Pairings in general
When combining more than one sensory stimulus – in this case, drinking something with your cigar – different approaches can be taken:
1) Harmony: both elements 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. Sweetness may increase the perception of salty tastes.
3) “Neutral” pairings see no change to either element.
Also, more importantly than anything else, these combinations are highly subjective, so trust your own taste!
The most general rule that makes for a great starting point is the following: “Do as the locals do!”. For cigars, traditional pairings are coffee and rum, simply because they are often produced in the same regions or countries.
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!
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. Personally, plain filtered water or “rich” tasting still waters such as Hawaiian Springs, Qure or Essentia give me the best 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.
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! I also have a friend who has found his personal “match made in heaven” – a “Gurkha” cigar with a popular (green) Pale Ale! One may envy him for having found that combination and never getting bored of it.
Contrary 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-bodied cigar!
Interestingly enough, white wines make a much better pairing for cigars. According to some (yours truly 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. A personal favorite are the sweeter varieties of Madeira, which have “aged” aromas of dried fruits and nuts, and 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 better 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. Bars in Paris 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, a mix of 2 parts sweet Ruby Port and 1 part Cognac is served on the rocks. A truly memorable cigar cocktail!
There is a lot to try and play with. Share your experiences with us!
Anonymous Cigar Sense Panelist, USA