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Cigar Advisor Drink-n’-Smoke: Cigar Pairings for the Whiskey Explorers Club Spring 2016 Edition

By John Pullo Managing Editor for Cigar Advisor and FWL Contributing Editor

Mature and sophisticated single malt seeks down-to-earth FWB that appreciates the finer things to go with the flow. Me: social, but equally happy at home for quiet Netflix night or on the patio with friends. You: sense of humor, willing to try new things. Vegetarians ok, but don’t lecture me about it. No strings, but ok if it leads to more. Your pic/number get mine.

That would be the personal ad your whisky would write. It’s looking for a soul mate; and judging by the view over here in the cigar world, there are plenty of fish in the sea, as they say.

ForWhiskeyLovers who enjoy the occasional cigar, that’s mouthwatering news – but let’s go back and revisit the basics.

Look, it’s no secret that whiskey and cigars go together like bacon and eggs. But like mushrooms to Pink Floyd records or Jake to the Fatman, it’s their chemistry – timing, support, interplay, responsiveness – that really counts. We’ll assume you don’t appreciate the character of your preferred whiskey to be typecast (“they’re all the same,” a friend has surely remarked)…well, it turns out there is just as much variety in the premium cigar universe, making some pairs substantially better than others. For instance: we know that Irish whiskey usually has a distinctly lighter, less smoky flavor thanks to extra distillation – in contrast to Scotch whisky, anyway. A milder cigar, probably of Dominican origin, would pair better than a flamethrowing pepper bomb from Nicaragua. Nicaraguan tobaccos tend to be heartier and more robust, and would dominate the flavors in the drink; because Dominican cigars tend to be more mild-medium and smooth, they’re a closer jumping-off point to finding your Irish dram’s love connection.

Knowing which cigar will best complement your whiskey does not demand Chuck Woolery-level matchmaking skills, but knowing a little bit about each of the parties involved will help. And to do that, let’s give the Giant Cigar Flavor Wheel a spin…

In general (noting of course, that like whiskey, there are always some exceptions):

Dominican cigars, as discussed, tend to favor restraint over robust and finesse over force. They’re often hailed as “more refined.” Think Davidoff.

Honduran cigars usually lean more medium to full bodied, with a series of flavors that smoke thinner - but often laced with spice, a la Punch and Rocky Patel cigars.

Nicaraguan cigars are often medium- to full-bodied, with an extra kick. Pepper and spice notes abound, as do complex flavors – Padron, Perdomo, My Father and Liga Privada are but 4 great examples.

Of course, there are wild cards that can alter the profile of the cigar – including, but not limited to, size and shape; the mix of core tobaccos, and where they were grown; how the tobaccos were aged; the type of leaf used for the wrapper (there are no fewer than a dozen excellent choices, and subsequent variations of each)…the list goes on and on, which means yes – you can end up with a mild Nicaraguan, or a full, rich and spicy Dominican.

Sound like some whiskeys you know?

If you played the March edition of the My Whiskey IQ game here at ForWhiskeyLovers, you actually got to try 4 of them. Might I add that it’s a pretty ingenious setup that couples the blind tasting concept we often use in Cigarlandia (we use a flavor wheel, too), but compares/contrasts your notes and responses to experts in the whiskey tasting field. Might I also add…that I sucked at it. It’s not surprising, as my journey into whiskey is relatively young: my previous “tasting” notes and sensations were typically limited to I hate it and I like it. Bearing in mind that it took a good 3 years or more to develop a reasonable ability to separate and identify the different flavors in a cigar, I at least have a point of reference to use when it comes to tasting; but it’s something I can work to improve upon when the next batch arrives.

So as for those 4 whiskeys…if you haven’t played yet, or perhaps didn’t finish the game – I won’t give away the identities of the selections in the explorers Club box. We’re looking at 1115A, 1115B, 1115C and 1115D – and we’re going to try to pair a couple of cigars with them so that, if you have the opportunity to partake of these whiskeys again, you have a couple of stogies riding shotgun that will help you go level up on your experience.

All I’ll say here is that it turns out that 1115A is a rye. The pros indicated some of the following tasting notes: nutty and fatty, with significant toffee notes. A mouthful lingers with a medium and peppery finish (THAT I got right); that being said, I’d start looking at some mild-medium cigars first that play off of those sweeter notes. Sticks clad in a maduro wrapper tend to lean in this direction, thanks to the natural sweetness brought out by the extra fermentation given to the leaf. Try these:

  • Rocky Patel 20th Anniversary: not a maduro, but the mellow floral notes in both play nice together without dominating, and very light on the spice. It’s very refined Rocky, with a silky Honduran wrapper doing a ton of lift in the flavor department.
  • CLE Plus 2015: a safe bet due to it’s full flavor, medium-full body and for it being packed with Corojo, producing sweet and earthy flavors. There’s also some tea, cream, dark coffee and raisin that make things interesting.
  • Ashton Aged Maduro: if money is no object, try this Fuente-made maduro. Connecticut broadleaf covers a blend of rare Dominican tobaccos for dark, sweet flavors. Very smooth, very aromatic.
  • Montecristo Relentless: sports a Connecticut leaf grown in Ecuador, which makes this Dominican a little headier; it’s complex for sure, but doesn’t overpower. Nicaraguan, Brazilian and Mexican tobaccos round out a blend that should complement that sweet/spic mix nicely.

