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Battle at the Bar

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

(continued from page 1)

Consider also what rum is made from: sugar. Sweetness goes with smoke like chocolate goes with salty nuts. The competing tastes complement each other perfectly, the first taking the tart edge off the other, while the second reins in its partner's tendency to cloy. Rums needn't be especially old to confer that inherent sweetness because the spirit matures quickly when aged, as it so often is, in hot climates. Rum is already relatively cheap because it's generally produced where costs are low. This is a cigar-friendly drink with a lot of bang for the buck.

That said, flaws exist in the argument. Not all rum is made in the Caribbean, or in the tropics for that matter. While cane is certainly tropical, it is often shipped to remote locations in the form of molasses to be fermented and distilled in industrial environments, losing any hope of retaining local flavor. And while some rums soar to great heights, the lack of any official quality standards results in products that span a range from rot gut to the sublime. Rum can be distilled at the hottest proofs or can be artificially flavored. It doesn't have to be aged and, when it is, its stated age can merely be an average instead of the age of the youngest spirit in the blend as with other brown goods. Ingredients vary -- pure cane or molasses -- and rum can be pot-stilled, column-stilled or a blend of the two. Your enjoyment of a particular quaff will depend greatly on which of these qualities you prefer.

Furthermore, today's cigarmaker isn't as apt to limit his drinking to just rum. As the world gets smaller, other spirits are available in remote regions. We know cigarmakers who lay in supplies of fine Scotches, Cognacs and wine at their backwater farms. So maybe he's not rolling for rum, as it were. Likewise, tobacco isn't all grown or rolled in the Caribbean or Central America. The Connecticut River Valley in the dead of winter is about as un-tropical as you can get.

If you were to blindfold me at the bar with a cigar in mouth and ask me to choose a house-call spirit, it wouldn't be rum. Rum at its worst -- hot, raw and full of fusel oil -- is the cigar's worst enemy. It will find any rough spot in the smoke and exacerbate it until you wish you weren't having either. But put me on a palm-filled beach at sunset with a great cigar and any of the following rums and I am in paradise.

BACARDI * A lush mixture of vanilla, caramel and licorice with an elegant complexity and a delicate finish. Especially good with full-bodied cigars. Sweetness may overpower lighter fare.

ANIVERSARIO PAMPERO Extreme finesse tempers an explosion of sugar (honey) and spice (ginger, cloves, cinnamon and tea). Seeks out leather and chocolate in a cigar and endeavors to accentuate them.

APPLETON ESTATE DISTILLED 21-YEAR-OLD A nose full of vanilla, oak and butterscotch followed by sweet wood, walnuts and licorice. Sweetness fills rough spots in a cigar and coaxes out wood.

MONTECRISTO RUM 12 YEAR AGED Molasses sweet with maple sugar and vanilla and a ginger finish. Developed by the cigar retailers the Frey Boys, it pairs well with a wide variety of smokes.

MOUNT GAY EXTRA OLD Vanilla, citrus and ginger in a straightforward medium-bodied rum. Pairs well with like-bodied cigars and finds surprising synergies.

RHUM BARBANCOURT ESTATE RESERVE A profusion of coconut, cream and honeysuckle, but contains a slight fusel oil taste as a by-product of the pot still. The right cigar turns it to flowers and spice.

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