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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