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Cigar Spirits: Zafra Master Reserve 21 Year Rum

18 Sep 2014


I’ll admit, rums that start with the letter “Z” tend to be my favorites. Zaya 12 and Zacapa 23 (not to mention Zacapa XO) are go-to rums for me, both with a smoothness and depth of flavor that can only be achieved through time in the barrel.

So I didn’t hesitate to pick up Zafra Master Reserve, a Panamanian rum aged 21 years in bourbon barrels. Apparently the same company that originally brought Zacapa to the U.S. market is the same outfit behind Zafra, which sells for around $40.

Zafra is a dark copper color, not surprising given its age. The nose could almost be mistaken for a bourbon, with corn sweetness, lots of oak, and orange peel.

The palate is surprisingly dry with lots of cedar and spice along with cognac and dried fruit. Underneath are more traditional rum flavors of vanilla, molasses, and oak. The long finish features more spice and oak.

It’s like a cross between a rum and a bourbon, and that’s a good combination for me. Don’t expect an overly sweet vanilla-forward rum. Zafra is more restrained and subtle than fellow “Z” rums Zacapa and Zaya.

That goes for cigar pairings, too. Instead of full-bodied smokes you’ll want something more balanced. Think Fuente Hemingway Short Story or Cabaiguan Robusto Extra.

As far as Zafra goes, it’s worlds apart from Zaya or Zacapa, but excellent in its own way, albeit more balanced and subdued. And on top of that it’s excellent for the price (I picked mine up for $37). Zafra 21 may not be the first thing I’d recommend for rum beginners, but real rum aficionados should definitely seek it out.

-Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Willett Family Estate Single Barrel Rye (Four Year)

9 Sep 2014

I’m wrapping up our series of rye write-ups with a pair of Willett Family Estate Ryes. The pair may seem similar, but they have some very important differences that are symbolic of the American whiskey industry. (In addition to its ryes, Willett has a history of aging and bottling excellent bourbon, including Noah’s Mill, Pure Kentucky, and Johnny Drum.)willett-family-estate-sb-rye-sq

willett-family-estate-sb-ryeThe Willett Family Estate Small Batch Rye is the first Willett Rye distilled at Willett, and currently it’s bottled after two years in the barrel because that’s roughly how long it has been since Willett first got their still running. The rye is reportedly a blend of the different rye recipes being produced at Willett. And while it’s still young, it shows extraordinary promise. (You can differentiate it from other Willett products because it has a foil top, not wax, and states it is distilled at Willett.)

Meanwhile, Willett Family Estate Single Barrel Rye is a sourced single-barrel whiskey. The younger batches, like the four year I’m writing about (from barrel number 116), are sourced from the MGPI distillery in Indiana, which is also the source of rye bottled by Redemption, Angel’s Envy, Templeton, Bulleit, Dickel, Old Scout, and others. You can tell this one from the Small Batch because of the green wax seal and the fact the back the 110-proof bottle states, “distilled in Indiana.” (Some whiskey companies aren’t so honest about the source of their bourbon or rye, so the clarity is appreciated.)

The $40-45 rye shares many similarities to the other Indiana-sourced rye (which has a mashbill with 95% rye), but the high proof and Willett barrel selection up the intensity. The orange-hued rye features an inviting nose of nougat, clove, butterscotch, and orange.

On the palate, the Willett Single Barrel has remarkable sweetness for a rye, leading with buttered popcorn and butterscotch along with secondary flavors of pine, baking spice, and marmalade. The finish is where it shows a little heat along with spice.

This rye is remarkable in that it is simultaneously intense and concentrated, yet smooth neat. It can stand up to a strong, full-bodied cigar: either a dark, earthy smoke like the Añoranza, or a bold and spicy one like the Fuente Opus X.

The natural question to ask is which young Willett Rye is better? Despite different sources, they aren’t that unlike. I predict that by the time the Willett-distilled rye is four years old it will be better, but right now if you only have money for one, buy the four-year-old Indiana product. Willett has a well-deserved reputation for excellent barrel picks, and this young, lively, flavorful, well-rounded rye is a must-try for rye fans.

-Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Willett Family Estate Small Batch Rye

19 Aug 2014

I’m getting close to wrapping up our series of rye write-ups so we can put together a Guide to Rye, similar to our Stogie Guys A-Z Guide to Bourbon. This new Willett Family Estate Small Batch Rye is one I definitely wanted to include.

willett-estate-family-ryeWillett has been bottling good rye for a while now, but up until a few years ago they didn’t distill any of it (at least since the 1970s). Companies, especially new ones, that bottle and brand whiskey made elsewhere are a dime a dozen (and that’s not a knock as some of it is quite good). Though Willett isn’t a new name in the whiskey game.

On the bourbon side, Willett has a history of aging and bottling excellent bourbon, including Noah’s Mill, Pure Kentucky, Johnny Drum, and a series of very small, very old, limited bourbons under the Willett name. For rye, they’ve been doing similar things with super limited, old ryes along with a barrel-proof four-year-old rye distilled from the 95% rye mashbill at the Indiana-based MGPI distillery (with a few things in between), all under the Willett name. In other words, Willett knows how to find good whiskey distilled by others.

