Cigar Aficionado

Rye And Cigars
Photo/Jeff Harris
The revival of this spicy whiskey brings on perfect cigar pairings

The biggest surprise of the already startling whiskey boom is the rye revival. Long ago it was America's most popular pour, but it became a dusty afterthought on liquor store shelves in the wake of Prohibition. Yet when the current cocktail revival surged, bartenders with historical bents discovered its importance in classic mixology. By then the choices were few. Most straight ryes were made at Bourbon distilleries that devoted little time to rye production. Furthermore, they tended to be made close to the minimum amount of the spicy grain allowed by law: 51 percent. Burgeoning demand has brought broad diversity and flavorful ryes boasting 90 to 100 percent rye in their mashbill, as well some rye-forward entrants from Canada.

Like its Bourbon cousin, rye is a natural cigar partner—but tangier and not as sweet. We sampled a spectrum of ryes ranging in price from $19 to $300 per bottle with two contrasting cigar profiles. The Inch Natural by E.P. Carrillo No. 60 (5 7/8" by 60 ring gauge, $8.75) was meant to complement spice with its maple, coconut and oak notes. We chose the Rocky Patel 55 Robusto (5 1/2" by 55, $10.30) to go right after the zesty ryes with its notes of licorice, mint and dark toast. We were quite pleased with the results.

The Rocky Patel 55 Robusto (top) and E.P. Carrillo Inch Natural No. 60 (bottom) provided a wide flavor spectrum to pair with ryes.
The Rocky Patel 55 Robusto (top) and E.P. Carrillo Inch Natural No. 60 (bottom) provided a wide flavor spectrum to pair with ryes.

Booker's Rye The Big Time Batch
This rye was made using the uncut/unfiltered ethic of Booker's Bourbon. It was laid down by the legendary Jim Beam distiller Booker Noe and selected by his son Fred when the whiskey was 13. You may want to tame its scorching proof with some water, but the sensation is a roller coaster from sweet to spicy to toasty notes in the form of red berries, red pepper and rye bread. The Inch smoothed out the rye, while becoming bolder itself. The Rocky Patel 55 was the winner, eliciting licorice and cedar where there previously was none. (136.2 proof, $300)

Bulleit Rye
Rye whiskey was a natural progression for Bulleit, which debuted as a Bourbon high in rye content (28 percent). The version labeled "rye whiskey" amped the spice quotient up to 95 percent. After a vanilla and candy nose, its rye tang meets the palate with cinnamon, licorice and clove. With the Inch, Bulleit achieved a friendly give-and-take, where the maple candy reached accord with the whiskey's cinnamon. The Rocky Patel 55 got toastier in the exchange and gave the whiskey hearty, nutty flavors. (90 proof, $27)

Canadian Club 100 Percent Rye
During Prohibition, Americans developed a taste for the high-quality, but illegal, Canadian rye blends that served as a substitute for straight American rye. Now some Canadian producers are feeding our demand for spice with high-rye whiskeys. Canadian Club has gone all-in with 100 percent.
Despite explicit nutmeg and cinnamon, it manages delicate honey and vanilla, too. The Inch expanded the CC's softer, barrel notes and benefited from its cinnamon. The Rocky Patel 55 matched it for spice and took some sweetness from the CC. (80 proof, $20)

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye
This Canadian also emphasizes rye grain, this time with 90 percent. The Crown Royal's name showcases the importance of the Canadian climate on rye. The grain is planted in the fall and lies dormant under snow in the winter before fully maturing through summer. The whiskey's palate is fruity, with hard candy, apple cider and caramel. Some white pepper on the finish came on even quicker when paired with the Inch. With the Rocky Patel 55 there was a good balance of sugar and spice and everything nice. (90 proof, $30)

From left: Booker's Rye The Big Time Batch, Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye and George Dickel Rye Whisky.
From left: Booker's Rye The Big Time Batch, Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye and George Dickel Rye Whisky.

George Dickel Rye Whisky
If you taste similarities between this rye example from George Dickel (known for its Tennessee sour mash whisky) and the Bulleit rye (above), note that both are owned by Diageo and made by the same third-party distiller. The Dickel difference is that the rye goes through the signature charcoal chill filtering of a Tennessee sour mash to burnish the rough edges and release a creamy, orange menthol note. This suited the Inch well as it became supremely smooth and heartier. The Rocky Patel pairing was a bit flat. (90 proof, $28)

Knob Creek Straight Rye
This rye is a sibling to Knob Creek Bourbon, and its deep barrel charring gives it orange notes, and the heavily rye mash bill adds notes of rye bread, pepper, berry, breathy mint and eucalyptus. Its sweetness brightened the Inch, making it fuller bodied, but the tannins in the rye proved a jarring match with the Rocky Patel. (100 proof, $39)

