Battle at the Bar
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Courvoisier XO Exceptionally smooth Fine Champagne Cognac that melds fruit (orange), nuts (cashew), chocolate and caramel into a confection that pairs well with a full range of cigar bodies.
DAVIDOFF The cigarmaker's two Cognacs share a sweet licorice profile. Entry-level Classic is slightly fruity and lacks the body of the Extra, which smacks of nuts, meat and caramel with a fine finish. Both make excellent cigar partners across the board.
HENNESSY The XO is complexity itself: flowers, dried fruit, cream, grapes and almonds. Hennessy Paradis is smoother and downright orchestral: orange, sweet grape, roses, anise, macadamia, coffee, nutmeg, loam; each play harmony and take solos. Pair best with medium cigars.
FRAPIN XO VIP Fresh fruits, herbs and oak define this Grande Champagne Cognac. Bright and clean, it is nonetheless sweet. Smoke with mild- and medium-bodied cigars.
A. DE FUSSIGNY CIGARE BLEND Starts from a graham cracker nose and moves through a candied palette to reach a floral, oaken finish. Pairs best with milder cigars, but will support a wide range.
HINE The Antique, a Fine Champagne, is a balance of honey and maple with leather or saffron and chalk. Smokes medium to full body. Triomphe is a complex dance of subtlety and boldness, delicacy and full body, a Grande Champagne Cognac informed by spice, honey, flowers and toast. Excellent with a big cigar.
LARRESSINGLE XO Rich, sweet floral nose, followed by a complexity of maple sugar and honey with nuts and chocolate on a big round body, but still delicate. Smoke medium- to full-bodied.
TARIQUET 1985 A burst of chewy sweetness with a hint of toasty caramel and a taste of grape and flowers. Slightly, tight black coffee finish. Smoke medium to full-bodied.
1963 ARMAGNAC LAUBADE Faint hint of orange peel is pursued by toasted walnuts, butterscotch and a very floral finish with plenty of taste of the grape. Smoke full-bodied.
The peat bogs of Scotland are where whisky gets its characteristic smoky flavor. The decayed vegetable fuel is what Scotsmen have traditionally used to toast their barley in preparation for fermentation. Amazingly, that first step in the process leaves its mark through fermentation, distillation and years of aging. When a bottle of 21-year-old malt from Islay is uncorked, there is no mistaking the smoking that it went through when it was in but a larval stage. So what better complement for smoke but more smoke?
At least that's how I used to think. That argument, regardless of its tidy logic, does not take into account varying levels of peat, and that compatibility of a malt with a fine cigar often bears no relationship to that level. It was while drinking an unpeated single-malt Scotch that I had this revelation. Despite its lack of peat, the Scotch was running perfectly with the cigar, filling in where its partner left off and becoming greater for its exposure to the cigar's own smokiness, its own lack of smoke flavors notwithstanding. I realized that attributing any one quality to Scotch's tantalizing relationship with cigars would be futile, even counterproductive.
Scotch may be the cigar smoker's biggest challenge. Some 95 different distilleries dot Scotland. They are located in every microclimate the country has to offer. Most distilleries offer several different expressions. On top of that almost every single-malt is used as part of a Scotch blend of which there are hundreds. Add in the vatted malts that are regularly created by whisky alchemists, and you start to see that you will never taste every cigar with every Scotch. That is not a bad thing. It is a testament to the spirit's status as the most varied of the brown goods. As many distinct Scotch flavors exist as there are places in Scotland, and there is cause to drink almost every one of them. They won't all render an inspiring cigar matchup, but you'll have fun finding the ones that do.
While all single-malt Scotch is made from pure barley, the similarities effectively end there. As mentioned above, varying amounts of peat are introduced in the malting process. After a beer is made of the grain, it is refined in a pot still. Each distillery has a distinctly shaped still, and every distiller will argue that his is best for making whisky. The raw spirit goes into an oak barrel for the long sleep that will give it its subtlety. The barrel it is placed in is up to the discretion of the maker. It can be put in a used Bourbon barrel or one that previously held Sherry or a combination of barrels.
Furthermore, whisky varies tremendously depending on where it ages. The country comprises five distinct whisky regions -- Speyside, Lowlands, Highlands, Campbeltown and Islay -- and within those even smaller microclimates impart their own flavors to whisky. It doesn't take much of a palate to discern the difference between a malt that came of age amongst the heather of a cunning little glen in the Highlands and one that had its formative years in the salt spray that washes over Islay on the western coast of Scotland.
