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Thursday, January 30, 2014

NOT Single Malt Report: Wild Turkey Rare Breed Straight Bourbon Whiskey

The last of this week's bourbons costs as much as the previous two combined, but can still be found for under $40.  (Damn, I wish I could say the same thing about single malts.)  Like the OGD114, it's a bourbon brand owned by (Ye Gods!) an non-American company.  Yep, Wild Turkey is owned by Gruppo Campari, proprietor of Skyy Vodka, Campari(!), Appleton Estate Rum, Irish Mist, Aperol, and the Glen Grant distillery.

Their Rare Breed bourbon is a mix of six-, eight-, and twelve-year-old straight bourbons and bottled at what they call "barrel proof" in small-ish batches.  I have an issue with a piece of their terminology, that "barrel proof" part.  We see a similar descriptor in Scotch whisky: "Cask Strength".  Often times the label "Cask Strength" just means that the whisky was bottled at a higher alcohol proof than normal whisky releases.  How do we know this?  Well, major "cask strength" releases like Glenfarclas 105, Ardbeg Corryvrecken, and Ardbeg Uigeadail are always released at the same exact ABV every year.  That alcohol content consistency sounds pretty darned magical considering the hundreds and thousands of casks they've mixed together over the years to design these products, meanwhile maintaining a similar character throughout.  The same amazing coincidence occurs with Rare Breed.  Wild Turkey makes different batches of Rare Breed each year, but unlike Laphroaig Cask Strength whose ABV varies from batch to batch, WTRB just happens to hit the same exact 54.1% every time.

Look, a lot of companies push the cask strength / barrel strength half-truths on their products.  The only reason why I'm prodding Wild Turkey here is because they actually continue to spin the story on their website, saying Rare Breed "has no added water to lower the proof or dilute the flavor after it’s been distilled."  After it has been distilled.  That is not even remotely unique.  But what they neglect to include is the fact that water is added to reduce the bourbon's ABV once it's out of the barrel and before it is bottled.  Thus the whiskey in the bottle is not at the same proof as it was in the barrels.

I actually like this whiskey, but I find the use of the "barrel proof" designation and the attempt to explain it in a tricky manner to be a little silly.  Okay, enough with all the bitching.  Time for some drinking.

If you squint, you'll see that this a mini (purchased during my last visit to Arizona).  It's shaped similarly to the full-sized bottle, thin at the top, sloping shoulders, and sort of pudgy around the sides.  What the mini does not include is the batch number.  What I was able to glean from the printed code is that the mini was bottled in December 2010.  Here's what a 750mL bottle looks like:

Owner: Gruppo Campari
Brand: Wild Turkey
Distillery: Wild Turkey Distillery
Location: Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
Mash Bill: around 13% rye (probably)
Age: a mix of 6, 8, and 12 year old bourbons
ABV: 54.1% ABV
Bottle year: 2010

Its color is dark gold.  Pine needles and tree sap are the nose's most prominent notes.  There's an earthiness that mingles well with caramel candy and granulated sugar.  There's also a bit of a black cherry syrup note floating around almonds; some young armangnac too.  Men's cologne and new carpet odors swirl around in the background.  In the palate there's a solid rye bite, milk chocolate, whole wheat bread crust, and cherry Sudafed meets cherry liqueur.  Something like saline and antiseptic show up occasionally.  A corny note and some amaretto bring up the rear.  The cherry flavoring appears again in the finish.  More rye, corn syrup, and Heath Bar.  It's mild and shortish considering its strength and age.  Slightly dry and woody.

The nose grows more candied.  More vanilla, milk chocolate, and caramel.  Still some pine, and now the saline.  The palate gets woodier and sweeter.  Vanilla and sweet tobacco.  The pine starts to appear here as well.  The finish is sticky sweet.  Lots of corn and wood.

The nose can be a lot of fun and much more challenging than the palate.  It's all more enjoyable when neat, but water doesn't kill it.  The finish is disappointing considering all the character that comes before it.

What I like about Rare Breed is that it establishes itself as more unique in character than most of the bourbons I've tried recently.  Though I have little interest in buying a bottle of my own, I will say that it's more complex than most single malt Scotch at its price range.  But that's more of stab at the price of Scotch than anything else.

