A tasting of hyperpremium Cognacs in the Good Life Guide of the newest issue of Cigar Aficionado (April 2014) reminds us what a top-drawer pour brandy can be in the face of the many new and special whiskies that seem to spew out regularly.
What we didn't have room to explore was the time-proven classic of pairing cigars with Cognac, typically enjoyed after dinner in a plush drawing room, "Downton-Abbey" style. This week's matchup attempts to right that with a meeting of Hennessy's latest extension of its lofty Paradis Extra, mentioned in print: Paradis Impérial. The setting may not have been up to snuff, but the tasting certainly was.
First introduced in 2011, but now available in the United States, Impérial blends nineteenth and twentieth examples of the eaux-de-vie kept in its paradis (storehouse of special reserves). Hennessy is the largest of the Cognac houses with many fine examples to choose from. Originally singled out for development right after distillation, these eaux-de-vie have been waiting between 30 and 130 years for inclusion in Impérial (those numbers don't reflect cask age as the liquid is often transferred to glass demijohns for storage, preventing further wood maturation.)
Meant to commemorate a special order made by the dowager empress of Russia, Sophie Dorothea, in 1818 for her son Tsar Alexander I, it comes at a nose-bleed price with packaging to match. Stéphanie Balini, the accomplished designer known for her collaborations with Baccarat, created the bottle, which is based on the Paradis decanter and includes an 18-carat gold and silver collar.
An expression such as this deserves an introduction to a very special cigar.
(Cigar pairings on next page)
Hennessy Paradis Impérial (80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; about $2,700 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Rich amber color. Thick legs come down at a snail's pace.
NOSE: On the aroma, this brandy advertises the complexity which to come. You get flowers, fruit, honey, nuts, savoriness and spice in discrete parcels. It's tempting to get lost in this nose and almost forget to forge onward to the palate as you try to distinguish vanilla from caramel, dried fruit from citrus. Soldier on.
PALATE: Interestingly, the spice (licorice, cinnamon) fly out before the floral and fruity notes that you expect first on the tip tongue. Announcing itself in this bold manner, it backtracks to the sweeter aspects that include that include jasmine and roses, tangerine passion fruit and orange. Then come the barrel flavors, with caramel, toffee, walnuts and créme brûlée. This is the flavor safari you hope for from Cognacs of this caliber, and its luxurious to let each note roll over your palate.
FINISH: A long, stimulating denouement keeps reminding you of the inherent complexity of this spirit. As with the nose you can spend a lot of time enjoying the liquid again and again without actually having to consume more. Not to be antisocial, but do this alone without disruptions.
CIGAR PAIRING: Montecristo Edmundo (5 3/8 inches by 52 ring gauge; £18.59; 92 points; Cigar Aficionado December 2013) An oily wrapper and flat, mounted head make this cigar a beauty to behold. Though the burn is uneven, the full draw shows plenty of oaky and creamy coffee character, complemented by pepper and cedar. A floral note that doesn't come through when it is smoked alone infuses this cigar when the Paradis is added. The Cognac rises in its fruits and nuttiness. The oak on the cigar pops a bit more, and its café au lait character underlines the savory quality of the brandy. Hints of leather come out on the Montecristo. The overall complexity of the pairing is stunning.
Romeo y Julieta Wide Churchill (5 1/8 inches by 55 ring gauge; £19.28; 93 Points; Cigar Aficionado June 2012) The dark, oily appearance of this fat robusto hints at the hearty espresso and bittersweet chocolate notes that layer the palate with each puff. The smoke is dense and chewy. If something is in short supply with this smoke, it is sweetness. You can easily assuage that with this Cognac-and kick the smoke's rating up another couple of notches in the bargain. The chocolate aspect pops with a little bit of honey from the Paradis, and a newly awakened leather note on the cigar feeds into the savory and nutty notes on the brandy. Again, the exact delineation of which part of the pairing is contributing what is hard to determine in this premier synthesis. But is that such a bad thing? The only real knock on this marriage is that they're both participants will eventually run out.