2011 Big Smoke Sunday Seminars: The Cognac Connection

The Big Smoke Las Vegas ended with the traditional partnering of cigars with spirits, this year with the time-honored pairing of smoke with Cognac. “This is the end of the Big Smoke,” said Cigar Aficionado executive editor Gordon Mott, who introduced senior features editor Jack Bettridge and Alec Bradley Cigar Co. president Alan Rubin. Together, the two of them set out to find the perfect synergy between four Cognacs and two cigars.

“I learned about Cognac the hard way,” said Bettridge, “through books. I thought I knew about the spirit until I finally went this year to visit the region.”

The four Cognacs at the seminar represented different growing regions (or terroir) in France and four different blending styles. Every attendee at the seminar received four glasses, each with a pour of Hennessy XO, Pierre Ferrand Selection De’Anges, Remy Martin XO and Courvoisier 21. As a cigar pairing, they were handed an Alec Bradley Black Market Toro and an Alec Bradley Tempus Robusto, both of which represent myriad cigar growing regions.

“We launched the Black Market September of this year,” said Rubin. “It’s a little bit of a departure from some of our other brands. This is the first time we’re using Panamanian tobacco in our blend and a true Sumatra binder. It took us about three and a half years playing with the Panama tobacco to come up with something we really liked.”

The audience lit up their cigars and took a sip of the Henessy XO.

“Usually we like to arrange the Cognacs from lightest body to fullest, but this was hard to do because they are all full bodied, elegant Cognacs,” said Bettridge as he began the seminar. “The first one is Hennessy XO. The Hennessy brand is 40 percent of the market. They make some lower market stuff, but when you get to XO and above, you’re looking at some really good juice. They have the greatest storehouse of eau de vie—what they make Cognac out of.”

Alan Rubin, president of Alec Bradley Cigar Co.
Alan Rubin, president of Alec Bradley Cigar Co., joined Bettridge on stage.

Bettridge explained how Cognac is a brandy, which is distilled wine, and that it is only officially designated as Cognac if it’s produced in the Cognac region of France.

“In order to use this appellation, the grapes have to be grown there, fermented there, distilled there and the Cognac must be aged there," said Bettridge. "The region is divided into six subdivisions, each with different soil characteristics. The prominent subregions are Grand Champagne, Petit Champagne, Fins Bois and Borderies."

“Hennessy blends from all of these regions,” said Bettridge. “They’re working with a very wide flavor palette.”

Rubin played off this notion by discussing the blending of his cigar from region to region: “When it comes to blending tobacco, each factory has its own style. We’ve used tobacco from 17 different countries and are not afraid to try something new as a company. Being a small operation, we don’t have to produce millions of cigars in order for us to move forward. For us, it’s about balance.”

Bettridge smoked the cigars and in between puffs added that “Even when the big houses—Hennessy, Courvoisier, Remy Martin and Martel—make Cognac, on a certain level it is a small-batch operation. They go to the farmers who grow, ferment and in many cases distill the grapes. Harvest is usually in October and March 31 is legally the last day you can distill.”

He contemplated the cigar a bit longer before stating “I think the pairing of the Hennessy and the Black Market is excellent. The basic sweetness of the Hennessy is bringing out the chocolate flavors of the tobacco, but at the same time, the smoke is underscoring the Cognac’s basic sweetness.”

Rubin agreed, also finding the citrus notes of the cigar to work in concert with the Hennessy.

The panel moved on to the Remy Martin XO which, like the Hennessy, is also a blend.

Remy is distinct among the big houses in that it only makes Cognac sourcing from the Champagne regions. “Combine Petit Champagne with Grand Champagne and you get Fine Champagne,” said Bettridge. “Champagne grapes tend to make nuttier Cognacs than other regions, and ages extremely well, but at a young age, it doesn’t drink particularly well, so Remy doesn’t bottle anything less than four years old.”

A Big Smoke attendee enjoying the Cognac seminar.
The audience received four Cognacs, each representing a different growing region, or terroir.

Where aging undoubtedly improves Grand Champagne, Rubin felt that it is not always necessary to age cigars.

“I don’t necessarily believe that every cigar gets better with age. A lot has to do with the cigar itself, and a lot has to do with how it smokes out of the box. After two years, a cigar can change and you may not like it the way you did when you first smoked it out of the box. You can blend what you think is the greatest cigar in the world and 30 days later, you have absolutely nothing”

Like Alec Bradley, Pierre Ferrand is a smaller producer, so it is able to make all its Cognac strictly from the Grand Champagne region, whose chalky soil greatly influences the flavor of the spirit. The seminar moved on to the Pierre Ferrand De’Anges, which is 30 to 35 years old.

“It’s less floral and sweet than other Cognacs and heavier on the leather and nuts,” said Bettridge. Although a pure expression of Grand Champagne, both Bettridge and Rubin found that it coated the palate in such a way that it overpowered the cigar.

“Black Market is having a hard time breaking through,” Rubin observed.

The Courvoisier 21 was the last of the four Cognacs sampled that afternoon.

“It’s rare to see an age statement on a Cognac like we see on the Courvoisier 21 because the process of moving Cognac from one barrel to the next makes it difficult to establish an exact age,” Bettridge said. “But it leans heavy on the Fin Bois region, which tends to be more floral tasting from the clay composition of the soil.”

The Courvoisier, however, brought out a sweetness from the cigar in an unexpected way.

Some attendees lit up the second cigar, the Alec Bradley Tempus, which uses Nicaraguan and Honduran tobacco with an Indonesian binder, though many wished to finish the Black Market.

In the case of the Tempus blend, Bettridge observed that “the cigar gives more to the Cognac overall than vice versa, but it’s difficult to pick a favorite because there are no bad pairings here.”

Alan Rubin, president of Alec Bradley Cigar Co, and Cigar Aficionado senior features editor Jack Bettridge.
Bettridge shares a laugh with Rubin during the seminar.

Though Rubin found the Courvoisier to be the weakest pairing for the Tempus on account of the cigar’s earthiness clashing with the sweet spirit. Bettridge preferred the Remy, Rubin the Ferrand.

But the people’s choice for both cigars, by show of hands (and hollering) was the Courvoisier.

After some Q&A, the panel raffled off a few extra bottles by quizzing the audience and seeing just how much of the dissertation they retained.

The seminar probably went over its scheduled time, but it’s understandable. Even the editors like to prolong a morning and afternoon of fine spirits and cigars, the culmination of a Big Smoke weekend that goes by all too quickly. And this is how the show ends. Not with a bang or a whimper, but with a sip and a puff.

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The Cognac Connection

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"Cognac and cigars - a match made in heaven. " —November 4, 2011 06:59 AM