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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:

Rum

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.

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.

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.

Cognac

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.

While Cognac is the best known, traditional brandy for cigars, it would be a shame to ignore Armagnac, its French cousin to the south, and the burgeoning brandies of California. Armagnac enjoys a longer tradition than Cognac, but has suffered from marketing failures in America. Its chief differences come from the preponderance of sand in the soil and its method of distillation. A single run is made in a special still that allows it to retain more of the raw qualities of the grape. The best California brandy makers are quickly catching up to their French counterparts by adhering to the traditional methods of grape selection, distillation and Limousin oak aging.

When you find yourself partaking in the brandy-and-cigar tradition, note that one part of the clichè may be erroneous. Most connoisseurs do not use the huge, ball-shaped brandy snifter, but prefer a smaller tulip-shaped glass that concentrates the aroma rather than asphyxiating you with it. The former shape is probably a holdover from the days when room temperatures were so cold it was necessary to warm the drink in your hand. Whatever glass you have, try some of the following brandies with your favorite cigar.

COGNACS

MARTELL XO Supreme balance in a Cognac that combines flowers, anise, bread dough, walnuts and candy. Pairs best with mild to medium cigars, but won't wither with a full.

REMY MARTIN XO Range of complementing flavors in a Fine Champagne Cognac. Orange peel meets sweet cream, exhibiting vanilla and oak in an elegant mixture. Pairs well with cigars from medium body to full.

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.

ARMAGNACS

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.

Scotch

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.

SINGLE MALTS

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.

BLENDS

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.

THE FAMOUS GROUSE GOLD RESERVE This 12-year-old Grouse has additional complexity and a stronger role for malts. Tastes of honey, rum, burnt nuts and French bread. Smoke medium to full body.

JOHNNIE WALKER Lack of an age statement belies the maturity of the Blue Label. Fruit and honey harmonize with wood, salt and peat. Pair full-bodied. The 18-year-old Gold Label isn't as complex or peaty, but makes up for it with a chewy, toasty, nutty character. Pair medium to full. Twelve-year-old Black Label pairs mild to medium.

CUTTY SARK A bright whisky, created for light tastes. Floral nose with a hint of sour wine. Peaty on the palate with chewy bread dough and almost no sweetness. Pair mild to medium.

Bourbon

Bourbon lacks a convenient niche by which to claim a strong cigar affinity. It's not made side by side with fine cigars like rum. (Bourbon's birthplace, Kentucky, is famous for cigarettes). It doesn't have Cognac's tradition of being sipped at elegant affairs. (Bourbon is associated with card games and horse races.) It doesn't get peat-smoked, aged for 25 years and feted in the parlors of London like Scotch. (Bourbon gets no smoke; 10 years is pretty old by its standards; until recently, a call for Bourbon in an English bar would get a glassy stare.)

No, nothing seems to argue in favor of Bourbon -- except the taste buds. The sweet, woody, creamy spirit which is Bourbon just seems to pair well with a wide range of cigars. When you scratch the surface of how the whiskey is made, this begins to makes a lot more sense.

First of all, distilling tradition is a great part of the end product. Eighteenth-century Scotch and Irish immigrants to America brought their stills and know-how with them. Eventually many headed west to Kentucky. When they arrived, they added a key component to any successful cigar/spirit interaction: sweetness. Without abundant barley and rye, they made whiskey with the local grain, corn, a far sweeter ingredient. The water was naturally filtered by a great limestone shelf.

Second, folklore tells us that serendipity added the next integral part of the formula. A Baptist minister who dabbled in distilling was cleaning a barrel with kerosene, the story goes, when it caught on fire. He doused the fire and used the cask anyway. He discovered that the charring of the inside brought out the charms of the wood much faster than normal aging. A tradition was born. Significantly, the aging was being done in Kentucky, where sweltering summers expand the whiskey into the layer of wood char, and chilly winters draw it together with the attendant flavors, back into the barrel. That explains the dearth of superannuated Bourbons.

