Though Purists May Shudder, France's Premier Brandy Mixes with the Cocktail Crowd
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Bernard Hine says that he and Nicholas Freeman, chairman of London cigar importer Hunters & Frankau, "smoked a lot of cigars and drank a lot of Cognac" before they came up with Hine Cigar Reserve Cognac. In the end they took a middle-of-the-road approach. "There is no perfect match," Hine says. "We wanted something between a VSOP and XO Cognac that would have the body to go with most cigars in the $8 to $12 range."
Cognac Gautier sent several Cognacs to Cuban cigarmakers to taste and give feedback. Four blends were created based on their responses. All of the cigarmakers blind-tasted the blends and agreed on the same blend. "They liked the full-bodied quality of our Cognac with Cuban cigars that have power and length without the bite," said Philippe Biais, a spokesman for Gautier. "We also tried the blend with a mild Macanudo and we agreed it worked, too."
But are these cigar Cognacs really better with cigars than, say, your basic XO Cognac? To find out, we puffed on three different cigars--a mild Macanudo Hyde Park, a medium-bodied, three-year-old Don Carlos Robusto and a full-flavored Cuban Cohiba--in between sips of 11 Cognacs. In addition to specific cigar Cognacs--Pinar del Rio ($80), Hine Cigar Reserve Cognac ($80), Pierre Ferrand Cigare Blend Reserve Havana ($70), A. de Fussigny Cigare Blend ($100) and two from Davidoff, Classic ($55) and Extra ($180)--we sampled the Cigar Blend from Germain-Robin ($90), the California alambic brandy many think is the equal of top Cognacs, and XO Cognacs from Martell ($125), Courvoisier ($100), Rémy Martin ($120) and Hennessy ($115).
Our biggest surprise was that the Big Four XO Cognacs held up remarkably well to the entire range of cigars. In retrospect, this made sense because Cognacs blended specifically to accompany cigars usually contain XO-quality Cognacs, ones with sufficient age to develop the cigar-friendly rancio traits. One taster thought the Rémy Martin complemented the medium cigar best, exhibiting lots of crème brulee and vanilla flavors, while I thought the Rémy's richness and spice matched nicely with the full-bodied cigar. Similarly, Hennessy got a vote for the best Cognac with medium cigars, though I liked it with lighter and more full-bodied ones. The sweetness and fruitiness of Martell was more attuned to lighter cigars. And the Courvoisier showed an evenness with all three cigars.
Among cigar-tailored Cognacs, we determined Davidoff Extra fared best with all three types of cigars, though oddly, it didn't light up the sky with any one in particular. We just felt that if you're going to buy one Cognac for a range of cigars, this is it. A close second was the elegantly packaged Pinar del Rio. Within specific categories, Fussigny's nutty nose and Hine's harmonious balance went particularly well with the mild cigar. But the spice elements of Hine also matched nicely with the medium cigar. Pierre Ferrand's earth and leather qualities paired well with the full-bodied cigar.
Two cigar blends did not measure up, primarily because they didn't have sufficient age. The Davidoff Classic was merely an echo of the Extra. And while the Germain-Robin had glorious fruit, it was the youngest brandy in the group at 11 years old. --S.G.