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Battle at the Bar

Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
10th Anniversary Issue, Nov/Dec 02

"What is the best drink with a fine cigar?" is probably the question I field most as an editor of Cigar Aficionado, especially since I do much of the spirits writing in the magazine and on the Web site. "When I reply, "Cognac, of course," -- an inadequate answer at best -- I am immediately drawn into a trap. Inevitably, the other guy prefers single-malt Scotch and wants to argue about it. Since I don't really believe it's Cognac -- at least not all of the time -- I don't answer that way.

Instead, I usually go into some long-winded discourse that is a sure cure to insomnia and never get to the main point that I would like to make most. To wit: I don't want to know what the best cigar and spirit pairing is. Then I'd have to quit sampling. Without boxing myself in, I can, however, make some generalities about which pairings work better than others (I have learned something in all these years). While it may seem axiomatic that the drink bone is connected to the smoke bone, it is my contention that some drinks offer more connective tissue.

When choosing a spirit to go with a cigar, I select in much the same way as a sommelier pairs wine with food: considering the relative flavor weights. A cigar is a pretty hefty experience. Therefore it deserves a weighty drink to go with it. The years that brown spirits spend in oak impart weighty flavors that sing harmony to most cigars. If you prefer wine, beer, vodka, gin or a cocktail with a cigar -- or that's all you have at the moment -- by all means, bottoms up. But for present purposes, I will restrict my musings to whiskey, aged rum and brandy.

Matching body weight is a convenient rule. It seems logical that a full-bodied cigar should go well with a full-bodied drink, and a mild-bodied cigar with a mild-bodied drink. After all, a big cigar will heat up the finish on a light spirit; a full-bodied spirit will overwhelm a light cigar. Two problems persist with this rule, however. First, like all generalizations, it's not always true. We've been pleasantly surprised in pairings when a big, ballsy cigar made a great partner for a light whiskey and vice versa. Second, it's a rule that's more useful for avoiding mistakes than for identifying sublime marriages.

Truly great pairings come when complex flavors within a cigar and a spirit create synergy -- that is, attributes that were not evident come to the forefront. A dull cigar suddenly smacks of cocoa; whiskey tastes of orange peel. Both cigar and spirit develop a nuttiness where it previously hadn't been. Predicting or pinpointing the causes behind such good fortune is harder than simply matching body weights. A spicy, salty cigar might soar when paired with a sweeter spirit because the tastes complement and create overtones of toast or nuts. But other pairings work because like flavors meet: a woody cigar with a smoky Scotch, for instance. Then again, chocolate and leathery-sweet cigars match well with sweet Bourbons and rums. Furthermore, a great spirit can tame a slightly savage cigar as when acid turns to flowers in the company of grand old Cognac.

So each of the classic cigar-pairing spirits -- rum, Cognac, Scotch and Bourbon -- has its own grounds on which it might claim drinking hegemony. This is how I'd argue each one's case:


Geography provides rum's claim to perfect partnership with cigars. The raw materials for each product -- sugar cane and tobacco -- grow in similar climates, sometimes very close to each other. If you apply to spirits and cigars the concept of regional affinity that is so often used in pairing wine and food -- that is, you expect local produce to match well with local wines -- rum with a smoke is a natural marriage.

It's hard to argue that the enjoyment of both won't be enhanced when lounging in a tropical setting. Easy climate and laid-back culture meld to create the mood that brings one to a smoke and a drink in the first place. It is similarly difficult to deny that Cuba, a place that grows both cigar tobacco and sugar cane, once made the best cigars and rum in the world. And they went together quite nicely, thank you.

Even if you don't buy the idea that a particular environment can imply an organic synergy on all that grows there, a certain logic applies to the proximity of production and its effect on rum and cigars. Traditionally, Caribbean cigarmakers have been rum drinkers because that was the spirit made where they worked. Similarly, rum men smoked cigars due to their availability and place in the culture. They enjoyed the pleasures simultaneously and, consciously or not, created their respective concoctions to go with the other. You don't smoke cigars and create a spirit that is at odds with it. You don't drink rum and roll cigars to be smoked with white wine.

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