Smoke Drink:
Pairing cigars and drinks

Like any other match made in heaven, the most successful cigar and beverage pairings are those that compliment each other, resulting in a full range of flavors that deliver “deliciousness.”

By Doug Fiore

We all know that smoking fine cigars enhances some of life’s greatest moments and the same can be said of drinking one’s favorite beverage. Whether it’s champagne at a wedding, beer at a football game, or a great cup of coffee after a fine meal, drinks add an element to great moments just as cigars do. Many enthusiasts have attempted to develop “rules” or guidelines regarding the pairing of tobacco and drinks. But with all due respect to these individuals, pairing rules will always fail because in the final analysis, such decision come down to a matter of personal preference. Despite this inescapable fact, pairing suggestions can prove beneficial just as cigar reviews can aid smokers with guidance. We don’t agree with all reviews, but they certainly can help point us in the right direction.

Whenever I am choosing a drink to accompany a cigar, I ponder the same elements I imagine a sommelier considers when pairing wine with food—taking into account the relative flavor and strength of each item. Smoking a cigar, even a relatively mild one, is a flavorful experience. Therefore, logic would say that a cigar is best accompanied by a flavorful beverage. While I agree with such reasoning, simply matching the strength of flavors is, at best, a convenient rule. It seems logical to expect that a full-bodied cigar would pair well with a full-bodied drink, and a mild-bodied cigar would pair best with a mild-bodied drink. But this is an example of where writing seemingly sensible rules runs into problems.

First, as some of my examples will show, the rule is not always true. Secondly, following rules like this prevents us from discovering the surprising synergy that can be created when you pair your favorite cigar with your favorite beverage, regardless of the degree to which the flavor strengths are similar. Dare I suggest that a sweet and mild drink can work well with a full-bodied, peppery smoke? Absolutely, my friends. That is, provided the drink and the cigar are favorites of yours.

So-called experts often will say that you shouldn’t choose a drink that overpowers your cigar, and you shouldn’t choose a cigar that overpowers your drink. However, this rule too is replete with problems. For one, do any two people define “overpowering” in exactly the same way? Relaxing at the end of a challenging day, occasionally I enjoy single malt Scotch, particularly Highland and Speyside Malts. I find these whiskies to be typically smooth and relatively light. If another person rarely or never drinks single-malt scotch, though, then they may find the whisky to be exceedingly strong and powerful. It all depends on an individual’s palate. Jorge Armenteros of Tobacconist University writes about umami, a taste sensation analogous to the Spanish word, sabroso. “Cigar makers use the word sabroso to describe the perfect balance of saltiness, bitterness, sourness, and sweetness in tobacco: that synergistic balance creates a sensation that transcends the potential of each individual taste, and creates something more extraordinary and complete: that is umami. For many people umami has a mouth watering effect and creates a tantalizing sensation all over the tongue: it has also been described as “deliciousness.”

Oftentimes, the best cigar and drink combination is the one that creates this complete sense of deliciousness, either by paring a drink and a cigar with the same elements or even by pairing those with disparate elements that create that full sense of taste. It is this taste sense of umami that I focus on when paring drinks and cigars. Instead of getting hung up on whether or not the cigar overpowers the drink or vice versa, I prefer to ask whether or not the cigar complements the drink. Does the cigar add flavors that the drink doesn’t have? If so, that may create an outstanding pairing. Does the cigar offer flavors similar to those in the drink? That, too, may make an interesting combination. If you enjoy the cigar and you enjoy the drink, then there is a very good chance you will enjoy them together. Typically, there is enough of a time lapse between sip and draw that you needn’t worry about one taste profile erasing the next. With this in mind, I offer these four specific parings that I particularly enjoy, along with some general notes about why the cigars and beverages complement each other so well.

