Monday, November 17, 2014

Wild Turkey Rye: 101 proof vs. 81 proof vs. Russell’s Reserve

Wild Turkey Rye 101: Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, no age statement, 50.5%, $30
Russell’s Reserve Rye: Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, aged 6 years, 45.0%, $45
Wild Turkey Rye 81: Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, no age statement, 40.5%, $23

In my last post I took a look at what can happen if a distiller produces too much whiskey. The end result is older whiskey at suppressed prices and potentially shutting down operations for some length of time if the situation isn’t corrected quickly enough. There was a period where the whole industry went through this cycle. Whiskey drinkers may not have recognized it at the time, but the late 70’s through the 80’s was a great era for them; underpriced, extra-aged whiskey was bountiful in those years.

Of course that is far from an ideal scenario for the producers who are struggling to remain profitable, so it’s understandable why distillers didn’t ramp up production too quickly in the early part of the current boom. But now that demand for whiskey has continued to grow unabated for a surprising number of years, we’ve gotten to a point where no one has enough whiskey.

In such a situation, producers who had been operating below capacity can just turn up the wick, but they still have to wait for the whiskey to age. For the ones who need to add infrastructure in order to increase output, they also have to wait the additional time needed for permitting and construction.

In the short term there are four things that can be done to deal with the issue. The first is to put whiskeys on allocation (this is where producers allot certain quantities of product to various distribution areas every so often) and/or limit their distribution (the product would only be distributed in certain key markets that the distiller feels are most important). The second is to raise prices in order to temper demand.

Both of these strategies are dangerous because they have the potential to alienate consumers. If said consumers switch to another brand when their old favorite isn’t available (regularly or at all), it might be hard to win them back once supplies are restored. Raising prices enough to keep new customers at bay (at least temporarily) is okay, but raising them to the point of pushing away existing customers could also make it difficult to get them back. Constricting supply and lowering demand through pricing both have the potential to be detrimental to long term growth.

The other two things that can be done to deal with whiskey shortages; lowering proof and reducing age, are what I’ll focus on for this post and the next two. Lowering proof is just a matter of adding more water at bottling, and instantly stretches supplies. Reducing age is a little trickier because it’s a bit more of a shell game. You’re tapping into your future supply for today’s finished product, and you can only do that for so long. It can buy you time, but sooner or later some big production increases have to come up through the warehouses to balance things out.

If a whiskey never had an age statement, then changing its age isn’t too problematic, assuming the changes happen somewhat gradually. Most styles of American whiskey do require an age statement if they are less than 4 years old, so at least that reassuring floor of youth exists. Many consumers have found the profusion of disappearing age statements that we’ve been witness to recently off-putting though. That being said, angst over the loss of an age statement is usually short lived; few people complain about a dropped age statement years down the road. Proof, on the other hand, is always there to be seen on the label. Partiality to a particular alcoholic strength is a matter of personal preference, but most whiskey connoisseurs associate higher proofs with more concentrated flavors and higher quality. When proof is lowered to the mid-80’s or less, the term “watered down” is often bandied about. Again, producers run the risk of alienating faithful consumers with these changes.

Even though Rye is a small category of American whiskey relative to Bourbon, the former has exceeded the latter in terms of sales growth in recent years, at least on a percentage basis. The popularity of the craft cocktail movement and its fascination with pre-Prohibition cocktails has been a driving force behind the growth of Rye. Wild Turkey 101 Rye (as well as Rittenhouse Rye), with its bold flavors and reasonable price, became a favorite of bartenders at the fore of that movement.

Originally introduced in the 1970’s, Wild Turkey’s 101 proof Rye started off as a sourced product. Some time in the late 1980’s production was brought in house. Then in 2007 they introduced the Russell’s Reserve Rye, at 90 proof. The original 101 proof version remained the more popular of the two, and by early 2011 supply problems began to crop up, along with rumors that it was on allocation. A year later they got to the point of having to do something more drastic; it was time to drop the proof.