While Rare Breed is bolder and more fulfilling than Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon, the question arises: Is the addition of some 12yo whiskey and a 3.6 point boost in ABV worth paying a 100% premium?  That I cannot answer "yes" with full confidence.  If you're interested, what I do recommend is seeking out a 50mL mini as they can be found at many specialty liquor stores.  They're just a few bucks and they'll help you decide if you want to spring for the full thing.

Availability - Most liquor specialty retailers
Pricing - $3-$4 for 50mL; for the current batch: $35-$45 (750mL)
Rating - 83


  1. Around here, WT101 is $23 and Rare Breed is $37, so the QPR differential is much more favorable towards RB. Down your way I can see it making less sense. RB is still one of my favorite bourbons, so it's high on my 'step up to something better without paying an arm and a leg' recommendation list.

    1. A $14 difference like that makes more sense to me. Looks like the minis you had were a bit different than this one. I may pick up another mini of this to give a more recent batch a try.

  2. I think one way you can maintain a constant ABV with cask strength whiskey is vatting different ages and different proofs together until you reach the ABV you want. Springbank produced a wonderful 12 year old 100 proof a few years ago by watering down 12 year old whisky with underproof (below 40% ABV) 30-40 year old whisky (aka tasty wood juice).

    Which makes me wonder whether Wild Turkey is doing the same thing since Rare Breed is a vatting of different ages.

    1. I thought about this a bit too. I think this approach may have been applied to Uigeadail back in the day as well, adding extra low ABV old sherry casks to very young high ABV bourbon casks, but I don't think anyone has confirmed that's why they stuck the old stuff in there at such a good price.

      Anyway, I think bourbon casks in Kentucky warehouses tend to lose alcohol much more slowly to the angels, and very often lose water quicker upping the ABVs over time. Exceptions would be an air conditioned warehouse or faulty cooperage. A potential risk with proofing it down via vatting only would be broad batch variation. As a whisky fan, I love batch variation but I'm not sure a large corporation is going to want that happening in one of its brands. This is all speculation on my part, so you could be right. I just find the "no added water.....after it’s been distilled" choice of wording to be a bit more revealing than they'd intended. Also the goofy "whoops!" story they keep trying to sell with their Forgiven product makes me question all of their shpiels.

    2. Also want to mention that Jimmy and Eddie Russell frequently mention in interviews that Wild Turkey distills to a low ABV (either 56 or 60% but I can't seem to find that fact right now). As such Wild Turkey adds less water than other distilleries to bring the bourbon down to bottling proof (101 proof or 50.5%) though they now have 81 proof products. The recent Russell's Reserve Single Barrel at 55% is probably the highest proof product they have on the market. That one I want to compare to Rare Breed in the future.

    3. That's a good point. Their website says something to that affect too. Interesting.

      I just saw some bottles of that Single Barrel today at Hi Time. That would be a good partner for the Rare Breed.

  3. WTRB is my go-to bourbon. There are no fireworks (though I rate it higher than your 83), but it's very drinkable and very satisfying. I don't have a big problem with the constant ABV, though I can see where you come from. I noticed a similar slight-of-hand with Aberlour A'bunadh: they say right on the bottle (or on the tin can) that it's bottled straight from the barrel - yet, the whole batch must have more than one barrel, and it has the same whisky at the same strength. So what gives? They must have a bottomless barrel that the whisky is funneled through on the way to bottling, in the style of the 10-second aged bourbon of many craft distilleries.

    My pet peeve with WTRB is different: ALL bottles are "batch WT-003RB". All of them. WTF, WTRB?

    1. Seeing Jordan's notes on his positive Rare Breed experiences, I've decided to do further Rare Breed studies.

      There appear to be batches from the '90s (http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-3913.html), but it seems like the only batch folks have been drinking for the last 3+ years is that WR-003RB. That must have been a BIG batch. There's a guy in that linked discussion who mentions a noticeably different ABV, but that's the first time I've read such a thing. If anyone else sites ABV differences then I'd be happy to correct some of my above bitchings.