What do you do after you've smoked 744 cigars, resmoked dozens of them and sampled again to whittle them down to the Cigar Aficionado's Top 25 Cigars of the Year? Well, you relax by smoking the Top Five again, this time with a libation. But not just any beverage will do in this stratospheric company. Admittedly, we splurged a bit to find partners that were worthy of pairing with these exemplary smokes. We won't lie—it was well worth it.
No. 1 Cigar of 2015
My Father Bijou 1922 Torpedo Box Pressed, paired with Hennessy XO Cognac
A handful of strategies define how to approach a cigar pairing. You can match the bodies of the elements—e.g. mild-bodied cigar with a mild-bodied spirit, full-bodied cigar with a full-bodied dram. You can try to match up tasting notes—sweet cigars with fruity spirits—or even create contrast—introduce chocolate to salt. But when a cigar—as with our No. 1 choice for 2015—isn't easily pigeon-holed, you need a whole other quality in the spirit: complexity. Few categories do intricacy as well as the well-bred brandies of Cognac's XO level. It is at that stratum that the largest house in the French region particularly excels, because it blends from a vast storehouse of eaux-de-vie of different qualities and ages. The term XO (extra old) was created for Hennessy's melding of more than 100 spirits of between 10 and 70 years. Enough said?
Hennessy XO (80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume; $200 per 750 ml. bottle)
APPEARANCE: Very dark amber, almost red color. Fat, slow legs.
NOSE: The fruit shows up first as ethereal, elegant grapes. Candied orange follows and then toffee as well as toast. The closing aroma is a nutty rancio together with a slight bit of wax.
PALATE: A rollercoaster of sensations define this complicated brandy. After its fruity sweetness with rich wine, berries and pears, you're surprised to slide into a spicy place where pepper, licorice and cinnamon reside. Your palate then recovers to climb into a region of savory nuts, toast and woodiness. Another act follows with toffee, caramel and cocoa.
FINISH: The flavors linger on and on, repeating with resounding reports of every nuance.
CIGAR PAIRING: Balance is the calling card of this pairing as the bodies matchup almost perfectly and each element brings in notes that find a complement in the other. The cigar's chocolate seeks out the lingering cocoa on the brandy. The Hennessy's fruit boosts the raisins on the My Father. The sweetness of the Cognac also counterweights a slight charcoal on the cigar.
No. 2 Cigar of 2015
Ramon Allones Specially Selected, paired with Facundo Exquisito rum
When it honored its founder, Facundo Bacardi Masso, on the company's 150th birthday with four ultra-premium selections, this Sherry-finished rum of great age especially remembered the family's Cuban heritage. It's tempting to say that we chose the pairing with that in mind, but it just happened that way. A lesser rum might have slunk from the challenges of such a big cigar, but the Exquisto embraced them, with its Sherry finish and its bold flavor.
Facundo Exquisito (80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume; $95 per 750 ml. bottle)
APPEARANCE: Dark amber to caramel color, fat, quick legs.
NOSE: Molasses and vanilla fairly jump out of the glass, followed by banana and ginger notes.
PALATE: Fat and buttery, this rum shows its molasses, vanilla and butter first, and then turns to teasing out spices as well as the expected Sherry notes. Finally settles in with hard candy.
FINISH: It's a mouth-coating finale that ends up showing off the spices (cinnamon and licorice) to great effect as it makes its slow retreat.
CIGAR PAIRING: The rum brings out the nuanced side of the cigar, brightening it with its banana, wine and spice notes. The Exquisito backs off a bit from its fruit riot, engaging with the coffee and earth of the Ramon Allones. Ultimately, the noted marzipan and citrus of the cigar shine through even more.
No. 3 Cigar of 2015
CAO Flathead V660 Carb, paired with Yamazaki Single Malt Aged 18 Years
The latest trend among whisky geeks is to be in the know about the burgeoning market for "world whiskies," those that arise from locations other than the traditional brown spirits nations of Scotland, Ireland, United States and Canada. What some hipsters mightn't have sussed is that in Japan distilling isn't the latest fad. Since 1923, Suntory has been making whisky at its flagship distillery Yamazaki—a very Scots-like location in a misty vale at the convergence of three rivers. The spirit's conjunction with this cigar has a very East meets West charm to it.
Yamazaki Single Malt Aged 18 Years (86 proof, or 43 percent alcohol by volume; 18 years old; $250 per 750 ml. bottle)
APPEARANCE: Medium amber tone with a Champagne sparkle.
NOSE: A rich aroma full of black cherries, spice vanilla, chocolate, sawdust and Christmas pudding.