Clearly concerned about making their customers unhappy, Wild Turkey introduced an 81 proof Rye as a new product, rather than as a reformulation of the much-loved 101 proof Rye. Soon after that they stopped bottling the 101 proof Rye, but the move was announced as a temporary suspension; they promised that it would come back eventually. Skeptics had their doubts, but the distillery had managed to minimize consumer outrage over the move.

After an absence of nearly two years, Wild Turkey Rye 101 did return late in 2013, albeit in a limited way. It was only made available in select markets and only in 1-liter bottles, which the distributors were cajoled into selling primarily to bars and restaurants. A year later it is still only available in 1-liter bottles and still pretty tough to come by, but most people who are seeking it out seem more excited that there’s a chance they might find it again rather than being upset that it was unavailable for almost two years.

As far as age goes, the Russell’s Reserve Rye has been consistent with a 6 year age statement since its introduction. Neither the 101 proof Rye nor the 81 proof Rye has ever had an age statement. It’s likely that their ages have differed from each other and varied over the years, but it’s impossible to know when or by how much.

As for pricing, the 81 proof has held pretty steady at about $23 since its introduction. That price is just slightly higher than the $22 that Wild Turkey 101 Rye was typically priced at before its absence. Since it was marketed as new product rather than a reformulation of the old one, no one really got upset about what could have been viewed as a big drop in proof accompanied by a slight bump in price. Some people did experience a bit of sticker shock when the 101 proof Rye returned. Prices for it vary quite a bit, but $40 seems to be the average. Adjusting for bottle size, that equates to $30 for 750ml. That is a 36% increase, but many still consider it to be reasonably priced, and after a lengthy absence few are complaining about the cost if they can find one. Over the last seven years, the price of the Russell’s Reserve Rye has slowly crept up from its introductory $25 to its current $40. I’m surprised that I’ve never heard of anyone complaining about this price increase, but I suspect that’s a result of Russell’s Reserve Rye having never really caught on in popularity like the 101 Rye did.

101 proof
nose – Primarily clay and leather work gloves, with some spice character and subtle floral aromas.
palate – Bold and full flavored. A bit of sweetness up front quickly gives way to wintergreen mint and cinnamon red hots.
finish – Warming and dry on the finish, which is quite lengthy.
overall – It’s brash and even a bit aggressive, but not to the point of getting out of line, and it maintains nice continuity from start to finish.

Russell’s Reserve
nose – Pretty similar to the 101 but the aromatics are sharper and more dense.
palate – Sweet and woody, pine needle notes stand out.
finish – Warming spice notes do come into pay on the finish, but they are not as pervasive as those on the 101. It seems a little tannic at the very end.
overall – The sweetness at the start carries a little further on this variant. It’s interesting, but not as endearing as the 101.

81 proof
nose – Similar again, but with the aromas reprioritized. The clay and leather are toned down, the spice is very delicate, and the floral aspect is more prominent and slightly perfumed.
palate – There is some sweetness, but the slightly perfumed floral character is the main player here. That being said, the clay/leather/spice combo is just strong enough to keep it from going out of balance.
finish – There’s a minimal amount of spiciness on the palate which carries through to the finish, but the spice character does not gain much strength going into the finish as it does in the other two examples.
overall – I would probably miss this as being a rye whiskey in a blind tasting. It’s not a bad whiskey, just not what I would expect from a rye, especially one carrying the Wild Turkey brand.

My best estimate is that the 101 proof bottle I have is from 2008 or 2009. My initial impression back then was that it had some good flavor but that it was just too hot. Now that it’s had a few years to breath, it seems to have settled down and come into its own. I suppose it’s also possible that my palate has evolved and I may have originally mistaken some of the fiery spice notes for alcoholic heat. The Russell’s Reserve bottle dates to about 2010 and has been open for a while, but not as long as the 101. This may explain the fuller nose I experienced on the Russell’s. The 81 proof bottle was purchased last year and just opened for this tasting.

While I don’t dislike and of the three, I prefer them in the order that I have them listed above. I’m surprised they’re not more similar to each other; this was more of an apples-to-oranges comparison than I expected.

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