What sets this Willet Family Estate Rye apart is it’s the first Willett product to be released that was distilled by Willett. Given that the company has only been distilling for a little over two years, the Willet Family Estate Rye features an age statement of just two years. Like the four year Willett rye distilled in Indiana, it’s barrel-proof (my bottle was 108.1-proof).

The rye pours a nice golden color, although the nose is slightly less inviting with a combination of nail polish with more pleasant butterscotch and orange peel. On the palate it shows a nice combination of toffee, mint, and citrus.

It has surprisingly little spice and a decent amount of alcohol burn, but there’s also a syrupy intensity to its flavors. The finish is long with burnt orange and floral sweetness. I tried to find a particular style of cigar that best complements the Willett Family Estate Rye, but ultimately I think any good cigar that’s medium- or full-bodied is going to work.

Barrel-proof rye isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, even if you are a fan of other ryes. But this is really quite good, especially at $35-45 a bottle.

Mostly, though, it makes me look forward to seeing what comes next from Willett’s stills. If this is what their rye tastes like at two years, I can’t wait until it gets a few more years in the barrel. So while big rye fans shouldn’t hesitate to scoop up a bottle, if you’re more of a dabbler in rye just wait until this gets even better in a few years.

-Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey

12 Aug 2014

Having recently added Jefferson’s and Masterson’s to my list of ryes, I now turn to WhistlePig. The trio often gets lumped together since they all source their straight rye from the same Alberta distillery, and all are made with a mashbill of 100% rye.

WhistlePig10yrThat makes them similar, but not identical. From a technical aspect, the difference is proof: Jefferson’s (10 year, 94-proof), Whistlepig (10 year, 100-proof), and Masterson’s (10 year, 90-proof). Having tasted all three, it’s clear each has a character all its own.

Unlike the others, WhistlePig has taken steps to be more than just a brand and a bottler of whiskey made elsewhere. WhistlePig plays up its Vermont roots on the bottle prominently. Currently, the outfit is just bottling and aging whiskey on the “WhistlePig Farm” in Shoreham, but it has broken ground on a distillery (a dispute with a neighbor delayed permitting) with the goal of distilling the rye it grows on-site.

But that’s all in the future, and probably quite a few years out before farm-to-bottle becomes a reality. Right now, WhistlePig is Canadian-distilled rye and there’s nothing wrong with that. (In fact, if I were WhistlePig, I’d be more worried about changing the taste too much while pursuing the dream of a 100% Vermont rye, since what they have now is quite good.)

The light copper-colored rye features a nose full of honey and candied cherries, with less of the floral and spice notes often found in Jefferson’s or Masterson’s. This would be a theme for WhistlePig, which features a rounder, more bourbon-like edge than it’s Canadian compatriots. This is almost certainly due in part to the fact that WhistlePig is re-barreled in bourbon casks in Vermont for an additional period of aging.

The palate starts very bourbon-like at first with maple, vanilla, and wood, but the distinctive rye floral and clove spice is also there, especially on the finish. The finish is medium in length with additional notes of butterscotch.

WhistlePig really delivers, with a sweeter, more rounded, and less dry version of the Canadian 100% rye distillate. At $75 per bottle, its price is on par with Masterson’s and nearly twice that of Jefferson’s (although the latter is no longer being bottled). In the new landscape of bourbon and rye, the price isn’t a bargain, but it’s not unfair for a 10 year rye since well-aged ryes are so hard to find.

Like all good ryes, WhistlePig goes great with a fine cigar. Its intensity is too much for a mild smoke, but it still demands a balanced cigar. Good candidates include the Tatuaje Black, Romeo y Julieta Short Churchill (Cuban), and Paul Garmirian 15th Anniversary Robusto. But you can’t go wrong with this flavorful rye and any good smoke.

-Patrick S

photo credit: WhistlePig

Cigar Spirits: Masterson’s Rye Whiskey

10 Jul 2014

Up until a few years ago, straight rye whiskey distilled from a mash bill consisting of 100% rye was exceedingly rare. That much rye is difficult to distill, which is why many ryes use only slightly more than 50% rye. And up until recently, 95% rye was quite unusual. (You can look through previous rye write-ups here.)mastersons-rye-sq

mastersons-ryeBut as the American appetite for rye grew, older rye was suddenly difficult to find, especially if the whiskey company didn’t have their own distillery. So people began turning to unusual sources. One such source was Canada, where this 100% rye was distilled to be blended into Canadian whiskey.

That 100% Canadian rye found its way into three ten-year-old ryes: Jefferson’s, Whistlepig, and Masterson’s. Each has its own character, but the family resemblance is apparent side-by-side.

Masterson’s is the most expensive at $65 to $80. It comes in an elegant bottle adorned with a photo of old west lawman Bat Masterson, whose relationship to the whiskey is tenuous at best.

