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Cigar Spirits: Willett Family Estate 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 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

Cigar Spirits: Redemption Rye and Riverboat Rye

29 May 2014

Redemption Rye and its brother Riverboat Rye don’t claim to be the result of secret recipes handed down from great-great-granddad or prohibition-era gangsters. Both are sold by “Bardstown Barrel Selections” and distilled at MPGI in Lawrenceburg, Indiana (formerly LDI), a wholesaler of whiskey.

redemption-ryesIf the Lawrenceburg address sounds familiar, it should. It’s 95/5 rye/malted barley mashbill is the basis of a number of ryes on the market: Dickel, Bulleit, Templeton, Old Scout, and others. But each takes on its own characteristics based on age, barrel selection, proof, etc.

As far as Redemption Rye and Riverboat Rye are concerned, each is relatively young: “under four years” according to their labels, probably in the 2-3 year range (although some sites selling Riverboat identify it as slightly younger than Redemption). Redemption is filtered and bottled at 92-proof. Riverboat is taken down to 80-proof, but in a twist from the usual (at least for whiskey bottled at so low a proof) it isn’t filtered before being bottled.

 Redemption Rye

The youth of this whiskey (~$27) is apparent from the nose which features fresh apple and oak. On the palate it shows flavors of cereal grain, oak, and some peppery spice swith honey sweetness. The clean finish clings to the roof of your mouth.

It has surprising sophistication for its young age and it’s pleasing neat or on the rocks. That, combined with a fair price (at a time when so many places are bottling up even younger whiskey and trying to sell it for twice as much), makes it worth checking out if you’re looking to expand your rye horizons.

Riverboat Rye

Bottled unfiltered, it’s a bit cloudy, and when you put it up to the light, a small amount of particulate is visible. The going price seems to be $25 for a 1L bottle, or a 750 ml. bottle for $20. It’s similar to Redemption though tamer, probably due to its lower 80-proof. The nose is more apple juice than raw apples and the Palate seems to feature sawdust and honey. The finish barely exists.

Riverboat rye is slightly smoother than Redemption but far less interesting. It’s a perfectly good cocktail rye that you might also consider offering to someone who wants a rye, but would be scared off by a higher proof. (On the flip side, a more seasoned rye drinker is going to find the low proof less than satisfying.)

The company also sells an un-aged rye, bottled straight from the still at 92-proof.  It’s raw, floral, and briny. I suppose this could work in the right cocktail, though more than anything it’s an educational experience. At the same proof as Redemption Rye, the side by side comparison shows how much impact a few years in a new charred oak barrel adds. (And unlike Jack Daniels’ new un-aged rye, you aren’t paying a premium for the experience.)

The unique characteristics of each rye impact the cigar pairings. Redemption Rye has the strength to stand up to a spicy Honduran cigar like a Camacho Corojo. Riverboat Rye requires a more subtle, smooth cigar, like the recently-released Dunhill 1907 or the León Family Reserve by La Aurora.

Ultimately, comparing young rye with something even twice as old is not particularly helpful since the style is so different. That said, as far as fairly priced younger rye, Redemption is a real standout in the category.

-Patrick S

photo credits: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Jefferson’s Straight Rye Whiskey

17 Apr 2014

Rye whiskey is a quintessentially American spirit, and yet in recent decades Canada has become better known for rye than the United States. Canadian whiskey is synonymous with rye, as rye is the dominant grain in most Canadian whiskey.Jeffersons-rye-10-sq

Jeffersons-rye-10But most Canadian whiskey doesn’t meet the “straight rye” designation since the rye is often mixed with neutral grain spirits (basically vodka), to produce the low-proof, smooth-drinking Canadian whiskey you might be familiar with. And yet lots of rye is made in Canada, which caught the eye of some American whiskey sellers as old aged rye has gained a larger and larger following with American whiskey fans.

Three such Canadian straight ryes are particularly noteworthy: Jefferson’s Straight Rye Whiskey (10 Year, 94-proof), Whistlepig (10 Year, 100-proof), and Masterson’s (10 Year, 90-proof). All reportedly source their straight rye from the same Alberta distillery, and all are made with a mashbill of 100% rye, which sets them apart from rye produced in the U.S. (Lots of ryes, mostly made in Indiana, use a 95% rye mashbill.)

While they are distilled in Canada, due to their marketing and style, you’ll probably find them in the bourbon and rye section of your store, not lumped in with Canadian Club and Crown Royal. In the case of Jefferson’s, the label on the side discloses its origins: “Imported by Castle Brands, Produced in Canada.” Included is a batch and bottle number (the bottle I’m using for this review is batch 41, bottle number 251).

Jefferson’s pours a lovely reddish copper color and has a nose full of floral sweetness, a hint of what’s to come. Once tasted, it reveals a very clean, balanced profile with minty spice. It’s floral, oily, and has a honey sweetness. It lacks the forward spice that characterizes most American-distilled rye, but it’s very enjoyable in its own way. The finish stays true to the taste and it lingers on the roof of your mouth.

Normally I suggest a full-bodied cigar to stand up to rye’s spice, but the more subtle aspects of Jefferson’s Rye suggest a different direction. Instead, I’d stick with a milder cigar, either a Connecticut (USA or Ecuador) or the subtle spice of a Cameroon wrapper.

I’ve become a big fan of Jefferson’s Rye, and I heartily recommend all rye fans seek it out, especially at the very fair price of $40 or less. (It’s probably obvious by now, but this is totally different than the Jefferson’s bourbons which we’ve written about here and here.)

Now for the bad news: Jefferson’s Rye, at least in its current form, isn’t going to be around for long, and may already not be available in your area. Reports are they’ve lost their source of whiskey and it will soon be replaced with rye from a different (probably non-100% rye mashbill) rye, that won’t carry the ten-year age statement. So be sure to examine the bottle closely. Personally, I scooped up four bottles when I had the chance.

-Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys