As time goes on I’ve found that I have less and less time to call my own. The kids are at that point where they may not need to watch over via helicopter, but too young to drive which means between practice, games, play dates, and school activities, not to mention jobs of our own, when I finally get a moment to myself I usually pass out before the half-time analysis. However what this has made be grow to appreciate is how to make the most the time I do get to myself and perhaps the most relaxing thing I have found has been to kick back with a fine cigar and glass of good bourbon. Whether it be by myself in Jacuzzi, watching a game, or with a few good friends, nothing seems to take the edge off than enjoying that simple pleasure. Since you can’t seem to smoke anywhere anymore it has become a luxury to relish in the privacy of your own home, but if you can find a great outside bar with a view and an hour or two to spare it’s about as good as it gets, so we wanted to put together a guide for the perfect paring of cigar and sipping spirit.
Ok, most of you may be familiar with what they are but let’s start a step further back to maybe bring some more people on board and maybe I can drop a little knowledge on you at the same time. A cigar is constructed of several types of tobacco leaves, filler tobacco held together with binder tobacco, and covered with wrapper leaf. And though the experience of smoking a cigar is truly created by the sum of all of its parts, it is commonly regarded that the wrapper imparts 50-60% or more of the cigar’s flavor. In terms of flavor, the binder tobacco presents the least amount, as these tobaccos are selected for their elasticity and their ability to hold together the bunches of fillers, and not for their taste.
It is obvious when looking at a cigar, that besides the wrapper, the other major component is the filler. Fillers of various strengths are usually blended to produce desired cigar flavors. Many cigar manufacturers pride themselves in constructing the perfect blend that will give the smoker the most enjoyment. Fatter cigars of larger gauge hold more filler, with greater potential to provide a full body and complex flavor. However, this effect can be diminished because of the generally poorer burn characteristics of thicker cigars, and the fact that these cigars burn cooler. This can prevent the full spectrum of flavors from being easily detected. It is also difficult to identify the types of tobacco used for filler, as the only visible area is the small amount that is exposed at the foot of the cigar.
Claro / Double Claro or American Market Standard Wrappers (AMS)
A Double Claro is the lightest cigar wrapper color. It has a slightly greenish tint, a fresh leafy aroma and may be fire-cured. The light green color comes from the tobacco being picked early, before maturity, then being dried quickly. This ensures that the chlorophyll content of the leaves is retained, giving the wrapper its color. This wrapper has a mild quality and the taste of the binder and filler are discernible. Tastes associated with these wrappers typically include grass, cedar, and pepper with a little bit of sweetness. Once popular in the United States, they are out of favor with today’s tastes due to their off-color and tendency to have a sour characteristic. They are also sometimes referred to as Candela or Jade.Therefore, in order to select a cigar for pairing, it is easier to begin based upon the most visible characteristic, and that is the wrapper.
Claro or English Market Standard Wrappers (AMS)
The English Market Standard has roots that go back to the 19th century and is the benchmark for most cigar wrappers manufactured today. The term English Market Selection refers to the designated quality for the UK market. It includes the wrapper colors Claro, Colorado and Natural (in ascending order from lighter to darker). Wrappers in this group are grown in Cuba, Cameroon and Connecticut. Claro cigars are light tan or brown, and may have a yellowish or greenish tint. The color is achieved by growing the tobacco plants in a shaded location to full maturity. Claro wrappers have a smooth, noticeable taste of their own, are silky in texture, but do not disguise the flavor of the binder and filler tobaccos. Many fine Cuban cigars use this type of wrapper, and here are some of the other types of wrappers you’ll have to choose from when making your selection.
- Connecticut wrappers fall within this type. They are usually shade-grown from Connecticut seed either in the US, Honduras or Ecuador. Shade-grown refers to the process of being grown under giant sheets of cheesecloth, which keeps the leaves from being exposed to too much sunlight; this ensures that they have a milder flavor. Depending on how long they are aged, their tasting notes can include grass, cream, butter, black or white pepper, coffee, cedar, and many others. Many Connecticut wrappers give a cigar a spicy, ammoniac aroma, and this is due to the fact that tobacco leaves naturally contain a lot of ammonia. The aging process removes some of this ammonia, though lighter wrappers generally tend to be a bit peppery. Connecticut wrappers tend to have a bit more of a “dry” taste than darker wrappers, as they usually don’t have very high sugar content. Colorado Claro
- Colorado Claro wrappers are darker than a Claro and typically have a reddish hue to them. Stronger than the Claro or Natural wrappers, they have similar flavor notes and sometimes a nutty, spiciness.