If I were posed the same conundrum as mentioned in the section under rum -- blindfolded at a bar with a cigar and asked to make a house call based on type of spirit -- I'd make mine Bourbon.Why? Because it is the most consistent of brown goods. First, it is made in a small area of Kentucky that offers much the same climatic conditions throughout. Second, strict legal boundaries define how straight Bourbon whiskey may be made: the grain formula, or mash bill, must be corn rich (more than 50 percent, barley and rye or wheat make up the rest); distillation can be no greater than 160 proof (usually it's much lower), which insures retention of flavor from the grains, and the product must be aged a minimum of two years. (If it isn't at least four years old the label must say so, but practically none do.) Furthermore, aging must be done in new charred, white oak barrels. (The stipulation that they must be new explains why so many used barrels make their way into other uses.) And nothing but water can be added to the final product when it goes into the bottle. Both Cognac and Scotch makers can color their spirit, and rum can be flavored. Bourbon is pretty much what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

Despite the bad reputation Bourbon suffered after Prohibition (it took years to get quality products back on the shelf), Bourbon makers in the last two decades have taken a page from the Scotch makers. They have worked hard to create products that show their artistry at its utmost and most interesting levels. Small-batch and single-barrel Bourbons are part of this revolution. Most are very good with a cigar.

We would be remiss in not mentioning Bourbon's two American cousins, rye and Tennessee sour mash whiskey. The former has a longer tradition in this country than Bourbon. Settlers in Maryland and Pennsylvania found it easy to grow rye and made whiskey rich in that grain before they ever thought of corn liquor. With rye composing more than half its mash bill, it has a spicier, grainier complexion with subtleties that often enhance the enjoyment of a milder cigar. Tennessee sour mash whiskey is the category into which Jack Daniel's falls. Even though it shares most of the characteristics of a Bourbon and is often mistaken for one, Jack Daniel's (along with its lesser known neighbor George Dickel) is differentiated by its mellowing charcoal filtering. All of the above share the legal stipulations of straight whiskey, making them consistently great cigar accompaniments. Enjoy the whiskey patriotism.

WOODFORD RESERVE Made from the "honey barrels" of Brown-Forman's Old Forester, this whiskey is a confection of maple sugar, cherry, vanilla and caramel, tempered with meat and smoke. Smoke full bodied.

BOOKER'S TRUE BARREL Unfiltered and uncut, it's about 125 proof, and loaded with orange, leather, vanilla, nuts and honey. Sublime with a big cigar, death to the mild.

KNOB CREEK The anchor of Jim Beam's Small Batch collection, Knob is creamy and informed by vanilla, maple and caramel with a hint of orange. Invites a wider range of cigars than big brother Booker.

WILD TURKEY Hard to choose between WT's excellent superpremium range-Rare Breed (floral with caramel, orange, licorice and maple), Kentucky Spirit (as candied, but meater) and Russell's Reserve (the spicier offering) -- so we won't. Smoke medium to full.

BLANTON'S SINGLE BARREL The original single-barrel Bourbon, Blanton's paints a wide swath between fruity pear flavor to strong woods and a touch of grittiness. Finds a range of good cigar matches.

MAKER'S MARK Maple sweet, orange and vanilla flavored and solidly medium bodied. Pairs well with a wide range of cigars.

EVAN WILLIAMS SINGLE BARREL VINTAGE 1992 Vintage concept brings yearly variations within a medium-bodied profile. This last bottling is stronger in spice, but still sweet with orange and maple.

JACK DANIEL'S SINGLE BARREL A Tennessee sour mash whiskey, Jack Daniel's is filtered through charcoal, leaving it with orange and caramel notes and no rough edges. Exceptional with milder cigars.

OLD OVERHOLT RYE Inexpensive straightforward rye with nutmeg/
vanilla sweetness and a toasty balance. Good all-around cigar partner.

OLD RIP VAN WINKLE OLD TIME RYE A 12-year-old with oaken, yeasty flavor, as well as butter and olive oil. Pair medium to full.

SAZERAC KENTUCKY STRAIGHT RYE WHISKEY At 18 years, smooth and honeyed, with Cognac character and minty, eucalyptus spice. Full-bodied leathery cigars pair best.

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