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I’m an avid follower of David Jennings over at Rarebird101.com. In fact, some of the things I’ll be talking about in this 1997 bottling of Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit I learned by reading his reviews. So if you’d like a more thorough background than what I’m able to provide, I highly encourage you to visit his site.
David noted that the idea of Kentucky Spirit seemed to be directly related to the success that Buffalo Trace/Age International was having with Blanton’s. In the mid-90’s, consumers were still warming up to the tastes of bourbon and rye whiskey after decades of preferring clear spirits. Blanton’s, in some ways, was a gateway bourbon for those who wanted something different, but not too different. It had a low proof, was properly aged (anywhere from 10 years old and more in the early 90s) and best of all, had a bottle that looked interesting.
Wild Turkey wanted a piece of that pie too. Their solution was Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit.
Kentucky Spirit is born in 1994
The first Kentucky Spirit came out in 1994. The bottle shape was designed to capture the eye. I mean, just look at the thing. Has there ever been another bottle on the shelf in the shape of a bird fanning its feathers? I think not. The imagery on the front was colorful and it came in a nice box. The heavy cork topper was made out of pewter and was far easier to grip than a man riding a horse. The proof wasn’t quite as low as Blanton’s – coming in at a classic 101 proof points. It was likely chill-filtered just like Blanton’s was. This was probably designed to improve drinkability.
One of the more interesting aspects of the 1994 release was that the inside of the box contained a little write-up by Jimmy Russell (or someone up in corporate who spoke for him) where it’s said that he picked his favorite barrels to be included in this label – with some being upwards of 20 years old! And while many reviews of bottles filled in 1994 certainly seem to hint that it tastes that old, the overall age of the later pewter-top releases probably leveled out to around 10-14 years old.
The Pewter Top design stayed in circulation until 2001 before being usurped by a new style of bottle that kept the shape, but changed the label and the topper. A new “dark wood” top was now standard. This would last from around 2002 to 2005. Then in 2006, the bottle changed designs again by using a two-tone colored label and changing the wood topper to a lighter-colored wood. It lasted this way until the end of 2018 when Wild Turkey changed it to the “Rare Breed” style of bottle it is today.
One interesting thing to note is that almost every Pewter Top Kentucky Spirit I have seen was selected from Warehouse A, B or C. I think it’s a safe assumption that those are all referring to Warehouse A, B and C on Tyrone Campus (the original campus). That would mean these came from the oldest warehouses in Wild Turkey’s inventory and are known personal favorites of Jimmy Russell. Even a decade later (2011 or so), I rarely saw a Kentucky Spirit that was from a warehouse other than A, B, C, D, E or F. Wild Turkey has dozens of warehouses and it’s somewhat telling what Jimmy’s preference was.
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Warehouse B, Rick #26, Barrel #9 Bottled on 10-14-97
Thanks to Craig, a generous friend who is a member of the Neat Drinkers Association (NDA for short), he surprised us all with a special bottle for our Advent Calendar in 2022. Out of 15 bottles submitted that year, this bottle was ranked #1 by everyone in a blind taste test. The notes I’ll be providing today were from my double-blind experience. None of us were expecting a bottle of this magnitude, but the results spoke for themselves.
So what did I think? Read on to find out. As usual, I drank this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: The nose on this is so soft and full of wood varnish. I am also enjoying the aroma of smooth and robust pipe tobacco. Each sniff is full of butterscotch and chocolate ganache. Spices are toned down and add depth, not heat. Scents of candied fruit (mainly citrus) are a treat.
Palate: The explosion of spices (mainly a peppermint vibe) on my tongue makes me snap to attention. They initially make me think the proof is slightly higher than it is. But the chocolate notes tame it down some. I’d describe it as a York Peppermint patty. I find lots of herbal flavors that interact with candied fruit notes within, almost like a rye whiskey. Cinnamon meets a varnished oak and some leather that tell me I’m drinking something with a good amount of age to it.
Finish: The chocolate turns slightly bitter on the finish and the oak takes over as the dominant note. Rye spices are everywhere and further convince me that what I’m drinking is a rye whiskey instead of a bourbon. However, the rye notes aren’t the bright type that give away more youthful rye whiskies, the age is apparent every time the sip is complete. The finish is more complex than I’m giving it credit for though, the tannins are firmly in the driver’s seat.
Since this was a blind sample, I’ll fess up to my incorrect guess: I thought it was an 11-year-old rye whiskey from MGP. I was this close to guessing it was a Kentucky Owl Rye Whiskey, but it wasn’t sweet or herbal enough.
The thing I notice most about dusty Turkey (I think we can all agree that this bottle would still classify as a “Dusty,” right?) is how rye-forward it is. It’s present no matter the label I’m drinking. There is an absence of really sweet flavors (something that more modern Turkey has done better at) and it makes each sip feel borderline rye whiskey-esque. That’s just my opinion, but I urge you to taste some Dusty Turkey blind sometime to see if you can see where I’m coming from. No other dusty label is quite like it.
As I already pointed out, this is the bottle that was the highest-rated submission of our 2022 Advent Calendar. It’s average score was an 8.78/10. The highest score was a 9.5/10 and the lowest was an 8.2/10. That should tell you all you need to know about its quality. On the flipside, it should be noted that some years are more desirable than others, so expect some differences in price if you’re paying secondary prices for a bottle. A 1994 release is usually above $1100. Expect 2001’s to be around $500. Also, expect the cork to break regardless of whichever one you buy.
As a final bit of hype versus reality, I will also caution you on the fact that since these are single barrels, your experience may vary. I know some friends who have described their late-90’s Pewter Tops as “pretty good.” However, when you hear an enthusiast refer to a bottle they spent a lot of money on as “pretty good,” you know it let them down in some way – they just can’t bring themselves to admit it. Sometimes the age-stated Wild Turkey 8/101 bottles from the early 90’s are going to be better. But when you get that one really great bottle of Kentucky Spirit with the pewter top, it’s tough for other bottles to come close.
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