51% Rye, 37% Corn, 12% Barley
Today Wild Turkey and more broadly the bourbon and rye categories are enjoying a period of unprecedented popularity and prosperity. Bourbon and rye whiskies are sought after everywhere brown spirits are enjoyed. It’s a far cry from the days of Prohibition, when distillers barely stayed afloat by selling their hooch as medicine or during World War II when they pivoted to provide ethanol for the war effort. The one-two punch of Prohibition and the war proved to be too much for most. In the years to come, distillers who survived soon noticed that they had another challenge on their hands. In the 1960s the US market started turning to clear spirits like vodka and gin, a trend that continued through the early 90s. Many distillers found themselves in survival mode once again, this time from a sales standpoint. In an effort to meet numbers and maintain their workforce, many followed the market and released white or light whiskies. Wild Turkey did not follow suit. Instead they soldiered on, making the same exact bourbon that their customers loved, no matter how many or few of them there were.
THE HOUSE THAT JIMMY BUILT
James “Jimmy” Russell started working at the Wild Turkey Distillery in 1954 in the quality control department. But as he’ll gladly tell you, in addition to analyzing samples for quality, he did everything from sweeping floors to shoveling grain. It didn’t take long for Jimmy to make an impression on his boss. He tells the story in a company-produced documentary about his life in 2014 saying, “Mr. Bill Hughes was the master distiller when I came here [to work at the Wild Turkey Distillery] and for some reason he more or less took me under his wing.” Hughes, who himself had been making bourbon since before Prohibition, must’ve seen something in the energetic and uncommonly driven young man. Whatever it was, he was spot on. Eventually Jimmy took over as master distiller in the 1960s but just like when he was in quality control, there was more to the job than simply making whiskey. In an interview with the University of Kentucky’s Nunn Center for Oral Histories his son, co-master distiller and fellow Bourbon Hall of Famer Eddie Russell, explained his father’s job description in those days as, “Jimmy at that time was plant manager, master distiller, human resources, and the whole bit.” It’s important to note the entirety of his responsibility throughout that time period because had he decided to take Wild Turkey in a different direction, it’s not likely you’d be reading about it on these pages. Some would say that bourbon as a whole wouldn’t be where it’s at today without his steady hand. Or as Jimmy modestly puts it, “I’m just hard-headed and old-fashioned, I don’t like to change.”
The Wild Turkey Rare Breed Rye is a barrel proof, Kentucky straight rye whiskey that is non-chill filtered so expect a wallop of flavor and intensity. I mean this in a good way. While there is no age statement on the bottle, the Rare Breed Rye is reported to be a blend of 4-, 6-, and 8-year old straight rye whiskies. On the nose you are met with a vibrant and spicy combination of vanilla, cinnamon, citrus, and a good dose of black pepper and rye grain. The flavors are a well-balanced combination of sweetness in the form of caramel and vanilla joined by black pepper, clove, and anise. The finish delivers a long lasting spicy warmth that seems like it plans to settle in for the night. This rye is unapologetically Wild Turkey through and through.
Cigar Pairing: Sin Compromiso
Barrel proof ryes are among the most difficult spirits to pair with cigars because in many cases they quite literally make the cigar flavorless till the whiskey dissipates. The Sin Compromiso from Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust was up to the challenge bringing deep earthiness that cuts through the rye’s spices. Interesting while both the rye and the cigar feature pepper flavors in their profiles, the peppers are quite different and the pairing accentuates them nicely. If you use a ration of one sip for every three to four puffs, it’ll seem like you’re smoking a different cigar with every puff and it’ll keep you upright a little longer.