PALATE: In the mouth it defines its spice with chewy nutmeg, vanilla and a smattering of ginger. The fruit expands to include pears, lychee and plums, the later two giving it an Eastern taste. A hint of peat also appears on the palate.
FINISH: The long encore includes a sweet oak finish with walnuts, caramel and orange peel.
CIGAR PAIRING: This matchup is an object lesson on how one tiny element can make a partnership blossom. The whisky's peat, which seems a mere afterthought following almost two decades in wood, awakens a chunky, toasty, almond side to the cigar. The CAO's leather in turn gives greater depth to the Yamazaki, making it nuttier and chewier as well. The Eastern flavors then pour forth and rum notes burst from the cigar.
No. 4 Cigar of the Year
Arturo Fuente Don Carlos Belicoso, paired with Orphan Barrel Rhetoric 21 Years
As the name suggests, the story of Orphan Barrel Rhetoric 21 Years is a Dickensian tale full of travail, but with a happy ending. It begins with the establishment of Louisville's Stitzel-Weller distillery, which made Old Fitzgerald and W.L. Weller, among other brands. While highly regarded, it was nevertheless sold by the Van Winkle family (yes, that Van Winkle family) in 1972 and went through a succession of owners before being shuttered in the early 1990s. Today, the facility, together with a storehouse of very old whiskey, is owned by Diageo, which, like a great benefactor, is doling out its riches. Among its foundlings is Rhetoric, which a Diageo subdivision, Orphan Barrel, began to bottle last year with a 20-year-old. The happy plan is to have annual releases until 2019, when Orphan Barrel will release its 25-year-old version. We picked a cigarmaker with an equally rich history for the pairing.
Orphan Barrel Rhetoric 21 Years (90 proof, or 45 percent alcohol by volume; age; $100 per 750 ml. bottle)
APPEARANCE: A light amber color. Droplets fatten up as they gather speed.
NOSE: Bourbon notes for caramel and toffee mix with rich wheat before being met with leather, spice and pears.
PALATE: In the mouth it's a fruit explosion. Cherries and berries are softened by nuts and figs before being joined by white chocolate and raisins.
FINISH: The ending is a flip-flopping affair as it goes back and forth between savory and fruity flavors. In the end, it's the pistachio and olive oil you'll taste as added notes.
CIGAR PAIRING: This is another great give-and-take, this time with the cigar playing harmony to the great, fruity high notes of the whiskey. A steady bass emanates from the Don Carlos, which lays down oaken Bourbon flavors and chimes in with chocolate grace notes. The cigar's nutty finish rushes to the fore and Christmas-pudding flavors arise from the Rhetoric.
No. 5 Cigar of 2015
Padrón Family Reserve 50 Years Natural, paired with Laphroaig 32 Years Old
The most popular of whisky distillers from Scotland's west coast island of Islay, Laphroaig trotted out a cycle of limited release expressions this year to celebrate its 200th birthday. This one is the best, but not because it screams peat, the signature flavor of this whisky as well as the island it comes from. Its lengthy age in well-used Sherry casks has matured a cagier Laphroaig that never screams out its qualities, but lets them sneak up on you. We chose a similarly subtle, but flavorful cigar for its pairing and never looked back.
Laphroaig 32 Year Old (93.4 proof, or 46.7 percent alcohol by volume; 32 years old; $1,200 per 750 ml. bottle)
APPEARANCE: Light color, mixing brass, Champagne and sunlight. Slow, tiny legs.
NOSE: Light peat, joined by delicate fruit, with mango, raisins and pears. There's a savory side that includes honey, cookie dough and some spice. The signature peat is but a whiff of smoke from a far off campfire—pleasant, but without much warning of the majesty to come.
PALATE: It's in the mouth that this whisky fulfills its destiny, taking on licorice, dates, almonds, grapes, cheese, pralines, lemon and tangerine—all with a nuanced touch that hits on hard candy, but never screams confection. Then the peat comes through, and with it a hearty savoriness that turns it from candy to cake.
FINISH: The final act at first seems driven by the appearance of smoke, but citrus, nuts and spices appear and become the hallmark of its many curtain calls.
CIGAR PAIRING: This partnership shows how subtlety and nuance from both parties can take two excellent subjects and add another level of prestige. No battle exist here, just harmony. The earthy notes, together with cocoa and coffee, on the Padrón, serve to give the whisky all the more dimension and savoriness. The Laphroaig's fruity side deepens and becomes more sultry than sugary. The cigar gains nuts and toast in the process, as well as a flirtatious sweetness.