In my first year at university, my friend Matt and I bought a bottle of Wild Turkey, booked the tv room in the basement of our hall and had a bit of a Billy Connolly stand-up marathon. This was in 1994. Everyone else was going to the pub that night, but we wanted to drink bourbon and laugh. We didn’t want Jack Daniel’s (not a bourbon), we didn’t want Jim Beam, we wanted Wild Turkey; bourbon to burn holes in the stomach, incendiary liquid that informed you beyond a shadow of any doubt that you were drinking something serious. Something strong.
Thus was Wild Turkey etched into my memory, and throughout the course of my adult life, it held a special place. The label looks like it should be the pattern on some 70’s shag carpet, its unapologetic bottle-shape, and the proof, proud and large, at 101. 8 years old and 101 proof, it was not a pleasure whiskey; it was the drinking equivalent of self-harm. Every sip blazed a trail across the palate and down the throat like a blade across the forearm. While most of my drinking was whisky-drinking, those rare times for whiskey-drinking were ones of intense reflection, misery and doom. It was the perfect accompaniment to such things. It didn’t smack of refinement and poise, it just smacked any refinement and poise off your smug face.
Latterly, I found it to be ideal in Old Fashioneds. Too many bartenders err towards the sweet. Wild Turkey served as the perfect foil to this. A mere sugar cube soaked in bitters was no match for it. It merely took a bit of the edge off. A whiskey cocktail; now with only half the self-harm.
I finished off the bottle at my local a few weeks ago. When next in, standing in its place on the shelf behind the bar stood a pale replacement. It still said Wild Turkey, but instead of ‘70s shag carpet, it was a pre-Miami Vice ‘80s airport lounge. Muted and staid. Designed. It didn’t say 8 years old on it, and the bold 101 was replaced by a larger 81 signifying far less. No longer a throwback, it was firmly a product of its time. I seethed. I took photos of it with my phone and lamented this ridiculous ‘diet’ bourbon. I shouted at everyone who listened. Countless wincing sips came back to me and slipped away again.
I calmed down.
It makes sense. Duty on spirits in the UK is based on abv, folks are drinking responsibly, or at least being told to. The rough edges all around are being smoothed out, curtailed. Rubber bumpers put on sharp corners so toddlers don’t bang their heads.
I don‘t know if it’s the whiskey itself, or if it’s just another marker of the passage of time. I do know what I’d like to wash the taste out of my mouth, but I guess I’ll have to look a bit harder to find it.