- Corojo – Slightly confusing is that there is also a tobacco called Corojo, but in terms of wrapper color it would be considered a Colorado. Corojo tobacco was originally grown in the Vuelta Abajo region of Cuba, but many tobacco farmers took seed during their mass-exodus. Now Corojo tobacco is principally grown in the Jamastran region of Honduras. Corojo wrappers have a spicy robust taste with flavors of earth, leather, cocoa, cedar and black pepper. The wrapper leaves are very oily and reddish-brown, but can be dark enough to be mistaken for Maduro.
- Colorado – A Colorado wrapper may also be called Rosado or Corojo, and has a reddish-brown color. The tobacco leaf is very aromatic and has an oily texture. The flavors from this wrapper range from earthy to coffee to vanilla, sweet and spicy flavor.
- Criollo – Criollo tobacco also fits into this color range. Slightly milder than Corojo wrappers, flavors associated with Criollo wrappers are cocoa, bread, nuts, cedar and a bit of sweetness. They may also present a bit of pepper in the flavor profile. Criollo tobacco’s use in cigars may date back as far as the late 1400’s, but most leaves used at present are hybrid strains developed to be disease-resistant.
- Rosado – Technically also a Colorado wrapper, a Rosado has a distinct reddish coloring. Rosado means “rosy” or “reddish” in Spanish. Extremely difficult to grow outside of Cuba, only a handful of companies produce this leaf, making Rosado cigars rare and highly sought after. Typically, these cigars are very spicy with notes of cedar, coffee, earth, and pepper.
The darkest of the EMS classification, the Natural wrapper is a light brown color, the natural color of tobacco grown in the full sun. Natural wrappers are typically a bit darker than Connecticut wrappers due to the fact that they are more mature when picked, and are sometimes not shade grown. These tend to be just a bit sweeter with a fuller spice profile and some additional notes of cedar, coffee, bread, and sometimes earth.Within this classification are also Sumatran, Cameroon and Habano tobacco wrappers.
- Sumatran – Sumatran wrappers originally were grown on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and typically carry a milder, more neutral flavor. They are dark brown and include cinnamon, earth, floral notes and a sweet aftertaste and aroma. Sumatran seed is also being grown in Honduras and Ecuador.
- Cameroon – Cameroon wrappers originated in Cameroon, Africa and are darker brown. Their leaves are recognizable by their grain or toothiness. Delicate and not very oily, these wrappers are rich tasting and very smooth with flavors of butter, toast, leather and pepper.
- Habano – Habano wrappers are seeing a recent rise in popularity. These leaves tend to be the darkest of the range bit, and are by far the spiciest. Habano refers not only to the fact that it’s generally grown from Cuban seed, but also to the fact that its spice level is comparable to that of a Cuban cigar. They can be grown in several countries, though a popular choice is Nicaragua, as the soil content there is conducive to producing some very strong leaves. Flavors include bread, intense spice, leather, cocoa, espresso, and cedar.
The Spanish word for “ripe”, Maduro is a very apt description for the darkest of the wrapper colors. Tobacco for these wrappers are typically sun-grown in Connecticut, Honduras, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Brazil. Though the wrapper is thick and veiny, a well crafted one will have a texture like velvet. Wrappers are also typically oily, exhibit an earthy scent and are very dark with rich, sweet flavors and aromas.There are several sub-categories of Maduro, as shown below:
- The Colorado Maduro wrapper is a dark brown wrapper still exhibiting a hint of red in it. The darker color comes from sun ripening. Like the regular Colorado this wrapper also has a full bodied flavor that offer up a tasty blend of flavors. This wrapper color is sometimes called Dark English Market Selection.
- The Maduro wrapper is very dark brown and is from time to time referred to as a Spanish Market Selection. The dark color comes from extra sun ripening and higher temperature fermentation. Due to this lengthy process Maduro cigars are somewhat rarer. The Maduro wrapper imparts a full bodied, rich and spicy, flavor. Tasting notes typically include dark chocolate, coffee, espresso, brown sugar, caramel, molasses, black pepper, dried fruit, and black cherry.
- The Oscuro wrapper is an oily black. It is processed much like the Maduro but carried out even further. In fact, it’s sometimes called a Double Maduro or Maduro Maduro. Flavors of Oscuro-wrapped cigars include many of the same ones as Maduro-wrapped, with a bit of added strength and sweetness.
Body is as critical as flavor when trying to determine a successful smoke and sip match.
Rich, full bodied cigars typically require a bold and mature spirit to ensure a good marriage. It is vital not to overwhelm the spirit with the cigar or vice versa. Look to medium bodied cigars as great partners for subtle more elegant drams. Mild and creamy brands tend to be more compatible with lighter, sweeter spirits.
Flavor matching is more serendipitous than scientific.