The Macallan 12 year-old Single Malt Scotch and Padron 3000
The dried fruit and honey sweetness of this scotch perfectly complement the subtle spiciness and cocoa taste of this cigar. Although the flavors that come through each are not similar, they complement each other to create a full and complete flavor profile. Many single-malt Scotches, particularly those absent the peaty flavors of many Islay malts pair well with Padron cigars throughout their inventory. However, I mention this drink and this cigar in particular because they are staples of my guilty pleasures. Scotch whisky has a range of flavor profiles that is as extreme as the range of cigar flavors. As such, it is not difficult to find cigars that pair well with whiskies. You can’t go wrong pairing most medium to full-bodied cigars with scotch from the Speyside region of Scotland.

Quesada Oktoberfest and Samuel Adams Octoberfest
Although it seems obvious to pair a drink and a cigar with Octoberfest in the name, these truly are wonderful in combination. The Quesada Oktoberfest was created to complement beer, specifically the caramel and toffee sweetness typical of Marzen styles of beer like those brewed for the Oktoberfest season. Enjoyed together, the sweetness of this drink and the underlying bitterness from the hops balance some of the cigar’s more bitter notes and accentuates the sweet flavors of chocolate and oak. For many smokers, pairing their favorite cigar with beer is quite challenging. Many people feel that beer’s bitterness overpowers a cigar. Again, individual palates respond differently to bitterness. If I smoke a spicy cigar for example, I do find that most beer’s bitterness washes that spice away. However, on the next draw the spiciness returns. I enjoy the interplay of competing flavors. I especially enjoy it when the cigar is a full-bodied one.

Starbucks Caffe Verona and Lou Rodriguez Connecticut
Coffee and cigars are a combination enjoyed by many. In fact, I am enjoying both as a write this piece. One of the reasons they pair so well together is because of the many styles with which individual people enjoy their coffee. A bold coffee served black tastes entirely different than a milder coffee served light and sweet. The combinations are endless and, as such, I am hard pressed to find a cigar that doesn’t pair beautifully with coffee. Starbucks Caffe Verona is a bold coffee with some underlying sweet chocolate tones. I enjoy it black. While it pairs well with cigars that have a cocoa taste, the Lou Rodriguez Connecticut is not a cigar that I consider chocolaty. Instead, this stick has some spiciness and a relatively light body. Combined with the coffee, I get a very complete flavor profile that is a great start to any day. These two pleasures are not inherently similar. They work so well together because of the complementary tastes of dark chocolate and pepper.

Ron Zacapa 23 and Ashton VSG
Rum and cigars seem to be a natural combination, and they have been enjoyed together for quite some time. This could be because both products come from the same regions of the globe, but it certainly also is because of the sweetness that all rums possess. Sweetness complements spicy cigars, and sweetness creates synergy with sweet cigars. Rum may be the easiest beverage to pair with cigars, and the two particular ones I mention here pair especially well. Ron Zacapa 23 is exceptionally sweet and the sweet smell and initial taste of an Ashton VSG accentuates this sweetness and makes for a really nice experience.

Each of these drinks would pair well with many other cigars, and I don’t pretend to have discovered the perfect match. Nevertheless, the pairings that I have mentioned really create some nice relaxing memories for me. Are they the perfect matches? Certainly, they are not. In fact, I fully expect to find some better pairings as life unfolds. These pairings do work off of the flavors and relative strengths of each other. In some cases, the cigar flavors complement the drink flavors and bring something different to the palate, while in others the flavors are essentially similar. It is this synergy of flavors that makes the pairings work for me.

Pairing great cigars with great drinks is not a science, like some would have us believe. Just as we are often told to drink red wine with beef and white wine with fish, we now know that there are many occasions on which this rule should be broken. Drink what you enjoy, and smoke what brings you pleasure. Certainly, there are combinations that will not work well together, but there are far more combinations that are terrific. You are the expert on the perfect combinations for you, and that is the magic rule of pairing cigars and drinks. You needn’t be an expert, just an enthusiast who knows what you like.

SMOKE 2011, Issue 4


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