Among the many myths assigned to Benjamin Franklin is the persistent belief America's chief Renaissance man fronted the turkey as the national bird. He didn't, although he did have strong opinions on the merits of turkeys and bald eagles. According to the Smithsonian, Franklin wrote to his daughter he wished the bald eagle hadn't been chosen a "Representative of our Country" owing to its "bad moral Character" (it steals fish from other birds) and status as a "rank coward" (birds as small as sparrows are able to chase it off). The turkey, meanwhile, he wrote, "is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird."
In honor of this most American of birds, and during the season when turkey takes pride of place on our dinner tables, we sampled a quartet of offerings from Wild Turkey, the proud distillery founded in 1869 on Wild Turkey Hill in Lawrenceburg, Ky., and which is an American icon in its own right.
Wild Turkey Russell's Reserve—$40.95
There are several varieties of Russell's Reserve, ranging in price up to $272 at Idaho liquor stores. We wanted to love this one. We let it breathe, we mixed it with water, we squeezed a little lemon into it. There simply wasn't enough complexity to cut the 90-proof astringency. Russell's Reserve may do well in a Manhattan or Old Fashioned, where the vanilla undertones and hint of raisin we detected would offer a more rounded experience, but a substantial amount of sweetness is needed to tame the intense isopropyl burn.
Wild Turkey 81 Proof—$21.95
"Intended to be the perfect mixing bourbon," this one was much more quaffable. With a smoky orange essence on the nose, a well-structured balance of bite and oak on the palate, and a not-too-intense warming quality, the 81-proof is a great all-purpose sipper that would stand up respectably amid a Turkey Day spread.
Wild Turkey American Honey—$20.95
Lightly floral with a faint hint of lime, the American Honey liqueur is much more delicate than we expected, though it does have a thick mouthfeel. At 71 proof, the burn is less pronounced, but rather than sip it straight, we suggest mixing with a carbonated citrus drink and a squeeze of fresh lemon to thin out the viscosity—the American Honey's pleasant sweetness played beautifully with the acidity of the lemon. If you're looking for a drink to stave off the chill, this would be lovely mixed with tea or would make a fantastic hot toddy base. American Honey was released in 2006, and we can't figure out what took us so long to discover it.
Wild Turkey American Honey Sting—$22.95
Unfortunately, we can't be as glowing about the American Honey Sting, which is essentially the same liqueur as the American Honey with the addition of ghost pepper. Weird, right? It has a slight synthetic cinnamon taste, and the heat builds in the back of the throat where it sticks on the viscosity of the honey. For us, the American Honey Sting was too schnapps-like.
We were surprised to find the American Honey so versatile and intriguing. Again, it's not one to be sipped on its own, but with lemon, it will make a great digestif after a big carb-loaded holiday meal, and we're excited to pair it with our favorite holiday hot drinks. As for a solid, standalone whiskey, the Wild Turkey 81-proof is a definite winner that feels right for the holidays. As for the Russell's Reserve, we suggest trying this at your favorite watering hole before committing to a full fifth. Finally, although we didn't dig the American Honey Sting, it would probably make a killer barbecue marinade.