As the leaves on the trees change color and bourbon release season falls upon us, brown water enthusiasts scramble for the newest and most lust-worthy whiskies to overpay for. Like moths drawn to a flame (or basic white girls drawn to pumpkin spice everything), everyone chases after Buffalo Trace releases, Birthday Bourbon and Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition. But for 7 years now, there has been one release that has consistently ranked near the bottom of most people’s must-have list: Wild Turkey Master’s Keep.
Master’s Keep was first released in 2015. That makes it practically a baby in terms of special distillery releases. Wild Turkey and the Russell’s were never about that showy lifestyle anyway. They preferred their bourbon to speak for itself in bottles that showed a turkey facing in different directions. But the powers-that-be at Campari weren’t satisfied with the status quo. They demanded not only a special release, but one that would be sold in brand new packaging. Master’s Keep was their answer.
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Unforgotten
The first few Master’s Keep releases were met with such little fanfare that they still could be found on the shelves for retail price until about 2019. The high cost of entry (around $150) caused many to balk, especially considering the proofs on most of the releases were low compared to other brands. It wasn’t until the release of Cornerstone (a blend of 9 to 11 year old rye whiskey) that enthusiasts began to actively “tater” these releases.
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep was never designed to be a product that bottled run-of-the-mill Wild Turkey bourbon. It was designed to allow the Russell’s (or whoever makes the decisions) room to experiment and maybe offer some uniquely aged products. So far we’ve seen about a 50/50 split concerning which avenue they decide to take. Last year’s Master’s Keep “One” was an experiment designed to test secondary barrel finishing with new toasted and charred oak barrels. The 17 Year Old Bottled in Bond version before it showed off their aged whiskey stockpiles. Unforgotten falls somwhere in the middle with both secondary barrel finishes (the entire blend was dumped back in used rye whiskey casks) and older stocks of whiskey (the second old versions of rye whiskey to be used in modern times).
You’re going to hear a lot of talk about this being barrel proof Wild Turkey Forgiven, but there are a lot of things that separate them. Wild Turkey Forgiven was, for all intents and purposes, a marketing gimmick. Yes, I know the story is that an employee made the mistake of dumping some bourbon barrels in with rye whiskey barrels, but it all seemed a bit contrived. Especially since they made more than one batch of it. The whiskies that were mingled back then were very young and the final product was bottled at a very low proof (just a hair above 90). Campari (and the enthusiasts) deemed it not popular enough to continue the line.
But the concept of blending rye whiskey and bourbon has gained a resurgence in modern whiskey. High West has an annual release called Bourye which keeps the concept relevant. We’ve also seen EH Taylor release an 18 Year Marriage and Willett release a Blend of Straight Whiskies. Frankly, I’m surprised Wild Turkey did not decide to do this “experiment” as a WTMK release sooner. It is one of the easier experiments to complete.
My hopes for this release are to see if Wild Turkey can replicate (or come close) to the bourbon that they produced back in the 70s and 80s (and maybe 90s depending on who you’re talking to). Bourbon from that time period seemed to taste very different from what it does today. Personally, the “Dusty Turkey” I’ve had from those time periods are thick, rich and carry a rye pungency that really doesn’t exist in the modern stuff. For this reason alone, I was excited to taste Unforgotten. Even if what we have here isn’t a true bourbon, could it conjure up any of the “rye-forward” Wild Turkey profile it was known for in the past?
It’s time to put this Turkey to the test. Coming in at 105 proof (the second highest proof of any WTMK release, behind Cornerstone), I am hopeful that it packs enough proof to wake up my taste buds. The age statements of the whiskey shouldn’t hurt either. Wild Turkey used 13 year old bourbon barrels and a blend of 8 and 9 year old barrels of rye whiskey. The only way you’re going to get rye whiskey any older than this from Wild Turkey is to buy a bottle of Cornerstone. So how does it taste? Let’s find out. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: Just one sniff is all it takes to tell you how unique this is going to be. For a Wild Turkey product, this is as rye-forward as they come. Floral notes of lilacs and rose petals are strangely dominant while citrus notes like lemon and orange rinds add a fresh element. Probably fresher than 8 to 13 year old whiskey ought to be. Sweet cinnamon rolls with vanilla icing add a perfect sweet element to go along with toasted pecans and toffee. Faint scents of mint keep reminding me that there is a large portion of rye influence in here. But what is most impressive is that the charred oak scent comes off as almost “smokey.” That’s rare to find in American whiskey. Overall, an incredibly rich and decadent nose.
Palate: Expecting a blast of rye upon my first sip, I was surprised to find that the flavors shifted back to common bourbon notes. Caramel, oak and vanilla shoulder the largest flavor load while I also find notes of berries and plums. Those are two fruit flavors I don’t typically find with Wild Turkey bourbon. But halfway through my glass, the rye flavors begin to increasingly show themselves. The spice begins to build and soon I’m finding indulgent after-dinner mints, lemon pound cake, ginger tea and black licorice. The latter was a standout note that I remember from my time with a bottle of Cornerstone. The caramel sweetness turns to honey and the spice becomes more like ground pepper. Overall, the flavors are well layered but I will admit that it doesn’t taste like there was any whiskey used over 8 years old in this mix. Read more of my take on this in my final thoughts.
Finish: A crescendo of spices explodes upon completion of the sip. My mouth lights up with loads of cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg. Some licorice notes linger around which I love. Pine needles, apple pie and a bit of oregano expose a somewhat fruity and vibrant and also earthy tone. The finish does not lack sweetness, in fact it prefers it and leaves a finish that seems more bourbon than rye whiskey, despite all of my notes so far.
Wild Turkey Unforgotten is such a treat. It had all of the complexity that I’ve been missing from bottle after bottle of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel. It has the depth that is missing from bottle after bottle of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye. And it has the uniqueness that is missing from the entire 2022 Wild Turkey lineup (honesty hurts).
The one thing that Wild Turkey doesn’t do well anymore is well-developed oak flavors (the exception is Russell’s Reserve 13 Year). I don’t know why this is (hunch: it’s partially the fault of the low barrel entry proof). You have permission to ignore this review if you disagree with me on that, but I rarely find oak at levels comparable to its peers from Heaven Hill, Jim Beam or Brown Forman. This trait carries over to Unforgotten but for the first time I don’t really mind. It’s so well-rounded with such a wide breadth of flavors and scents that it doesn’t come off as a lesser whiskey. I would wager a bet that they could make a new label that would be 90% of what this bottle is if they would just blend together barrels of RRSIB Rye and RRSIB Bourbon. Maybe call it Wild Turkey Unforgotten Jr? It could even carry a pricetag half as big as this one too.
Until that time, Unforgotten is a peak into the “what could have been” category for Wild Turkey. It offers up an experience unrivaled by any other product they currently have put out over the last 10 years. Maybe more. Some may complain that the lack of oaky, aged traits hurts it. But to me, I think it’s fantastic just as it is. This may not be the reincarnation of Dusty Turkey that I was hoping for, but until Campari allows for more creativity or changes to the distilling process, this is as good as it’s going to get.
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