By Larry Wagner
Q: There is hardly a week that goes by without someone asking: What spirits pair well with cigars or pipes (mostly cigars)? I always say drink what you like and smoke what you like. What’s your take?”
- Doug Shaw, The Sanctuary Tobacco Shop, San Luis Obispo, California
A: This is a question that will ignite a lot of debate. Pairing smokes and spirits is a bit like discussing politics. Everyone has an opinion, and not everyone agrees.
Like any other matter of taste, this is a subjective call. Of course, there are some objective reasons to suggest which libation goes well with a specific puro, but scientific data generally goes out the window when discussing sensory experiences. If you like ketchup on your hot dog and mustard on your burger, who are we to argue? There is a basis, however, for why certain pairings work well together, and it’s analogous to why certain wines go well with specific foods. Simply put, you want the flavors to complement each other; you don’t want them to compete. We often have a preference for a particular style of food or beverage because we simply enjoy the taste. We may not be bothered that one item has certain acids that do not balance with the sugars in the other. Instead we just savor each one on its own merits, and somehow that works just fine. It doesn’t even matter that these conflicting taste sensations are stimulating opposing areas of the palate. These are concerns for the self-styled connoisseur looking to achieve a harmony of gustatory delights. We just want to enjoy a smoke and a beer!
Upon further inspection, though, there is a down-to-earth logic about why certain pairings work better than others. Richard Carleton Hacker, noted cigar and spirits columnist, and author of The Ultimate Cigar Book, observes, “You always want them to be equal; one should not overwhelm the other.”
So the basic rule of thumb: If you’re smoking a heavy cigar, you won’t be able to enjoy a delicate spirit. It will get lost in the shuffle. And likewise, a mild cigar will be dominated by a strong drink. Hacker further advises that for most pairings you want “brown spirits,” like single malt scotches, bourbon, rye and cognac. These tend to go best with fuller-strength Nicaraguan, Honduran and Dominican cigars. For medium-bodied smokes, Hacker suggests a blended scotch or an Irish whiskey, noting that “clear alcohols, including vodka and gin, generally won’t pair well with anything other than the mildest cigars.” But he hastens to add that “today’s more medium-bodied tequilas such as an anejo or reposado” are increasingly finding favor with cigar lovers.
A personal favorite, the result of having attended numerous cigar tasting events, is the pairing of cigars with rum. No longer limited to the clear liquid used in Cuba libres, modern sipping rums tend to have a deep amber color and lend a caramel/vanilla quality along with a touch of spicy heat, which goes quite well with cigars of almost any style and strength.
If we defer once again to our expert, Hacker makes a case for a certain libation often left out of the discussion. “Port is an often misunderstood option,” he says, “largely due to the perception that it is an overly sweet drink—something your grandmother might enjoy. In actuality, a good ruby port is a rich, complex spirit which pairs very well with both medium- and
With so many enjoyable libations available, one is left with the option of selecting nearly any beverage of his or her choice, provided it is matched to the appropriate cigar. There are, however, certain subtle aspects of balancing the flavors and strengths of tobacco and liquor. It would not be advisable, for example, to drink a strong, peaty scotch with a mild, sweet-flavored cigar. Sweet and sour may work on a Chinese food menu, but that’s a combination best avoided when pairing cigars and spirits. If all of this leaves you dazed and confused, and you don’t feel up to creating your own pairings, you may want to try one of several cigar brands that are blended specifically to go with certain beverages.
In 2015, Perdomo Cigars released its Special Craft Series for beer enthusiasts. Three distinct blends were tailored to match specific brews: a Connecticut wrapper for Pilsners and lagers, a sun-grown wrapper for ambers and India pale ales, and a hearty maduro wrapper for stouts, porters and brown ales.
Not to be outdone, Quesada Cigars has its own Oktoberfest annual limited release. It’s a sumptuous blend of Nicaraguan and Dominican leaf created to pair with traditional maerzen-style beers. It’s only available in the fall while the famous German beer festival takes place. There’s even a line of cigars named Dram Cigars for Whiskey that are offered in four “casks,” from light to full-bodied.
The corollary to the concept of cigars blended to pair with specific beverages is spirits created to be enjoyed with cigars. Notable examples of this are Coruba 12 Year Old Cigar Rum from Jamaica, Trinidad’s Rhum Dillon Dark Cigar Blend and the estimable Dalmore Cigar Malt Reserve Highland single malt scotch, described as “the perfect complement to a fine cigar.”
In the event that you still can’t decide, even when the manufacturer has taken pains to suggest which brews or spirits go best with its cigars, you could take the easy way out and smoke a cigar that already incorporates some form of alcohol in its blend. From Gurkha’s glass-tubed and cognac-infused Grand Reserve and Drew Estate’s bourbon-blended Pappy Van Winkle to Ted’s Cigars’ Maker’s Mark and Courvoisier blends, there are numerous handmade cigars on the market that are laced with anything from beer and wine to Kentucky bourbon. In addition to providing you with an enjoyable cigar, they offer the obvious advantage of providing both smoke and “drink” in one convenient package, leaving your other hand free for channel surfing.
A good way to source information and suggestions would be to consult the pages of consumer cigar publications (like our parent company’s Cigars & Leisure), many of which frequently advise on cigar and spirit pairings, as well as craft brew recommendations. For specific reviews of the latest in cigars and libations, and to offer your customers educated answers to their questions, make a point of reading Hacker’s cigars and spirits columns featured in Robb Report.
Whether you opt to follow an expert’s recommendation, try a manufacturer’s proprietary blends to go with specific beverages or just want to put together your own personal favorites, pairing cigars with spirits is a fun way to enhance and increase your cigar smoking enjoyment. Skoal!
Larry Wagner is a second-generation tobacconist with more than 40 years of retail and wholesale experience. He is currently an independent manufacturer representative living in Southern California. Contact Larry at firstname.lastname@example.org.