Lot No. 40
Hard to find, but well worth the trouble, Lot No. 40 was one of the flag bearers in the charge of extremely high-rye content (100 percent in this case) Canadian whiskies. Hiram Walker distillery makes Lot No. 40 in a copper still. Though it shows lots of anise, it's not biting at all as it produces honey, molasses, sloe berries and cinnamon as well. The sweetness backed off in the Inch pairing, while the cigar got leathery. However, it created sweetness and toasty woods on the Rocky Patel. (86 proof, $40)

Michter's Barrel Strength U.S. 1 Rye
The forebear of Michter's was Shenk's, built in 1753 in eastern Pennsylvania. Several owners later it shuttered in 1989, but a new owner sourced whiskey elsewhere to bottle under the label. Now the company has its own Kentucky distillery. The barrel-strength version is notable for its range of orange peel, vanilla, cinnamon graham cracker, mint and toffee. The Inch's coconut bloomed in the pairing. Michter's drew fruit notes from the Rocky Patel and developed its own licorice. (113 proof, $80)

Old Overholt
Old Overholt has survived the many travails of rye whiskey since its inception in 1810. During Prohibition, it sold for medicinal purposes only. Its plant shuttered during World War II. In the 1980s it moved from western Pennsylvania to Kentucky. Still it remains as one of rye's best buys, with its surprising range of blackberries, cherries, marzipan, cinnamon, licorice and toast with jam. It balanced delicately with the Inch, showing white pepper and giving up fruit to the cigar. The RP's spices contrasted well with the berries. (80 proof, $19)

Pikesville Straight Rye
Originally made in Maryland (and now at Kentucky's Heaven Hill), Pikesville is the exemplar of the mild, eastern style. The rye portion of the mashbill just clears the minimum 51 percent standard. This superpremium version is six years old. Along with rye toast and clove, it features rich, gooey caramel with a topping of raspberry jam. Its caramel filled out the Inch, while pairing the Pikesville with the Rocky Patel smacked of cinnamon toast. (110 proof, $50)

Redemption Rye
Among a spate of non-distilling producers who source their rye from the MGP distillery in Indiana, Redemption is refreshingly the most transparent about it. This two-and-a-half-year-old is an interesting mix of sugar, menthol, herbs and spices, topped with flowers. It drew fuller body from the Inch, but received little in return. The Rocky Patel combination was quite spicy and a good backdrop for Redemption's flowers. (90 proof, $30)

Rittenhouse Bottled In Bond
Rittenhouse was founded in Philadelphia in 1934 to slake the nation's thirst at the end of Prohibition. Starting as a two-year-old, it gradually grew up to its four-year, bottled-in-bond status. With notes of toffee and vanilla, fruit flavors, mint, pepper, rye bread and cloves, the whiskey suffuses the Inch with sweetness and gets added spice in return. With the Rocky Patel, the two become a spicy mint gumball. (100 proof, $25)

From left: Michter's Barrel Strength U.S. 1 Rye, Lot No. 40 and Knob Creek Straight Rye.
From left: Michter's Barrel Strength U.S. 1 Rye, Lot No. 40 and Knob Creek Straight Rye.

Russell's Reserve 6 Year Old Rye
This is the product of the Wild Turkey distillery, more famous for Bourbon. The name refers to the father-and-son distilling team of Jimmy and Eddie Russell who created this small-batch whiskey. The flavors are a crisp balance of honey and tang, with caramel, butter rum, cinnamon, rye bread and slight fruits. It brought depth and pleasant bite to the Inch and found itself filling the Rocky Patel with hearty sweetness. (90 proof, $35)

Sazerac Rye
The emblematic New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac, was named for a Cognac brand. Rye replaced brandy in the recipe, but the Sazerac name stuck. It was even applied to a coffeehouse, which grew into a spirits giant that now makes Sazerac Rye, a very zingy whiskey. It tussled a bit with the Inch, but had a happy boost of spice with the Rocky Patel. (90 proof, $27)

Templeton Rye 4 Years Old
Fans of "Boardwalk Empire" may recognize Templeton from its cameos on the HBO series set in Prohibition. The whiskey has been made in Indiana since its introduction, but a distillery is being built in the Iowa town it is named for. It shows mint, dill, clove, rye toast and plums. The Inch drew butterscotch from the whiskey and got roasty. The Rocky pairing was neutral, with the Inch cigar getting rough with the rye. (80 proof, $30)

Whistlepig The Boss Hog Independent
This Whistlepig has it backwards. Lots of Scotch ages in American casks. This is whiskey sourced in Canada and finished in Scottish hogsheads. The whiskey, with a 100-percent-rye mashbill, shows fruit, spice and menthol, with gingerbread, fruitcake, minced pudding and licorice. It was a bit too tannic for the Inch, though it lent spice. With the Rocky Patel, it found superb balance, each filling in spice notes for the other. (120.6 proof, $300)