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Las Vegas Big Smoke

Bourbon and Cigars
Michael Marsh
Posted: November 17, 2004
It was the last seminar of the Las Vegas Big Smoke Weekend and as it turned out, it was also one of the sauciest. As the crowd filed in, it was clear that they were ready to pair cigars and spirits and cleanse their palates with some of the finest and tastiest Bourbon available.

Always one for a whiskey tasting himself, Jack Bettridge, the senior features editor and spirits writer at Cigar Aficionado, was more than happy to oblige the thirsty crowd with his knowledge and well-researched lineup of whiskey. And I mean well researched. Like a cigarmaker who mixes and matches tobacco for the perfect blend for his cigars, Bettridge had sipped and savored his way through a long list of Bourbon (quite possibly the entire list) until he had a roster that would make even a teetotaler's mouth water: Maker's Mark, Evan Williams Single Barrel, Woodford Reserve and Jim Beam Black.

To round out the tasting, C.A.O. International Inc. provided the audience with two cigars: the C.A.O. Criollo Mancha and the MX2 Toro. The Criollo, manufactured in Estelí, Nicaragua, measures 5/ 5/8 inches by 46 ring gauge and features all-Nicaraguan tobacco. The MX2, manufactured in Danlí, Honduras, measures 6 by 54 with a Connecticut broadleaf wrapper, a Brazilian binder and a blend of Nicaraguan, Dominican, Honduran and Peruvian filler tobacco.

"Bourbon!" exclaimed Bettridge at the onset as the crowd broke into applause. "Back by popular demand." And indeed it was. It had been four years since the last Bourbon tasting at the Big Smoke, and after last year's blended Scotch tasting, Bettridge polled the crowd to see what they wanted at the 2004 Big Smoke. Bourbon was the unanimous decision, so Bourbon it was.

Bettridge began by giving the audience a Bourbon 101 course, which included the history of Bourbon, as well as the laws, processes and techniques that must be adhered to when distilling it. Understanding that most of the audience was eager to start tasting, Bettridge acknowledged that going through the history was sort of like waiting through "the warm-up band for the Rolling Stones," but also noted how it was important in understanding Bourbon.

After a brief history, Bettridge discussed what makes Bourbon Bourbon. First, the mash bill -- the blend of grains used to make the beer that will be distilled -- has to be at least 51 percent corn. Second, that once it has been distilled and barreled, the spirit must be aged at least four years, and if it isn't, that fact must be noted on the label. Third, the barrels used to age whiskey must be made of new charred American oak and they can be used only once.

Bettridge then addressed the notion that because there are such strict regulations on Bourbon, many people tend to think that all Bourbons are the same. "So why are we drinking four Bourbons today?" Bettridge asked. "Because we want to!" Then in a more serious tone, he explained that with the mash bills varying from Bourbon to Bourbon, and with aging, there are definitely a variety of flavor profiles that different brands offer.

With that, the tasting began. The audience lit the MX2 and tasted the Maker's Mark first, followed by Evan Williams, Woodford Reserve and Jim Beam Black. "When you're pairing cigars with whiskey," said Bettridge, "it's all about the synergy between the two." Without a doubt the synergy was there, as the whiskey and the cigar both complemented each other. In the end, however, the audience voted the Woodford Reserve as the best match.

Next up was the C.A.O. Criollo, a medium- to full-bodied cigar with woody, earthy flavors. Like the MX2, the audience preferred the Woodford Reserve with the Criollo, which they agreed helped balance the cigar and add a spicy, woody element to the finish.

Guests had the chance to taste and pair four brands of Bourbon with two C.A.O. cigars.
Throughout the seminar, Bettridge was peppered with questions ranging from where Bourbon takes its name to how the wax cap on a Maker's Mark bottle came to be. There was also discussion on differences between pot-stilled and column-stilled Bourbon, as well as single-barrel and small-batch Bourbon. One highlight was when Bettridge was asked if the Bourbon industry was concerned about the rumor of a shortage of American oak trees used for barrels. Bettridge replied, "Don't ever say that again," while several members of the audience hissed and one was even heard yelling, "Down in front!"

Overall, it was a high-proofed session with great Bourbon and great cigars, not to mention informative and tasty. If anyone had any doubts that people liked the whiskey that was poured, all they needed to see was Bettridge get bum-rushed when he started handing out the extras. The spirits editor was swarmed as if he were Mick Jagger handing out free backstage passes. Backstage passes they weren't. More like the elixir of life with an American whiskey kick.

Click here to go back to, Real Man's Breakfast.

Photos by Camilla Sjodin and Jeff Scheid

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