Cigars and Spirits: A Winning Combination
Few things pair better with a glass of finely crafted whiskey like a handcrafted cigar. “One of my favorite things about the joys of life is complementary and juxtaposing characteristics,” says Ryan Sumner, Manager of Power House in Los Angeles. Dark lyrics sung over a bright, poppy song, salted caramel and neon over black and white. “They can accentuate, enhance, or re-introduce attributes that you might think you know, or might not have even originally noticed.” Pairing a high quality cigar with a great whiskey, rum or a cocktails can do all of those things, with multiple senses at once. “A Cigar pairs well with whiskey because the flavor notes are super complimentary,” says Chris Amirault, General Manager of West Hollywood’s Harlowe. “Cigars bring chewy textures like leather that can really amplify notes of vanilla, banana and spice that you find in whiskey.”
Wet drink vs. dry vapor and cold vs. hot are just a few of the ways cigars and spirits compliment each other. “One makes you see double, the other fogs the air,” says Sumner. “But when you get into the journey, your intimate connection to both spirit and stogie combine in your mind and palate to form a compelling story.” The story has many questions. “Am I forging a new story altogether, one that I’ll remember for years to come? This sunset, this rum, this beach, this smoke, these friends.”
When Sumner looks for new whiskeys to try, he tends to reach for those with sweeter and smooth flavors, like bourbons with heavy corn flavor as well as whiskies with a touch of spice. “I try to stay away from something too hot (high proof), as I feel that can overpower your senses, but perhaps that is something you enjoy.”
Cigars and Rum
Although some would say that whiskey is the best spirit to pair with a fine cigar, Sumner believes that rum is actually the natural complement. “The two already share many of the same qualities, flavors, places of origin and environs for enjoying them.”
According to Sumner, aged rums are best because the aging process allows time for the barrel to add many of the flavors common to cigars into the juice. These flavors include vanilla, nutmeg, spice, maple, sherry, honeysuckle, dry fruits, banana and even tobacco itself. “Bacardí has a new Facundo line from their family reserves that is a carefully curated, allocated line of four of the best rums I’ve ever tasted,” says Sumner. “One of those, Exquisito, is full of fruity, sweet flavors that beg to be framed in the spicyy, smoky structure of a great cigar.” Because of its prominent cherry and sherry notes, Bacardi 8 is another great rum to pair with a fine cigar.
In Dallas, there’s a Cuban Master Cigar Roller named William Rodriguez who owned his own factory in Havana for fifteen years before moving to the states. “He apprenticed with the best and worked with Cohiba before going out on his own. I always keep a case of his Bacardí 8-infused cigars for guests to enjoy at the house.”
Advice for a Cigar Pairing Novice
Like anything, you should choose your cigar and spirit based on your personal taste. “Dig into your past tastings or research some spirits with flavor notes you enjoy,” says Sumner. “Think back to your favorite cocktail or most memorable bourbon and start from there.” Stay away from a dry convenience store cigar and talk to an expert at the humidor in a bar or tobacco shop. “They are experts and usually love nerding out over their passion.” Remember that a lot of cigar lounges and shops are BYOB. “Bring your bottle in and let them guide you toward some complimentary flavors.”
Many people believe that you shouldn’t pair smoke with smoke. They will discourage you from pairing a cigar with a peaty, Islay scotch like Ardbeg or Bowmore or an intense mezcal. Sumner believes that if you really enjoy smoke, go ahead and double up. “Sure it might kill certain other nuances, but it will let you enjoy a wall of that singular, smoky sensation you are searching for.”
Amirault recommends starting slowly when finding your favorite pairing of cigar and spirit. “If you’ve never had a cigar before you’re going to want to start with something light, like an Ashton, and small sized like a golf,” he says. “With whiskey, start with something like a wheated bourbon, it’s softer in texture with a really accessible flavor profile.” From there it’s your preference. “Once you get the hang of what you like, I find that opposites attract in the pairings. If you have a sweeter cigar, pair it with a dry, spicy rye.” He personally likes to pair sherry cask single malt whiskies with his cigars. “The fruit in the sherry really balances nicely with a little smoke and a robust cigar.”
Never be fearful of pairing a cocktail with a cigar. Don’t worry, you aren’t breaking any etiquette rules. “There is a wide array of cocktails that are begging to be paired with cigars,” says Sumner. “It actually allows you to craft a precise flavor structure to meet your specific needs.” Mixed drinks take a good whiskey or rum and sweeten or spice it up while adding flavors that work well with cigars. “New Orleans-style cocktails which employ Spirit, Benedictine, Absinthe & sweet vermouth are an amazing compliment as well.”
Remember to Have Fun
When finding your favorite combination of cigar and spirits, having fun is the most important aspect. Don’t stress out about the process. Try different pairings and don’t worry about finding the winning combination right away. If you are in LA, Amirault suggests visiting Seven Grand for the best possible whiskey knowledge and then talking to the guys at V-Cut Lounge on Melrose for Cigar information. “They really are the best in each world and can offer probably even more advice than I can.” Wherever you are located, go online and search for a local cigar shop and a knowledgeable liquor store. Going in and talking to experts is the best way to get started.