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Battle at the Bar

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

(continued from page 2)

SANTA TERESA 1796 RON ANTIGUO DE SOLERA A complex medium-bodied rum that pairs well with cigars from mild to full body. Brings spice, wood and leather to the party. Takes on cream.

HAVANA CLUB ANEJO RESERVA A Cuban rum filled with floral and spicy notes -- tea, cloves, honey, rose, vanilla. Matches well with full-bodied cigars, especially -- as might be expected -- Cubans.

RON ZACAPA CENTENARIO Intense nose of sugar and ginger, followed by a litany of tropical fruits -- lemon, lime, passion fruit, etc. Finish is short, but sweet and strong.


Tradition taps Cognac as the preeminent cigar match. As an addendum to a grand dinner party, the pair is not only an institution, but a clichè of novels, plays and movies. The guests arise ceremoniously from an elegant table, the ladies head for tea in the parlor, the gentlemen for a brandy and a smoke in the drawing room. The plot thickens. And, as it is with so many clichès, this one got to be that way because it is so true or at least can be.

Certainly, timing has much to do with how the pairing evolved. Cognac is a postprandial drink; a cigar after dinner is a necessity. By default, we enjoy the two at the same time. Any other time of the day, the matchup doesn't seem as obvious. You're either not drinking brandy or it's mixed in a cocktail that doesn't suggest a smoking allegiance. Cognac may not be the universal cigar partner, but when the two are introduced correctly it is sublime.

Cognac is the distilled product of fermented grapes (mainly ugni blanc) of a region surrounding the town of Cognac in the district of Charente on the central west coast of France. The wine's charm owes much to the high chalk content in the soil. The distinction Grande Champagne when applied to Cognac reflects the literal meaning of champagne (field) and has nothing to do with the sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne province hundreds of miles away in the northeast except that it comes from a similarly chalky region. The Cognac region is divided into crus that form six roughly concentric circles starting at the center with Grande Champagne, and working out through Petite Champagne to Bois Ordinaires. The closer to the center of the circle, the more prized the wine. The designation "Fine Champagne" indicates brandy made exclusively from the grapes of the Grande and Petite Champagne regions, at least 50 percent of which have to come from Grande Champagne. "Grande Fine" or "Grande Champagne" on the bottle means every grape comes from Grande Champagne. That is not to say that Cognacs without that designation are necessarily inferior. It is a blender's art, and the use of some wines from the region's extremities can serve to round out some of the oldest and greatest brandies.

Oddly, the wine of the region is of poor quality until it is made into brandy, when it becomes royalty. It is the double distillation in pot stills, along with aging in the fine Limousin oak barrels of the region, that gives it its pedigree. First distilled, some 400 years ago, Cognac immediately distinguished itself as superior to most other brandy wines. Then about 200 years later, about the same time spirits makers the world over were discovering the advantages of aging, Cognac makers began using wood from nearby forests to make barrels to store their brandy. The local oak with its loose grain proved so excellent for aging brandy, imparting its signature floral character.

Cognac is most commonly divided into three categories of age: VS, VSOP and XO. While VS stands for "very superior" or "very special," it isn't
particularly. The designation merely indicates at least two years of aging -- a duration that yields a brandy suitable for mixing in cocktails. For the purpose of cigar pairing, however, these brandies usually fall flat, bringing little to the party. The VSOP designation means "very special old pale" and indicates aging of at least four years; it is at this level that the cigar pairing becomes plausible. In particular, mild- and medium-bodied cigars seem to go well with VSOPs. It isn't until the XO ("extra old") level, when a six-and-a-half-year minimum age is required, that the cigar begins to sing its best harmony to Cognac. The age requirement at that level is usually not a very accurate reflection of the high quality of the spirit, as brandies of 30 years, and sometimes as many as 50 can be part of the blend. Fuller-bodied cigars enjoy the charms of such fine Cognac.

A number of Cognacs have been expressly created in recent years for pairing with cigars, such as A. Fussigny Cigare and the Davidoff Cognacs. Among their many attributes is that they provide a fine cigar accompaniment at a price that can be easier on the wallet than the stratospheric prices of many XOs.

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