Five-Way Honey Liqueur Tasting

Under the “we taste them so you don’t have to” category comes this 5 bottle tasting of bourbon (and Jack Daniels) honey wpid-20150411_205850.jpgliqueurs. While flavored spirits are very popular now, the whiskey liqueur has a long history. In the early days of distilling in Scotland, the spirit (it would not qualify as whisky in the 21th

century) was usually sweetened with honey and flavored with herbs and spices to make it more palatable for recreational consumption. The popular Scotch whisky liqueur Drambuie is a marketed as a modern riff on that tradition. In the mid to late 20th century, many bourbon producers sold whiskey liqueurs as well, the best known and best being Wild Turkey Liqueur. It’s worth a purchase if you ever come across it. This current crop of whiskey liqueurs is only a few years old, but they’re already ubiquitous. They’re all over the place too.

I want to thank Mrs. Sipology Blog, Liz for being my co-taster in this exercise. In fact, it was her idea. So without further ado…

Wild Turkey American Honey, $21, 71°

L: Color like a golden apple. Butter, pear, whiskey. Thick but not sticky. Airplane sippable. Thumbs up.

J: Pale. Light vanilla and honey in the nose. Medium bodied. Sweet and slightly herbaceous with a little burn. Pretty good for what it is.

Evan Williams Honey Reserve, $13, 70°

L: Very, very light in color. Watered down apple juice. Sweeter nose, sweeter overall. More honey than alcohol. Sugary aftertaste. Too sweet to drink neat. Needs mixing, maybe with club soda.

J: Paler. Mildly sweet nose with some peanut butter. Honeyed water. No burn. Honeycomb finish. It’s big. Yeah, yeah, yeah. OK, but unbalanced.

Jim Beam Honey, $20, 70°

L: Bourbon-like in color (contains caramel). Strange smell, like peat, charcoal and corn. More burn than the EW, but not as complex. Honey, charcoal, nothing else. “I don’t think I finish this [1/4 oz pour].”

J: Much darker. Very weird nose, like white dog. Bland with a bit of sweetness and little else, not even honey. Finish like grape soda. Really bad. To the sink!

Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, $25, 70°

L: Pretty light. Nose is honey, big time. No burn in the nose. Weird taste on the roof of the mouth toward the back. Smells better than it tastes. [grimaces] “Flat soda. I don’t like it. I don’t want to finish it.”

J: Wonderful jellybean nose. Waxy and perfumed on the palate like a scented candle. Not as bad as the JB, but not great either.

Red Stag Honey Tea, $20, 80°

L: At a loss for notes. More burn, less sugar but dull. Charcoal again. Nice bourbon flavor but too bland overall.

J: An improvement on the JB. Higher proof allows the bourbon to shine through a little more. Close in flavor to the EW until I get to the finish. A big burst of used teabags rounds things out. Better than the JD or JB.

Final results (unanimous)

Winner: Wild Turkey American Honey

Final standings: 1) WTAH 2) EWHR 3) RSHT 4) JDTH 5) JBH

(unanimous decision on both)

Parting words (Josh): This tasting surprised me a bit. The winner did not surprise me, but how bad JB and JD were did. Jim Beam honey was vile, disgusting stuff and Jack wasn’t much better. Another surprise was that Red Stag Honey Tea was not vile. I don’t see myself ever buying a bottle but a casual whiskey drinker might enjoy it on the rocks on a hot day with a slice of lemon.

If one is looking for a bargain, EWHR qualifies, but it’s so bland it hardly seems worth saving the extra $8. The only one on the list that I recommend is Wild Turkey Honey. It’s not as good as the old WT liqueur but it’s by far the best of this bunch. It’s best enjoyed in cocktails or as a digestif.

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Wild Turkey Tradition

Maker: Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, USAWT Trad

Age: 14 y/o

Proof: 101 (50.5% ABV)

Retail Price: $100 (Binny’s)

Michigan State Minimum (when available): $120

Appearance: Auburn with long, regularly spaced legs.

Nose: Alcohol, leather, barrel char, citrus blossom, Genoese basil.

On the palate: Full-bodied and rich. Burn, purple Kool-Aid, oak, ginger, mace, brown sugar.

Finish: Fruity in the cheeks, dry on the tongue and the actual palate.

Parting words: This is Wild Turkey at its finest, complex but still powerful. It strikes a lovely balance between fruity sweetness, spice, alcohol and oak, even without water. Compared to its siblings, I would rank Tradition above American Spirit (some of my friends might reverse that ranking), but not as good as Tribute. It’s a perfect holiday or special occasion sipping bourbon.

The packaging is absurdly complex with a display stand covered by a chestnut colored cover, but the bottle itself is simple and elegant. The over the top packaging does mean that it travels and ships well, so that’s something.

