Subscribers who have received their May/June issues of Cigar Aficionado may have already read the Good Life Guide Drinks piece celebrating American sour mash whiskey and noting the spate of hyperpremium expressions recently on the market. Newsstand buyers have a few days before the issue is available. Anyway, we couldn't wait to see how the featured whiskeys would pair with a duo of exalted cigars.
The whiskey choices represent: a new branding from a familiar company with very old spirit stores; a meddling of sour mash that pushes the upper regions of price for American product; and a tribute to a ground-breaking Bourbon and its creator. Respectively, they are Old Blowhard and Barterhouse Bourbons from Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Co., Michter's Celebration Sour Mash, and Booker's Bourbon 25th Anniversary.
Sour mash, a uniquely American development in whiskey-making, refers to a process used to condition mash batches with spent mash. Sour mash is a mixture of grain, yeast and water from the previous batch, used to control bacteria and promote consistency. It doesn't result in a sour taste, despite its name. The method is often attributed to the Scots-born stillman Dr. James Crow (Old Crow is his namesake). With very few exceptions, it is now the method used in making American whiskey.
The Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Co. is a venture of the spirits giant Diageo, owner of Johnnie Walker, Crown Royal and George Dickel, among a host of other whiskey and spirits brands. It utilizes a storehouse of whiskey that had been lying fallow at the now-shuttered Stitzel-Weller distillery (of Pappy Van Winkle fame), which the company took over as part of an acquisition. The new marque is the first in a planned series that will use so-called "forgotten barrels" of a variety of whiskeys controlled by Diageo. In this case, both have been bottled at the George Dickel facility in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Old Blowhard is a 26-year-old and Barterhouse is 20.
We're not sure, but we suspect Michter's may have set a mark for the costliest American whiskey available at market: $3,500. For that you get a melding of barrels—not all Bourbon, but, yes, sour mash—aged between 20 and 30 years. Michter's, up until now a negotiant of purchased stocks, is keeping typically mum on where it scored its stash. What the company has been open about is its new Louisville distillery, which will one day be the source of its whiskey.
It's been 25 years since Booker Noe, master distiller and grandson of Jim Beam set the Bourbon world on its ear with the introduction of his namesake Booker's, the biggest, boldest Bourbon yet with proofs in the neighborhood of 125. While the creator is now gone, his son Fred has succeeded him and been charged with sourcing the barrels that go into the ultra-flavorful, small-batch expression. As Fred likes to say, "One of Dad's last requests for me was to take care of his Booker's." He's done that and more. In this case, he and his son Freddie handpicked barrels of exceptional age to honor Booker.
Here, we've handpicked cigars that we think we will similarly honor the mashes. (Cigar pairings start on page 3.)
Orphan Barrel Old Blowhard (90.7 proof, or 45.35 percent alcohol by volume; 26 years old; $150 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Dark honey, amber color. Legs dawdle and then turn to big, slow globules.
NOSE: Very pretty, delicate aroma. Floral, slightly Cognac-like. Then comes honey and caramel.
PALATE: Very rich honey with mounds of spice on the tip of the tongue. Turns even richer on the palate, showing off some of the nutty and fruity Cognac from the nose. Continues tangy and spicy with cinnamon and some licorice as it gathers toffee flavors.
FINISH: Mellows out on the medium-length finish with barrel flavors that pronounce caramel and toffee as it flirts with vanilla.
Orphan Barrel Barterhouse (90.2 proof, or 45.1 percent alcohol by volume; aged 20 years; $75 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Slight copper and green hue on a rich amber field. Quick, fat, tear-drop legs.
NOSE: Vanilla and caramel take over at once and then allow hints of spice to tingle away at the edges of the bouquet. Finally, there are hints of flowers and dried fruit.
PALATE: Very full savory notes of caramel, toffee and some vanilla stake their claim immediately. As they soften, a candy of exotic fruits take over and then turn to cocoa and nuts. Richness makes it seem syrupy, but it's not viscous in the least.
FINISH: The lengthy finish smacks first of tart spice and, later, the candy-bar quality of nougat and chocolate.
Michter's Celebration Sour Mash Whiskey Bottle 251 or 273 (112.3 proof, or 56.15 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement, see above; $3,500 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Rainbow of amber and caramel. Medium-size, quick legs.
NOSE: Big, fat, sweet nose of caramel, toffee, vanilla, barrel notes and olive oil, turns into gingersnaps.
PALATE: A dramatic explosion of spices—cinnamon, ginger, anise—flows into softer woody flavor and then proceeds to caramel and toffee, before becoming candied.
FINISH: Long finish of caramel, nougat and toffee with intermittent nuts.