Just as each scotch expression unveils different notes from first sip to finish, a fine cigar goes through successive stages of flavor development from cold draw to final third. Spend a little time upfront with tasting notes to avoid a discouraging first experience. Then just experiment. While matching takes some patience, it becomes easier over time with a truly decadent experience as your ultimate reward. In the cigar world, there are over 100 wrapper shades identified by manufacturers, but the most common classifications are as follows, from lightest to darkest. We also include some specific tobacco types in the color classifications for their well known flavor characteristics.
Few things are more satisfying, from a palate pleasing point of view, than pairing your favorite cigar with a suitable libation. Some classic pairings with cigars are cognac, single malt whisky, bourbon, rum, rye, and port. With the exception of tequila, most white spirits – such as vodka and gin – do not work as well because the cigar will overpower the drink.
Of course, there are always exceptions. Some red wines and certain beers can also make a great match with cigars. The main criteria is not to let the drink dominate the cigar, or vice versa.
I like to tell people who are pairing drinks with cigars to simply match the body of the beverage to the body of the cigar. For example, a light-bodied cigar will go well with some white wines, young reds or blended scotches. Medium-bodied smokes are great with Speyside and some Lowland whiskies, most Irish whiskeys, rums, bourbons, ryes and ports. Full-bodied smokes are a perfect match with peaty Islay and heavier Highland single malts.
Pairing cigars with wines and spirits is just one part of the equation. Craft beer and even some cocktails can make for great pairings, too. But in the end, your taste is the final judge as to what will work and what won’t when it comes to pairing cigars and spirits. Have fun testing out different smoke and drink combinations and develop your own perfect pairings.
Here are a couple of tips we can share from our experience.
- Bourbon and rum cask matured drams are the easiest to pair with cigars. Vanilla, oak and spices notes tend to find matching flavors with smokes of medium and dark wrapper varieties. A light whisky like the Bunnahabhain 12 year old goes well with a Davidoff Millenium Blend, but also can stand up to a Camacho Select 19th Anniversary. The Balvenie 17 year old Rum Cask is fabulous with a Casa Magna Colorado cigar perfectly defining the vanilla, caramel and spices in both cigar and whisky.
- Medium and dark wrapper cigars also complement Port, Madeira and Bordeaux cask finished single malts, working well with those rich deep dried fruit flavors. The Balvenie 21 year old Portwood and the Ashton VSG are a luxurious combination of earthy, spicy, chocolately flavors. While the Bruichladdich Chateaux Haut-Brion dazzles with a La Aurora Serie 107 Anniversario.
- Sherried drams are often difficult to pair due to the wide variety of flavors and propensity to be very fruity. Look for the darker sherried malts to pair well with dark wrapper cigars. Generally the darker malts go with dark wrapper cigars such as a Glenfarclas 17 year old with a Joya de Nicaragua Antono 1970. A whisky like Auchentoshan 21 year old can easily match the complex flavors of a Partagas Benji Menendez cigar. A lighter whisky like a Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or does well with a lighter cigar like a Rocky Patel Vintage 1999.
- Peaty drams require a strong cigar, such as a maduro to stand up to the power of these whiskies. Maduros typically pull forward more of the creamy, vanilla, chocolate and coffee flavors present in the malt plus the smoke is denser due to the oilier wrapping leaves. Try the classic Ardbeg Uigeadail with a cigar like the Joya de Nicaragua Antano 1970 or an Alec Bradley Prensado to see how this works.
- Briny, medicinal spirits are the hardest to flavor match based on wrapper alone. A peppery cigar often proves to be a good alternate choice. Talisker 10 year old is easily matched with an Ashton San Cristobal or CAO Brazilia Lambada. But in contrast, Lagavulin 16 year old is an amazing partner with a Padron 1964 Anniversary Maduro.
It all comes down to personal preference and palate. A basic understanding of the flavors associated with cigars and single malts will go a long way to making your experimentation more successful. Use this guide but don’t be afraid to try something new. With that said, my grail quest for the perfect paring has lead me to try everything from Cognac to wine, Wiskey to Grapa, and for me nothing goes down smoother, pleases the pallet, washes down the steak, or completes the mood like Bourbon. Much like it’s kin there are several types to try, also from different aging, that always keeps it fresh, but if you are at all like me then you’re going to find a favorite and once you get your pairing, it will be hard to change up. Here are some suggestions for the perfect compliment.
Tasting Cigars and Bourbon
The impeccable bourbon-and-cigar combination is an elusive ideal that enthusiasts have been chasing for years. Look upon that as a happy problem: you can spend years in search of perfection and have outstanding experiences along the way. Now, as these are not listed in any particular order I have to start off with my favorite which is Basil Hayden’s. This is a lighter Bourbon in regards to color and proof (80 proof) than some of the others that we recommend but don’t let that scare you off the flavor is perfect and it is one of the few that I can take neat and not wake up feeling like my head is going to explode the next morning, which is why it is the perfect cigar paring because it doesn’t overwhelm the stick rather works with it to form the perfect complement.
In regards to the history, the name Basil Hayden’s dates back as far as 1796 with respect to whiskey anyway. Basil Hayden Sr. was a distiller who set himself apart from the others by using more rye in his bourbon mash. And his name and likeness carried on when his grandson Raymond Hayden started his own distillery years later with a bourbon labeled Old Grand Dad in honor of his grandfather. It’s a great family history. However, it wasn’t until 1988 that Beam Brands resurrected the Basil Hayden name as part of their small batch bourbon collection.
To forge a trail, we tasted several tandems, using direction from Adam Seger, the director of restaurants at Louisville’s Seelbach Hilton, where the bar features 38 bourbons and often stages cigar pairings. He suggests matching cigars and bourbons of like body strengths. Four Cigar Aficionado senior editors tasted nine bourbons selected to fill a spectrum between light and full flavor, and then smoked four similarly positioned cigars with them. Impressions follow in order of light to full body:
Four Roses The lightest-bodied of the bourbons tasted, Four Roses exhibits honey, anise, walnut and carmel notes, with a slight Scotch-like peatiness. True to expectations, it paired well with the light-bodied Macanudo Prince Philip, as the cigar and bourbonseemed to make each other perform better. A bit more powerful, the Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series Exclusivo tested neutral to negative against the Four Roses, which seemed to mute the cigar’s nutty flavor. Surprisingly, the still fuller-bodied Montecristo No. 2 made a better pairing with the bourbon, enhancing its herbal qualities. The Fuente Fuente OpusX Perfexcion No. 2, perhaps the fullest-bodied of the bunch, clashed with the light whiskey, as the heat on the bourbon’sfinish became pronounced.
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Technically a Tennessee sour-mash whiskey, Jack Daniel’s is nonetheless hard to ignore when tasting bourbons. With its light-bodied smoothness and caramel, orange and wood notes, it fits in well with its Kentucky cousins. Predictably, it also drank very well with the light Macanudo, enhancing some of the cigar’s sweetness and woodiness. The other pairings were not as good. The Padrón clashed with the orange character. The Monty was a neutral partner. The Fuente made the whiskey seem hotter.
Evan William’s Single Barrel Light- to medium-bodied, this smooth bourbon mixes orange, vanilla, and anise flavors with a sweet caramel nose and a long finish. The whiskey seemed to draw out the creamy, spicy sweetness of the Macanudo. It paired even better with the Padrón, the weight of their bodies being more evenly matched. The combination with the Monty was closer to neutral, although some peppery notes seemed to arise. The Fuente overpowered the bourbon.
Blanton’s Single Barrel A sweet, flavorful bourbon with a strong charcoal- and-wood character and hints of pear and anise; its nose is sweet and the finish long. Blanton’s paired extremely well with the Macanudo and the Padrón, which sang with the wood of the bourbon. The Monty reacted badly to the whiskey, but the Blanton’s brought out molasses notes in the Fuente.
Maker’s Mark – (I call it Maker’s on the Mark) A close second to my first choice of Basil Hayden’s, the solidly medium-bodied Maker’s shows orange, vanilla and caramel flavor, with a sweetness informed by molasses and maple sugar. The woody finish is zesty and effervescent. The light Macanudo faltered next to the bourbon, but the other three cigars made a very impressive pairing with Maker’s. The Padrón tasted even sweeter in that context, the Monty balanced well, and the Fuente seemed more leathery and full-bodied.
Woodford Reserve This smooth, sweet bourbon exhibits maple candy, cherry, vanilla and caramel with a meaty character, smacking of peat or tobacco. Dilution with water is recommended to unleash its entire flavor profile. The Woodford overpowered the Macanudo, making it seem papery, but matched well with the other cigars. It showed off the woodiness of the Padrón and brought out the cocoa in the Monty. The Fuente helped the Woodford, but the bourbon had a neutral effect on that cigar.
Booker’s – A high-octane fuel at 125 proof, Booker’s nevertheless has orange, vanilla, leather, pecan, honey and cherry charms that easily stand up to the alcohol. It cries out, however, to be diluted. The Macanudo was overwhelmed by its power and intensity. Booker’s also proved too much for the Padrón. When paired with the Monty, it was at its best, pulling flavors from the cigar that weren’t apparent before. The Fuente weighed in well, with its equal balance of full flavor.
Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve At 20 years old, Van Winkle is the senior citizen of the bunch . Possibly an acquired taste, its preponderance of woody, smoky, almond and cherry tastes are alluring to some, but off-putting to others, who detect a musty, tannic quality. It matched poorly with the Macanudo, easily outrunning the cigar. The Padrón was a neutral partner. With the Monty, it matched well, finding cocoa and cedar qualities previously downplayed in the cigar. The Fuente was a well-balanced match.