Tradition was released in 2009, but I was still seeing them on shelves as late as a year ago. The price is steep for a bourbon but these limited edition Turkeys rarely disappoint, and it is officially a dusty now so if you see it for $150 or less, buy it. Wild Turkey Tradition is recommended.

Wild Turkey Forgiven

Wild-Turkey-Forgiven-WhiskeyMaker: Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, USA

Style: Blend of straight whiskeys (bourbon and rye)

Age: NAS

Proof: 91 (45.5% ABV)

Batch: 302

Michigan state minimum: $51

Thanks to Oscar for the sample

Appearance: Medium copper with legs and a decent necklace.

Nose: Alcohol, fresh cut grass, sawdust, lavender, hint of barbecue sauce, corn chips.

On the palate: Hot and dry but with a soft mouth feel. A bit of sweetness, a kiss of oak and then nothing but alcohol.

Finish: Mild alcohol burn, a touch of anise, then nothing.

Parting words: Upon tasting this bourbon I was filled with joy. That joy was because I hadn’t spent $50+ on a full bottle. Thanks again to Oscar for this sample! Forgiven was named for an alleged incident when a WT employee mistakenly mixed bourbon and rye (Your chocolate’s in my peanut butter!) but was forgiven because of the allegedly delicious results. The end result is not awful, but really dull. Boring is forgivable at <$25, but not at $51. This is another miss for Wild Turkey under Campari’s ownership. Forgotten seems like a more appropriate name. Not recommended.

Russell’s Reserve Rye

Maker: Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, USA (Campari)RRR

Age: 6 y/o

Style: Kentucky Rye

Proof: 90 (45% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $40

Note: Two person review!

J: Josh

A: Friend of the Blog, Amy

Appearance

J: Pale copper, with spotty legs.

A: Light, bright gold with hard-to-find legs.

Nose

J: Oak, peanut butter, alcohol, barrel char, bubble gum. Changes a lot in the glass.

A: Mild rye aroma, hint of grass and mint.

On the palate

J: Medium bodied and sweet. Oak, fruity hard candy, burn, butterscotch.

A: Light bodied with soft mouth feel. Very sweet but with kick.

Finish

J: Leather, cumin, coriander and a lingering sweetness.

A: Rye much more present in the finish than on the palate.

Parting Words

A: Having met Jimmy Russell in person, I am always happy to sample his wares. It’s not a rye that hits you over the head with rye. I like it.

J: I’ll try to elaborate on Amy’s minimalist remarks. Russell’s Reserve Rye was one of the first ryes I really loved. Since then I’ve fallen in love with Rittenhouse and had affairs with Sazerac and Willet and my horizons have broadened. Still, I think this is a good solid rye whiskey, albeit overpriced. Although it was never one of my favorites, now that Wild Turkey Rye 101 proof has been debased into the 81 proof swill, Russell’s Reserve is the only label under which one can get a drinkable rye whiskey from Wild Turkey. As such and because it tastes good, Russell’s Reserve Rye is recommended.

Russell’s Reserve Small Batch Single Barrel

Maker: Wild Turkey, Lawerenceburg, Kentucky, USA (Campari)RR-Single-Barrel-2

Age: NAS

Proof: 110 (55%)

Appearance: Burnt orange with a nice robe and thick, slow legs.

Nose: Oak, caramel, alcohol, cayenne, plum. Classic turkey profile, but a hint of fruit.

On the palate: Sweetness, then big burn. With water the burn dies down and an unexpected fruity note comes forward. Wine grape jelly, a bit of oak and caramel.

Finish: Sweet but fiery like cinnamon disks. Fades to a pleasant, slightly fruity sweetness. With water the fruit is firmly in charge in the finish. A light jammy flavor lingers and slowly fades.

Parting words: For a Wild Turkey, this is a odd duck. I have never had a bourbon that was this fruity, ever. I have heard people mention a note of grapes in some Wild Turkey products before, but all I had ever gotten was typical caramel sweetness and WT’s characteristic char and oak notes. It’s pleasant, but not very well integrated into the rest of what’s going on here.

Those who thought the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel would be the second coming of Russell’s Reserve 101 proof will be disappointed. It’s not that, but it is good. I’m not sure if it’s good enough to justify the price (close to $50), especially with another perfectly good barrel proof bourbon (Rare Breed) around $10 less already in the Turkey coop. With all that in mind Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel is mildly recommended.

A brief postscript about the label: In an era in which superfluous words have overrun whiskey labels like ants on an unattended slice of cherry pie, the label on this new expression stands out as one of the most absurd recent examples of the phenomenon. The label calls it a “Small Batch Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey”. A single barrel is the smallest possible batch of barrels so the label isn’t wrong per se, but it is comically redundant and raises serious questions about the minds behind Sky/Campari’s marketing and management of Wild Turkey. My advice to Campari (not that anyone there asked for it) is to remove the “small batch” and save a few pennies on ink while making the label appear less stupid.

