – NAS (rumored 9 to 10 years)

DISTILLERY – Austin Nichols Distilling Company

PRICE – $63 for 750ml (local corner store)

These are all very particular bottlings, cousins spanning 18 years of production. For a virtual encyclopedia on Wild Turkey in all its iterations, check out the excellent Rare Bird 101 blog. But in short, these three bottlings share the Wild Turkey pedigree, from its mash bill to the collected expertise of master distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell. The ages involved are within relative reach of one another. The proofs span 9 degrees. And the gap in time between each bottling provides ambiguous but interesting insight into the decades-spanning greatness of one of the most classic American bourbon brands.

Here first are my nut-shelled notes. I sampled the bourbons not in chronological order, but in ascending proof.

COLOR

Wild Turkey 101 – a dark, burnt-orange copper

W.B. Saffell – slightly lighter burnt-orange copper

Russell’s Reserve – very like the W.B. Saffell

 

NOSE

Wild Turkey 101 – butterscotch bomb!

W.B. Saffell – peanuts, soft autumn spice, caramel, and a faint whiff of some nearby glass of red wine

Russell’s Reserve – dusty nutshell, caramel and autumnal spice. 

 

TASTE

Wild Turkey 101 – creamy, butterscotch-caramel, bright autumnal spice

W.B. Saffell – organic mixed nuts, autumnal spices, juicy vanilla caramel, a wisp of butterscotch

Russell’s Reserve – soft yet pungent, sweet and spiced caramel, peppery at the edges

 

FINISH

Wild Turkey 101 – fun peppery caramel

W.B. Saffell – tangy autumnal spiced caramel

Russell’s Reserve – tangy bright vanilla-caramel with a tingling spice

 

OVERALL

Wild Turkey 101 – butterscotch, butterscotch, butterscotch

W.B. Saffell – nutty autumnal caramel goodness.

Russell’s Reserve – dusty autumnal caramel goodness

 

BUY AGAIN?

Wild Turkey 101 – A bottle from 2001? Any chance I get, so long as it’s near $60. Otherwise a contemporary bottle would be fine at $25 or so.

W.B. Saffell – At $50 max, and if I didn’t already have one on hand, heck yeah.

Russell’s Reserve – A bottle from 2013? Oh yes, if I didn’t already have a back up! Otherwise a contemporary bottle would be fine and usually about the same price.

I love Wild Turkey. It never fails. Ever. Wild Turkey is the very definition of “ol’ standby.” It is very versatile—as suited to mixing in cocktails as it is to sipping neat. Some bottlings may be better than others, according to one’s tastes. But I’ve never had a “bad” Wild Turkey product. They always epitomize early autumn, when the fun of summer is still fresh in memory.

If anything, one might complain that Wild Turkey never busts out of its pasture to go truly wild. The more expensive annual limited edition Master’s Keep series tend to sit on store shelves, due to their price tag in combination with not being radical departures from the basic Wild Turkey profile. They are exquisite in their balance, but hard to justify at the $130+ price tag since both the Russell’s Reserve 10 Year and Single Barrel are also excellent at 1/4 and 1/2 the price respectively. 

But this dependability is also why Wild Turkey is so beloved. You can always count on it. These three bottlings make good examples:

Of them, the 2001 Wild Turkey 101 stands out in particular for its energetic embrace of the butterscotch aspect. Barreled and bottled in the days when Wild Turkey had a barrel entry proof of 107, this might explain its unique punch. But the 2013 Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel might also contain 107-entry-proof distillate. That was the standard entry proof until 2004, when it was raised to 110. So, depending on its unstated age, this 2013 Russell’s Reserve could also have had an entry proof of 110. In 2006 the entry proof was changed yet again, to 115. With its oldest juice being 12 years, the 2019 W.B. Saffell is most likely comprised entirely of 115-entry-proof bourbons. 

Why is entry proof significant? Because a lower entry proof has proven to have the impact of heightening flavors, allowing the barrel more influence during the initial aging period since there is less alcohol to compete up front. Each of these bottles is remarkably flavorful. But the oldest of them, with the lowest entry proof, does indeed push its flavor forward with particular emphasis, despite its also having the lowest bottling proof—higher bottling proof being a flavor heightener.

Wild Turkey bourbons offer the opportunity to get into the fine details of bourbon making. Wild Turkey’s very particular history, with its well-documented shifts in process (again, I refer you to Rare Bird 101), mean one can compare its bourbons by a range of factors—era produced, age of the distillate, entry proof, bottling proof, whether Jimmy versus Eddie Russell oversaw its production… Given the basic distillate has been so consistently controlled and perfected over time, the fine effects of blending become very apparent and the raison d’etre

Four Roses, with their ten recipes, offers a similar combination of reliability and variance. Though with Four Roses the variables swing much wider. I’ve had Four Roses single barrels that have really thrown me for a loop. Whereas every Wild Turkey product I’ve ever tasted has been recognizable, fresh, and some form of totally satisfying. Any Wild Turkey bourbon—whether it’s stamped with the Wild Turkey or Russell’s Reserve labels, or given an entirely other label like the W.B. Saffell—is guaranteed to be thoughtful, fun, kicky, and contemplative.

These three examples are no exception. I love the 2001 Wild Turkey 101 for its insistence on butterscotch—not to mention the rich, bright quality of that butterscotch. I love the combination of youthful brightness and august contemplation in the W.B. Saffell, a blend so balanced in terms of age and flavor that I at once can barely notice it and therefore immediately notice it. (Check my previous review of it as well.) And the 2013 Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, actually the very first of that line, is the very definition of contemplative—and with wit!

I would recommend any Wild Turkey 101, and any Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, from any era. (If you do come across an older bottling, though, grab it for sure.) And this first outing of the W.B. Saffell is a very promising start to that line. Its price is unfortunate. If you don’t want to pay $50 for a 375ml bottle, then I’d say grab a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel for a comparable experience.

Whichever you choose, you’ll be very happy.

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