Pairing cigars is a fascinating topic for us because, as most of what we write about, it affects the magic that we experience through our mouth and nose. In this article and video we want to share with you ideas on how to create amazing pairings with your cigars. In fact, often it’s just a matter of focusing on and structuring how to decide what to pair with cigars.
We are not talking about tasting here, as pairings are not about understanding the characteristics of a cigar by itself. If you want to do that, it’s better to not have anything else than water with the cigar. A pairing is rather something that enhances and amplifies your cigar experience.
There are some classic pairings with cigars: one starting point can be “Do as the locals do!”. In fact, traditional pairings are coffee and rum, because they are often produced in the same regions or countries as the cigars they are being paired with. For example: a Cuban cigar can be very well paired with a Cuban rum.
In this article we want to first introduce some basic principles about pairing the products together. We will also explain the key characteristics of beverages you can pair your cigars with. Ultimately, we will walk you through a free tool that will help you find what you want to seek in a cigar, so you can then find the best pairing for it.
The traditional pairing rules
Generally speaking, similar molecules together tend to emphasize the intensity of their relevant aromas. For example, coffee enhances the coffee notes in a cigar. Not only because coffee binds our buds of its strong aroma, but also because similar molecules may be present in both products.
It’s good to find consistency between products: an overpowering nicotine strength in a cigar with a delicate fruity aroma might lack consistency, and probably balance.
When combining more than one sensory stimulus – for example, drinking something with your cigar – the tradition proposes different approaches:
1) Harmony: the sum of elements from each product work together to create an experience that is “bigger than the sum of its parts”. Same aroma or same taste can work together.
2) Contrast: one element “loses”, but augments the experience of the other. For example, sweetness may increase the perception of salty tastes or reduce bitterness.
Also, more importantly than anything else, these combinations are highly subjective, so trust your own taste!
Pairing cigars with non-alcoholic beverages
Hot non-alcoholic beverages
Coffee is a classic combination, and any variation thereof tends to work well with cigars. One of the most traditional ones would be the Cuban “café cortado”, a rather sweet, but strong coffee, optionally with milk.
Tea, however, also works very well. Whole leaf teas such as Darjeeling tend to be better combinations than flavored teas, but experimentation makes for all the fun of it!
Cold non-alcoholic beverages
From an analytical approach, water certainly is the most “neutral” pairing with a cigar. However, waters also have different tastes. A salty mineral water or a sparkling water might give you entirely different experiences. Plain filtered water or “rich” tasting still waters such as Hawaiian Springs, Qure or Essentia might give great results.
Some people like sodas, like Cola, with their cigars. “Anything goes” for your personal taste, but be aware that the high sweetness, carbonation and low pH of your soda will fundamentally change your smoking experience.
Pairing cigars with alcoholic beverages
There is a line of reasoning behind pairing alcohol with cigars: a lot of the heavier flavor molecules in your cigar are not soluble in water, i.e. your saliva – which means you will not taste them. A lot of them are, however, soluble in alcohol, which means you will increase the intensity of perceptions from your cigar by pairing a little alcohol with it from time to time.
The wide variety of beer styles makes these one of the hardest pairings. A light, Lager-Style beer might be the easiest, but this is where experimentation is key. Thick, sweet Stout might go sublimely with a dark, strong cigar. One element that you need to pay attention to when pairing cigars with beer is that such pairings might enhance the bitterness in a cigar.
Contrarily to popular belief, red wines are the hardest wines to pair with cigars. Tannins, especially in young reds, will make the cigar taste harsh. As rule of thumb, mostly older or lighter/smoother red wines will pair decently with cigars. Maybe that 10-year-old bottle of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon you’ve been saving will make a perfect match for a medium strength cigar!
Interestingly enough, white wines make a much better pairing for cigars. According to some (Constantin Heitkamp, our sensory consultant, included), off-dry Riesling will bring out the aromas of your fine smoke the best. However, a rich Chardonnay might be worth a try too. As long as your wine is not too dry or sour, it should work fine!
Ports, Sherries and Madeiras are unfortunately marginal in consumption, even though they offer radically different flavor profiles to other wines. All of them start their lives as regular wines, but are “fortified” with Brandy to make them last longer, age differently and preserve their sweetness. While there are dry varieties of each of these, those tend to not work well with cigars: as with white wines, high acidity will make for an unappealingly harsh smoking experience. All of these, if of the slightly sweet variety, will work brilliantly with cigars. For example, the sweeter varieties of Madeira, which have “aged” aromas of dried fruits and nuts, will go particularly well with cigars.
Spirits without any color, usually without oak aging, include Vodka, Gin and white Rum, among others. For the “precision” approach, Vodka does serve the purpose of giving you access to more flavor from your cigar. Since Vodka has very little to no taste of itself, it will interfere with the smoke the least. Gin and Rum might be trickier, as they do have flavor of their own. They might potentially be used in a long drink or cocktail to improve their interaction with your smoke.
“Brown”, i.e. cask-aged spirits
Rum is the primary spirit produced in most tobacco-growing countries, and aged versions of Rum will pair magnificently with cigars. The sweetness will help smooth out any rough sensations in the smoke, and the aromas usually blend nicely with the earthy and spicy notes of your cigar.
Whisk(e)y is the “most complex beverage in the world” due to its many different production and aging methods. However, most experts deem Whisk(e)y to be one of the more “neutral” pairings with cigars, i.e. they do not show a lot of interaction with cigars. This allows you to pursue the “contrast” method of pairing: For example, a fruity Speyside Malt might “refresh” your dark, spicy cigar. Inversely, a peaty, smoky Islay might surprise you with lighter cigars.
Brandies: Cognac and Brandy are also “traditional” pairings for cigars, at least in the aristocratic markets of historic Europe. Since the aromas are usually similar to cigars, these tend to be very harmonic experiences. Spanish “Brandy de Jerez”, produced in the same region as Sherry (see above), offer slightly different aroma profiles and good values compared to their French counterparts. Craft distilleries with old bottlings of high quality brandies also exist in California.
This might be the masterclass of cigar pairings, and is entirely dependent on personal taste. Professional sommeliers have been known to mix a dedicated cocktail for each third of a cigar, so as to accentuate the evolution of flavor. For the last third, we remember a mix of 2 parts sweet Ruby Port and 1 part Cognac served on the rocks. A truly memorable cigar cocktail!
How to create amazing pairings with your cigars, in practice
Let’s deep dive into how you can very easily find a cigar based on the characteristics that you want to experiment in your pairing. This will enable you to create perfect moments with your cigar and drink. This is a free tool, with some limitations to data access. However, if you do not want to upgrade and support us, such data access limitation will not inhibit your search.
Here is where you can find the tool: Cigar Sense database.
And here is a short explanatory video with a few ideas as examples:
You have seen how easier and faster it is to pair cigars with other products based on tastes, tactile sensations and aromas. We highly recommend to try the products yourself before you design a pairing that you want to propose to other people, even if they might have similar tastes.
Franca Comparetto and Constantin Heitkamp