Wild Turkey American Spirit

Maker: Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, USA (Campari)

Age: 15 y/o

Proof: 100 (50% ABV)

Notes: Bottled-in-Bond

Appearance: Auburn with thick, viscous legs.

Nose: Alcohol, peanut butter, leather, citrus blossom. A little grassy with water.

On the palate: Full-bodied and velvety. Alcohol, black walnut, oak, papaya. Water brings out fruity notes. Kiwi, cherry, apricot.

Finish: Warm, woody, some char. Burns in the mouth for a long time.

Parting words: This is the first entry in my occasional series of reviews of so-called dusty whiskeys. American Spirit was a limited edition offering that was discontinued a few years ago (can’t find exact dates). There still should be some in the wild, but they originally sold for around $100. I got mine on sale as a neighboring state was closing the brand out a couple years ago.

Packaging wise, American Spirit teeters on the edge of gaudiness. The pine box the bottles comes in resembles a coffin and the label is a little cheesy with all the gold and script, not to mention the faux tax strip and pompous paragraph on the inside of the coffin lid. The bottle itself is elegant with a smart wooden stopper.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a very good bourbon. It’s very dry and very much in the Wild Turkey house style. It’s not as sought after as Wild Turkey Tribute or the old split label 12 y/o editions, and there’s a reason for that beyond scarcity. Next to those, American Spirit doesn’t hold up well. But on its own terms it’s very good and worth a recommendation although the high price keeps it from entering highly recommended territory. If you haven’t had many of the old Wild Turkey special releases, it’s worth getting.

Wild Turkey 101

Maker: Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, USA (Gruppo Campari)

Age: NAS (­about 6-8 y/o)

Proof: 101 (50.5% ABV)

Note: The labeling was recently changed, but a lot of the old is still on the shelf. Both old and new are pictured.

Appearance: Copper penny with thick clingy legs.

Nose: leather, caramel, peanut brittle, oak.

On the palate: Thick and rich, very full-bodied. Caramel, spice, barrel char, then heat, a lot of it.

Finish: Sweet corn, wood, char then big burn. Fades out with a hot, sweet tingle.

Parting words: Wild Turkey is a walking, strutting contradiction. On the one hand, it has a very, um, rustic reputation. A rite of passage in some college fraternities involves enduring a succession of shots of Wild Turkey 101 as a test of masculinity. On the other, older one-offs or Travel Retail offerings from Wild Turkey, like the recent Tradition release, are among the most sought after in connoisseur circles.

What makes Wild Turkey distinct is not its mashbill. I used to think Turkey was high-rye bourbon but it’s about average in that regard. What gives this Turkey its bite and body is the very heavy level of char used on the inside of their barrels and the very low (by industry standards) barrel entry proof.

In my own experience, I’ve encountered a good deal of variation in the standard Wild Turkey 101. A bottle I bought a few years ago was so young and hot it was almost undrinkable. This one is much better. Hopefully any consistency problems have now been worked out. Wild Turkey built a completely new distillery building in Lawrenceburg this year and the new still has at least twice the capacity as the old one that was built in the 1930s. New warehouses are also currently under construction, so Wild Turkey 101 should be getting better and better as the supply of aged whiskey increases.

As it stands now, Wild Turkey 101 is a classic bourbon profile any true bourbon lover should be familiar with. It’s not one of my go-to bourbons, but sometimes it hits the spot. It also works well in cocktails especially ones in which its aggression is an asset. Recommended.

Wild Turkey Rye

Maker: Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky (Gruppo Campari)

Age: NAS

Proof: 101 (50.5% ABV)

Appearance:  Pale copper. Delicate pearl necklace in the glass.

Nose: Alcohol and maybe a bit of sweet corn, oak and hay.

On the palate: Hot and harsh. Thin body, burn out the wazoo. There’s a wimper of fruity rye character and then it just vanishes.

Finish: It actually starts to get interesting in the finish. Big burn at first, then a slow fade into a pleasant sweet tropical fruit flavor characteristic of young ryes. Too bad I had to drink it first.

Parting words: It had been a long time since I had purchased Wild Turkey Rye and I did not remember it being this bad, but I do remember it taking a long time to finish. I also tried it in a Sazerac cocktail to no avail, and it even ruined perfectly good ginger ale.

I have a friend who compares WT rye to diesel fuel. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s certainly not very good at all. For a better look at what WT can do with rye, try the Russell’s Reserve Rye, or better yet get Sazerac rye or Rittenhouse BiB if they’re available in your area. Wild Turkey Rye is not recommended.