Special finishing is a trend that introduces even more diversity to the mix. A whisky that spent 15 years in a Bourbon barrel might get a year or so in a Claret, Port or Madeira cask, all of which further adds to the possibilities of flavor, as well as the cigar-smoking combinations.
Some purists rail at the liberties currently being taken by Scotch makers, but I would argue that the sense of tradition to which they cleave does not exist. Before the 1820s, Scotch whisky was a largely illicit trade, practiced by moonshiners and marketed by smugglers. Any aging that was done was probably by accident. Even when legal changes made it easier to operate in the open, little market existed for Scotch whisky before news of the blends spread to the rest of the world. By this time much of Scotland's timber had been cleared, forcing makers to used discarded barrels from other uses. It wasn't until American Prohibition ended in the 1930s that the Bourbon barrel became the cask of choice. A global market for single-malts as opposed to blends didn't even exist until at least the 1960s. So much for hundreds of years of single-malt tradition.
It is not, however, production methods, but a tenacious character that defines Scotch's fiercest tradition. The Scots adapt their drink to the vicissitudes of history and thereby make a strong match for cigars. Distillers held on through centuries of legal repression. When opportunity knocked in the guise of a grape virus that temporarily wiped out Cognac production, they made hay by capturing the London market that also happens to be one of the most important cigar markets. It is hard to keep a spirit like that down. Taste the spirit.
THE DALMORE CIGAR MALT The Dalmore succeeds at creating a malt for cigars (medium to full body) with a whisky that shows plenty of yeast and peat on the nose, but honey and fruit on the tongue.
THE GLENLIVET ARCHIVE This 21-year-old from the Highland's oldest legal distillery is a crafty serpent of a malt that is all sweetness and flowers on the nose, then shows its wood, peat and cocoa on the tongue. Let it wind its way around a full-bodied smoke.
ARDBEG 10-YEAR-OLD Not chill-filtered like most Scotch, Ardbeg shows plenty of the smoke and iodine of a typical peaty, salt-sprayed Islay malt. Also look for honey and char. Needs a big cigar to stand up to it.
ABERLOUR 15-YEAR-OLD Bourbon casks meet Sherry in this Speyside malt and spin nuts and honey, sweetness and light. Mild- to medium-bodied; best enjoyed with a like-bodied cigar.
BOWMORE Bowmore of Islay is doing some of the most interesting work in the trend of alternative finishes. Dusk adds Claret aging, Voyage is Port-finished, Darkest rests in Sherry casks and Mariner is traditional Bourbon. Smoke with full-bodied.
GLEMROTHES 1987 VINTAGE A core in several great blends, Glenrothes bottles singles as a 12-year-old vintage. This one packs peat smoke, caramel and walnut with an anise finish. Smoke medium to full body.
GLENMORANGIE SINGLE HIGHLAND 15-YEAR-OLD The nose is floral and candied, the flavor bread dough and butterscotch, the finish long and elegant. Finds cocoa on a full-bodied smoke.
MACALLAN GRAN RESERVA 18-YEAR-OLD Sherry-cask aging creates a deep-colored whisky full of maple sugar, rum, wood, toast, macadamia and cashews. Still balanced and intense. Boosts nuts and leather in a full-bodied smoke.
GLENGOYNE SCOTTISH OAK WHISKEY A finish in rare Scottish oak distinguishes this unpeated whisky. The experiment works. Oak, honey, nuts, raisins and chocolate, with licorice and toast finish. Sweetens a cigar.
LAPHORAIG 15-YEAR-OLD A classic Islay with all the iodine and sea spray to prove it. The 15-year-old has honey and oak charms missing in the austere 10-year-old.
GLENFIDDICH SPECIAL RESERVE 12 YEAR OLD The malt that won America. Mainstream, yes, but full of honey, cream and fruit flavors and a whiff of peat. Pair mild to medium.
TALISKER 25 YEAR OLD Peat and sea salt meet honey and fruit in this boomer (near 120 proof) of an Isle of Skye malt. Light up a huge one.
CHIVAS REGAL 18-YEAR-OLD Beguiling floral nose, with tastes of fruit, herbs, spice and candy. Full-bodied cigars add leather and cashews. Royal Salute, the 21-year old, is exquisitely complex.
DEWAR'S SPECIAL RESERVE Dewar's 12-year-old is much fuller than its standard White Label, with peat, honey and maple syrup flavors that make it a much better match for cigars than its little brother.
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