A BIG whiskey to be sure, 1115B shows off some single malt flashes of brilliance, while still maintaining balance. It’s touted as spicy, with vanillas, nutmeg and honey on a lingering finish; I found some sweet elements in there too, that kind of flew under the radar. Whether or not you get those too, I think they’ll be helpful in picking a companion smoke that’s just as round. There’s a just-right spice that opens the eyes – so for something this sizeably flavorful, go bold and full bodied with a pairing that will stand up to it:

  • La Gloria Cubana Serie RF: a hearty mix of Dominican and Nicaraguan ligeros, it’s proportioned nicely and would pair well with a refined drink like this. Think rich, sweet and spicy.
  • Oliva Serie V Melanio: this is a potent cigar; it’s also wickedly flavorful, due to a heaping dose of high-priming leaves in the all-Nicaraguan blend. Surprise: for as robust as Melanio is, it’s very smooth. Nuanced, even.
  • My Father Le Bijou 1922: if you do this one, do the torpedo – the #1 cigar of the year – because the shape helps to channel the full bodied flavors to the palate through the smaller opening. Well-aged tobaccos start with a sweet and creamy taste, then open up to bold spice and natural tobacco flavors.
  • Liga Privada T-52: a personal favorite, the T-52 is one of Drew Estate’s most flavorful. It’s zesty and complex (think spice, nutmeg, espresso), with an oily Oscuro wrapper that teems with creamy and woody flavors.

A surprisingly affordable single malt, the pros say it’s light in body with a slight sweetness rounded by oak and malt; I agree with the sweetness, but it really opened up with wicked good cedar sensations. But who am I to argue? The oily body of this whiskey would actually do well with a medium body cigar, and things would really get interesting with a stick clad in a sun grown wrapper: they tend to be more citrusy, helping to bring out the dried fruit and herbal flavors. They also play a very effective yin to the spicy/peppery yang in this dram.  No matter who you believe, it’s a consensus on the finish: lingering pepper, and a bunch of it. It is exceedingly complex – so try one of these:

  • Perdomo 20th Anniversary Sun Grown: Perdomo starts with well-aged tobaccos, fermenting them an additional year-plus in bourbon barrels to achieve an extra-smooth taste. Outstanding citrus notes and medium in body, it should do well against the oak and malt. 
  • Avo Heritage: quite hearty as Dominicans go, it’s the Ecuadorian sun grown outer leaf that brings fuller flavor to Avo’s typically creamy and smooth profile. Also complex – so planet of flavors to work with, if you pace yourself smoking it.
  • Davidoff Escurio: Davidoff killed it with this full-bodied mix of Dominican and Brazilian tobaccos, making a cigar that features many twists between the start and the finish.
  • Oliva Baptiste: this Oliva relies less on the pepper, and more on earth and spice notes to complement the cedary, coffee-rich flavors of the Nicaraguan tobacco inside. Surprisingly decadent.

One of the more interesting whiskeys I’ve tasted in a long, long time; to my surprise, it turned out 1115D was a far-from-ordinary bourbon. Mouthwatering, luscious, savory are all words that come to mind, triggering a Pavlovian response similar to hearing a thick Porterhouse hit the grill. Ahhhhh….a drying sensation on the finish, but chock full of fresh and snappy flavors: citrus, licorice, spice and pepper, all masked in a creamy (and somewhat chocolaty) outer layer. It’s a very fragrant drink, with some notes that I’d call “vegetal” in cigar flavor parlance, but for lack of any better or more accurate terms – it’s just…fat. I can’t come up with another word for it. Fat. Play up the char notes, add some spice to some the luscious character:

  • Camacho American Barrel Aged: hearty, with a 6-year aged Corojo longfiller – but a little more naturally sweet thanks to a Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper aged 5 months in Kentucky Bourbon barrels. Scrumptious is a word to use here.
  • Drew estate MUWAT Kentucky Fire Cured: with a twist of American fire-cured tobaccos from Virginia and Kentucky, this one’s thick in hickory and maple smoke flavors that’s really unlike anything else you’ll smoke. Go into this pairing with an open mind, as the fire cured leaf will either make or break for you. If you don’t feel ambitious, try the Liga Undercrown Shade instead.
  • Four Kicks Black Belt Buckle: it’s spicy up front thanks to a full-bodied, all-Nicaraguan core, but the Connecticut broadleaf maduro wrapper does wonders in adding a dark, sweet and savory note to settle it down. Should do the same to those snappy flavors I mentioned.
  • Romeo y Julieta House of Montague: rich, hearty and dark via a 3-nation blend; clad in Brazilian Arapiraca the Montague smokes with ample flavor – though only slightly sweet. That dark element should do you well if you’re sensing this bourbon’s creaminess.

Here’s the catch: there are probably twenty more cigars that would pair great with each of the four whiskeys that came in the last blind tasting pack. So with no shortage of cigar selections, that means you have plenty to play around with. Feel free to stray away from the ideas I’ve suggested above, but do it with these two important takeaways…(1) match the whiskey’s body to that of the cigar, so that each can stand up to the other; and (2) don’t overload on one flavor.

Try new things – experimentation is the key to enjoyment, after all. And try Famous Smoke’s Cigar & Spirit Pairing Guide here.