The 90-proof Masterson’s is light copper-colored and features a nose with clean floral notes and a subtle honey sweetness.

On the palate, there’s more floral notes, rubber band, licorice, and burnt caramel. The finish is long and floral with a hint of apple and lots of spice on the back-end.

In a way, Masterson’s is a test of your devotion to rye. If you really like the quintessential rye flavors (floral notes, a bit of spice, a lack of sweetness) Masterson’s will probably be right up your alley. If you just want sweet bourbon notes with a little extra spice, the 100% rye mash bill of Masterson’s probably won’t be for you.

Personally, I’m a fan. And although, for the price, I’d rather have the $40 Jefferson’s (which, unfortunately, has been discontinued), on taste alone it may be my favorite of the Canadian 100% rye trio.

As for a cigar pairing, I think a Cameroon-wrapped smoke is perfect for the floral spice of Masterson’s. Specifically, try it with the Drew Estate Nirvana, Fuente Hemingway, or La Flor Dominicana Cameroon Cabinet.

-Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel Bourbon

1 Jul 2014

Allow me to take a brief break from writing about rye whiskey to focus on a new staple bourbon in my collection. Rick Hill Farms has been around for a while, but I had never actually tried the spirit until recently (in part because, in my home state of Virginia, it is a “special order” item not regularly stocked by Virginia’s state-owned liquor stores).RockHillFarms-sq

RockHillFarmsSBRock Hill Farms is made by Buffalo Trace, which crafts many well-known bourbons, from Blanton’s to Eagle Rare to George T. Stagg. Buffalo Trace makes bourbon with three different mashbills (this chart has the details). Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel is one of five made with the high rye mashbill, which features 10-12% rye and a small amount of malted barley along with a majority of corn. (Blanton’s, Elmer T. Lee, Ancient Age, and Hancock’s all derive from the same mashbill.)

Rock Hill Farms doesn’t have an age statement, but reports list it as 8-10 years before being bottled at 100-proof. A 750 ml. bottle costs $50-60, roughly the same as the 93-proof, more widely available Blanton’s. (The bottle is a square decanter that an imaginative mind will have no trouble finding use for after its contents are gone.)

Rick Hill Farms is a lovely deep amber color. The nose has a rich combination of rock candy, honey, baking spices, and just a bit of oak. On the palate, it’s a velvety combination of caramel, dried fruit, fudge, and creaminess. It has a restrained intensity that’s easy to appreciate and worthy of drinking straight. The finish is long and full of apples and spice.

As far as cigar pairings go, it’s a versatile bourbon that can stand up to all but the spiciest cigars. A rich Nicaraguan cigar like a Tatuaje Brown Label or Drew Estate Liga Privada goes as well as a more subtle cigar like a Cohiba Behike or Davidoff Colorado Claro.

The obvious comparisons for the Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel are Blanton’s and Elmer T. Lee, both of which are single barrel selections made from the same mashbill. For value, it’s hard to beat Elmer T. Lee, which is $20 less than the other two. But compared to Blanton’s, the higher proof Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel is a slight step above, perhaps due to the added intensity of its higher proof. That’s why it recently became a regular on my bourbon shelf and is a must-try for bourbon fans.

-Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Sazerac Rye

11 Jun 2014

Recently, I’ve been writing up plenty of rye whiskeys (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) in order to put together a Rye Guide along the lines of our A-Z Guide to Bourbon. As you can see, I’ve covered quite a few ryes, but I recently noticed one glaring omission: Sazerac Rye.sazerac-rye-sq

sazerac-ryeSazerac, along with Rittenhouse and Bulleit, are three affordable rye whiskies ($20-30) that are staples at my bar. Unlike Sazerac 18 or the highly sought-after Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, standard-issue Sazerac Rye (sometimes called “Baby Saz”) is distilled at the Buffalo Trace Distillery and aged six years before being bottled at 90-proof. Another member of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye, is essentially a barrel-proof limited release of Baby Saz.

Sazerac (along with Handy) is reportedly made with a mashbill of 51% rye, 39% corn, and 10% malted barley. It features  a bright amber color and with a nose brimming with fresh, floral notes and hints of licorice. On the palate Sazerac shows a nicely balanced combination of buttered popcorn, toffee, and clove with bit of pepper. The finish has caramel and baking spices.

Is Sazerac Rye going to blow your mind with its amazing-ness? Probably not. But it’s very enjoyable and an obvious standout value at $25 a bottle. It’s a versatile rye that’s plenty good enough to be sipped straight (as I recommend), but you wouldn’t be heart-broken if your buddy throws a bunch of ice cubes in it or decided to mix it into a Manhattan.

Naturally, it goes great with a fine cigar. I’d recommend a balanced, medium-bodied smoke. Specific recommendations include the Arturo Fuente King T Rosado Sun Grown, Illusione Epernay Le Matin, or the Tatuaje Black.

If you’re a rye fan who hasn’t tried Sazerac Rye, you’re missing out. There are very few better ways to spend $25 on a whiskey of any kind.

-Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys