Matching whiskies & cigars
The most well-known spirit and cigar pairings are generally between cognac or the rum associated with Cuban culture. But for many enthusiasts, whisky and cigars represent the perfect union. You need only consider the different origins of tobacco or the numerous cigar vitolas (size and shape), alongside the diversity of Scotch, American and Irish whiskies to see that these two worlds share a high level of complexity. Tasting a cigar alongside a whisky calls on all the senses and there are some superb matches to be made between these two giants of the world of luxury sensory experiences.
What are the main types of cigar?
The word cigar encompasses a wide variety of different qualities of tobacco. The cigars worthy of this name have, since 1989, carried the “hecho totalmente a mano” (made entirely by hand) label. Cigars are the result of the skilful assembly of long tobaccos with complementary properties that can only be carried out by the expert hands of a torcedor (a worker qualified to manufacture cigars, who works by hand with the help of a wooden plank, a pot of resin, a knife (Chaveta) and a guillotine).
Tobaccos from Havana are the most highly reputed, thanks to their earthy, woody aromas and soft or powerful fillers. The Dominican Republic offers light, floral cigars that gain in consistency when combined with strong tobaccos like those produced in Mexico. Connecticut and Camaroon are known for producing beautiful cigar wrappers (capas - the outer leaf that envelops the tripa (or filler) and which is composed of long tobaccos in the capote (binder leaf)). It is not uncommon for one cigar maker to blend tobaccos from various origins in order to gain the perfect balance between all the components. It is even possible to find cigars that are made with 100% Cuban tobacco but which are assembled in the Canary Islands.
There are a multitude of different cigar vitolas that represent a perfect opportunity for a tasting. The most common is the corona (a corona has an average length of 150 mm and a diameter of 17 mm). Their accessible size means that they are suited to all occasions. The double corona is thought of as the tasting cigar. It has a more pronounced aroma because its dimensions (it measures 165 mm in length and 19 mm in diameter) allow the tobaccos to better mix together. The Churchill, which is longer but with the same diameter, is an after-dinner cigar. The most experienced smokers take an hour and a half to enjoy this cigar. The Panatelas, which are more slender than the coronas, bring the tobaccos together in a smaller space, which reduces the complexity of the aromas.
Is there a special art to tasting cigars?
As in all sensory analysis, tasting a cigar involves observation. Though the colour of the capa has little influence on the taste of a cigar, examining it as a first step will provide an indication of the quality of its production. Examining the bouquet and taste of the cigar before it is lit will help you get more intimately acquainted with it. The tasting begins with lighting the “foot”. Smoke is chewed if the cigar has body, but it is never inhaled. The first third of a cigar, which is often lighter, is known as the “hay”. The second third of the cigar is known as the “divine”. All enthusiasts let their cigars go out naturally. The ashes of good cigars hold together admirably and provide evidence of the quality of their manufacturing.
The art of tasting brings whisky and cigar enthusiasts together. Like whisky, cigars that lend themselves to contemplation are the subject of a veritable cult, enjoyed during smoky evenings organised by connoisseur clubs.
Which whiskies go with which cigars?
With the current trend of producing increasingly sweet cigars, it is often a bourbon that pairs best, as its melted woodiness marries as well with the richness of a Cuban cigar as it does with the sweetness of a Dominican.
The great classic matches made with Scottish malts are created by taking into account each of their dominating features. The peaty whiskies of Islay (Caol Ila, Lagavulin) and Skye (Talisker) are perfect for bringing out aromas. More than their smoky notes, it is their saltiness that really makes them a great match for cigars. Speyside malts aged in sherry casks (such as Glenfarclas or Macallan) with bitter and sweet rancio aromas, pair well with most cigars. Their woody roundness, nuanced with notes of dried nuts, goes well with more filling Honduran or Mexican style cigars. We can also pair well-known fine malts with cigars that have spicy and earthy aromas; for example a Bunnahabhain, an iodine and vegetable Islay malt, paired with cigars from Nicaragua and their undergrowth aromas. The herbaceous Lowlands and the more fruity Irish whiskeys can be enjoyed alongside lighter or sweeter cigars, such as those produced in Brazil.
But in the end, what pleases an enthusiast most is the discovery of individual unions that only their personal experience can guide.
Cigar smokers often remark that their vitalos suffer from irregularities. The enthusiasm for cigars has led to overproduction. In the same way, whisky enthusiasts might remark that their favourite malt has lost its character since it began being bottled at 40% instead of 43%. Any enthusiast in search of excellence should also turn to the advice of specialists (tobacconists for cigars or specialist retailers for whiskies) that don’t simply go by the label and who will be able to direct enthusiasts to a brand of cigar or a bottling that is more oriented towards quality than marketing.