There hasn't been any kind of official announcement, but Wild Turkey is in the process of rolling out a new, 81° proof (40.5% ABV) version of Wild Turkey Rye, leading to some confusion about the status of the 101° proof (50.5% ABV) original.
Rye whiskey enthusiasts got wind of the 81 from Control State product listings, which are public information. Many states post them on their web sites. It showed up as a replacement for 101. This led to something resembling panic, as fans of the 101 began to plan their hoarding strategies. (Tip: start by establishing a budget.)
But as veteran spirits enthusiasts know, changes to Control States lists don't always mean what you think.
There are 18 Control States in the United States. Each is a little different but, essentially, when you buy liquor in a control state you are buying it directly from the state government. One typical characteristic of Control States is that they limit how many different products a producer can sell and make adding new products, or changing products, very difficult and expensive. If it's easier to make a change than an addition, you may swap an old (typically minor) product for the new one, to get the new one into the market faster.
Not only do Control States typically publish their lists, they often require long lead times, so information about new products or product changes often shows up first on Control State lists.
After several states swapped the 101 rye for the new 81, questions were asked. Initial information coming back from industry sources was conflicting. That has been sorted out. Here's what is happening, according to official sources at Wild Turkey and its parent, Campari America.
Yes, an 81° proof version of Wild Turkey Rye is being introduced as a companion to the 81° proof version of Wild Turkey Bourbon that was introduced last year. However, the 101° proof version of Wild Turkey Rye is not being discontinued. It will, however, be in short supply for probably the rest of 2012 due to the recent surge in rye whiskey popularity, but it is not being discontinued and it will be back. Due to its temporary unavailability, it was expedient for the company to list 81 by replacing 101 in some states.
Unsaid but obvious is the fact that, when stocks are limited, how ever much whiskey you have will go further if you dilute it to 40.5% ABV rather than 50.5% ABV.
This does not necessarily mean there are or even will be shortages of the 101 at retail. It just means the producer has shipped all of the 101 it will likely ship for this year. That doesn't tell you anything about how much there is in distributor warehouses or on retailer shelves.
The introduction of an 81 shows how mainstream rye whiskey is becoming. The 81° proof bourbon replaced an 80° proof bourbon that had a deservedly poor reputation. The 81 is a significant improvement.
Wild Turkey has long been an anomaly with its high standard proof, which recalls the old days when most premium brands were bottled-in-bond and, hence, 100° proof. Wild Turkey never met the other requirements for bottled-in-bond but wanted to play in that space, so they created a point-of-difference with an extra proof point.
In time, most of the industry abandoned the high proof to cut costs and meet public demand for a lighter product, going to the legal minimum of 80° proof. (Any whiskey that's less than 80° proof has to be labeled 'diluted.') Wild Turkey alone kept its flagship bourbon at 101 but acknowledged the trend many years ago with the recently-departed 80. There was never enough interest in rye to justify creating an 80° proof version of it
Use of 81 in both cases with the new products shows that Wild Turkey parent Campari America gets that aspect of the brand's personality.
As the Wild Turkey folks pointed out to me, the original 101° proof Wild Turkey Rye has been growing by about 20 percent year here recently, which is both why they ran out and why they'd be crazy to drop it. Some people will adopt the 81, but the 101 will still be there for those who want it.
The straight rye whiskey produced at Wild Turkey is also sold as Russell's Reserve Rye.