Booker's 25th Anniversary Batch #2014-1 (130.8 proof, or 65.4 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $99.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Very dark and red amber. Forms a ring of tiny beads that take forever to give up their hold before tiptoeing down the glass.
NOSE: Once you get past the high-proof blast, a captivating aroma of maple candy, vanilla, berries and honey takes over. The bouquet ends on floral and spicy notes.
PALATE: The flavors on nose march onto the palate. But at this heat, the whiskey cries out for a few drops of water or a small ice cube that will reveal myriad other charms. On come the fruits of hard candy, Christmas cake, cloves, oranges. Along the way there's a cereal element that melds with the sweetness for the effect of a shortbread cookie.
FINISH: The flavors from the palate last an eternity and are joined by woods, nuts and toast.
CIGAR PAIRING: Montecristo No. 2 (6 1/2 inches by 52 ring gauge, £21.70, 96 points, Cigar Aficionado's 2013 Cigar of the Year) Recent production Monte 2s (those we smoked were from April 2013) are extraordinary, teeming with rich but not overwhelming flavors of leather, such sweet spices as cinnamon and nutmeg and the cigar's trademark tangy wood note. They have enough flavor and power to satisfy those who smoke cigars on a regular basis without overwhelming those who puff less frequently.
With Old Blowhard: Putting two like elements together (in this case spice) can result in a clash or a climax. In this case it, the magic worked and we got the latter. The pair came together and brought out a whole cabinet of flavors, each rallying each other to even greater heights of spiciness. Sweet cinnamon is the hero here. Nutmeg leads to a slight ginger note. All-spice is in evidence as well as a touch of oregano. At times, you're not sure whether you're smoking and drinking this pairing or eating it. The best cigar pairing for this whiskey.
With Barterhouse: The whiskey's candy lifts the same effect right out of the cigar, punching up the sweetness that was formerly only hinted at. The Monte gives as good as it gets, with its leather taking the caramel/toffee/vanilla notes of the Barterhouse up a few notches. A sublime synergy leaves the taster wondering which element is contributing or benefiting. The woodiness smoothes out and becomes heartier with plenty of leather. The best cigar pairing for this whiskey.
With Celebration: Once again spice touches spice and an explosion ensues. This time its rounder—more of the oregano/wood character. The cigar makes the whiskey chewier and the Celebration welcomes the effort by bringing out the tanginess of the cigar as well as honey character. The two dance a sprightly tango with nuanced notes of graham cracker and rich barrel flavors as well as sharper notes that fill in the blanks between the pairing.
With Booker's: Just when you think there couldn't be too much more to experience with pairing this cigar, along comes this powerhouse whiskey to elicit new surprises. Along with the nutty bonbon quality that the Monte confers on the Booker's, there is a smoky taste that approaches peat. The whiskey pushes back with all of its dessert character and brings out the same on the cigar. Once again the spice give renewed depth to the Booker's.
Don Carlos No. 2 (6 inches by 55 ring gauge, $12.60, 94 Points, Cigar Aficionado's 2013 No. 6 Cigar of the Year) The No. 2, which first hit the market in 1997, is a considerably fat pyramid, with a portly 55 ring gauge. As with most Don Carlos cigars, the smoke is a slow starter—it takes some time before the full flavors emerge. When they do, the reward is a pleasant mix of nut and cocoa notes with a tiny bit of spice and sweet cedar.
With Old Blowhard: When the full flavor emerges from the cigar, the Cognac quality of the whiskey truly kicks in. Not only is the floral/fruit character bumped up, but the nuttiness you want in a brandy is also there. The Don Carlos reveals its mellow/sweet side with plenty of caramel and toffee as well as chewy nougat side. Again, that bonbon effect takes over, and you find yourself licking your lips in search of more of that elusive sweetness.
With Barterhouse: The fullness of flavor of the cigar is quite pronounced with the chocolate notes on the whiskey. The Barterhouse doesn't get as much of a boost from the Don Carlos, however, which makes it more of a neutral partner, perhaps with a bit of a sting.
With Celebration: The whiskey comes alive under the influence of this cigar. The tingling spice notes of the Celebration quickly evolve into and mingle with hitherto understated caramel/toffee side. For its part of the bargain, the Don Carlos gets drawn out and gives up its own spicy side with hints of coconut and hazelnut thrown in for good measure. The best cigar pairing for this whiskey.
With Booker's: We predicted the proof of the whiskey might be a little overwhelming for the subtleness of the cigar. Not to worry. The Don Carlos stands up to the test, mellowing out the rougher edges of Booker's and boosting its orange peel charms. What the cigar gains is sweetness and a sharpened point on its hearty flavors and full, deep, rich attributes. Going back and forth on these two elements is sheer delight. The best cigar pairing for this whiskey.