Part I. A few things first
This is going to be a long-ish post about my experience pairing cigars with various drinks, mostly alcoholic. I hope what comes out of this will make sense to everybody. As with most writing that is largely opinion, hopefully based on some experience, your mileage may vary.
Let me start with a basic principle. The main reason we want to pair cigar smoking with some drink is to periodically cleanse our palates so that the flavors in the cigar stand out. Any flavor or set of flavors will fade in strength on repeated exposure without something to wash remnants of the molecules involved (in the cigar’s case that would be smoke) away from the taste buds. A drink with a strong aroma, especially an alcohol, acts to cleanse aroma receptors in the nose and sinus. Taste buds and scent receptors become desensitized if not cleaned and rested once in a while. For this there is nothing like clean water, or maybe, for extra zest, clean carbonated water. Plain water doesn’t do much for the nose, but carbon dioxide bubbles and alcohol clean both tongue and nose. Even when I pair with alcohol I like to have a glass of water around and just breathing in clean air will refresh the nasal receptors.
Cleansing is an important reason to pair cigars with a liquid. There are a few foods people have paired with cigars to good effect. Most of those I’ve heard about are sweet. Chocolate is frequently cited. But food typically mixes with or simply overwhelms the more subtle flavors of the smoke on the taste buds. It doesn’t clean them off. So liquids make sense. Besides cleansing though, we are looking at contrast and foods do provide that, but so do flavored liquids. Flavors have a funny effect on the taste buds and the sense of smell. If you alternate two or more complex combinations of flavors, they will have an effect on one another’s complexity. It’s that effect we’re after. A drink whose flavors change our cigar’s flavors in ways that we like. That’s what most people mean by a “good pairing”.
Good pairings between food and drink have been famous for centuries. It is usually the food being cleansed away and enhanced by the drink but going the other way is also possible. One sees certain cheeses being served along with rich sweet dessert wines. In this case the cheese is providing a refreshing taste and aroma contrast to enhance the next sip of wine. Of course there is a great variety of individual tastes and I’ll have more to say about that later. But risking an over generalization, there is some broad agreement about which drinks best pair with which foods. Richly flavored red wines go with well cooked and seasoned beef or a pepperoni & sausage pizza because the food flavors are pretty intense and the wine has to be equally intense to be tasted. It isn’t that a dry white wine tastes bad with steak, it just doesn’t seem to have any flavor of its own in between slices of intensely rich foods. It still cleanses the palate though! Pair a dark red Barolo or Cabernet with delicate fish or chicken and the opposite happens, the food can’t be tasted for the overwhelming flavors of the wine. Similar principles should apply to beer, but since carbonation does a great cleansing job all by itself pairing beer and food is more open-ended. Dark and heavy beers should go better with rich foods, but pale and lighter bodied beers work almost as well. The flavors in beer have less effect on food (unless they are unusually strong) because the carbonation sweeps them away along with everything else.
Generally speaking, compared to foods, cigar flavors are rather subtle. Cigars can taste and smell like this or that, but normally (and not counting “flavored cigars”) these flavors are hints and reminders not the full-blown flavor or aroma you would get from the thing itself. In this way, cigar flavors are more like the subtle hints of non-grape flavors we get from wines, especially the reds. One reason the flavors are subtle in both wines and cigars is that there are only a few of the molecules that cause those flavors connecting with our taste buds. Alcohol is a palate cleanser at low concentrations but in higher concentrations it cleanses and numbs the taste buds at the same time. This is different from the wash-out effect of repeated exposure to a strong flavor withing intermittent cleansing. This is a general desensitization to most flavors. Tobacco smoke always desensitizes both the taste buds and the scent receptors of the nose lending some irony to our hobby. We are in this hobby to taste something that, unlike most foods, supresses taste and flavor. All the more reason to find a pairing that not only cleanses but enhances the subtle flavors of our cigars.
There is another principle I should mention. Principles aren’t as important as your palate! It isn’t even near 50/50. Whether or not a particular pairing works for you is more 90% individual and 10% principles. Nobody else has exactly your palate. Further, individual palates change with time and exposure to both sides of the pair. Further still we are talking about tasting a product, cigars, whose smoke numbs taste and aroma receptors. We are not all desensitized in the same way.
Let me review how all of this flavor business works. We have only 5 different kinds of taste buds. Sour, sweet, bitter, salty, and some would add umami which is actually the taste of a particular amino acid, glutamate, associated with meatiness. In contrast to the tongue, the nose has receptors for hundreds of differently shaped aromatic chemicals, that is chemicals light enough to waft about in the air above our food, or in the case of cigars, cling to particles of smoke. It is the combination of the taste on the tongue and the scent on the nose that the brain turns into thousands of distinguishable flavors. People have slightly different numbers of the 5 sorts of taste buds, and they also have different numbers of scent receptors. So when we smoke a cigar, not only are different numbers and kinds of receptors stimulated in each of us, different numbers and kinds are also desensitized, and not necessarily the same ones! This combination of factors has the effect of ensuring that each individual’s response to a cigar and a pairing will be a little different.
All of this brings us to my first rule of cigar pairing. Start with what you like! There are those who claim that the ultimate cigar pairing whiskey is a good scotch. Why scotch? Well, it has a lot of vegetal and smokey flavors that compliment related flavors frequently found in cigars. But I for one have never been able to enjoy scotch. I’ve tried a few, I’ve tried to understand it, but so far, and up to now, I haven’t been able to appreciate it. It’s the same for me with bourbons and ryes. They don’t put me off as much as scotch, but I still feel like I have to struggle to like them while trying to understand their effect on a cigar. Hobbies are supposed to be fun as well as educational experiences. I try to keep an open mind and I am frequently reminded that my tastes have changed much over the years. Every once in a while I try a scotch, bourbon, or rye and perhaps someday my palate will evolve towards them, but when I’m not trying them purely for the sake of educating my palate, when I’m trying to see if a particular combination is a “good pairing”, I go with a drink I like, a drink whose subtlies I understand based on some time with it.
This brings us to my second rule of cigar pairing. Go with what you know! Which scotch (A), (B), or (C) goes better with cigar X? If you can’t tell the difference between the three drinks, you can’t pull out what is different about them, how can you evaluate them for different pairing qualities? One combination might enhance a cigar’s sweetness, while another brings out a flavor of mushrooms. If you like both qualities then both are good pairings for you. But if you can’t tell what’s different in two related drinks, how can you judge the effect of those differences on the smoke? Of course there’s no law that says you have to be able to do that. Remember rule 1. If you like a particular drink, and in particular if you like a particular combination of drink and smoke, that is really all you need. It’s nice to be able to taste the difference between one drink and a related one, but it isn’t necessary to do that just to enjoy the combination. If it works for you, it’s a good pairing!
So what does all of this mean? Is pairing nothing more than combining a cigar with a drink you like? If 90% of the process is nothing more than this, what else is there? Suppose you are a cola expert. You know colas so well that you can taste all the subtle differences between Coke, Pepsi, RC Cola, and others. Some are sweeter, some perhaps more bitter. Some have a long after taste, others almost none. It is these differences that go into the other 10% of the pairing process. The extra sweetness of one cola might enhance some cigar flavors and mask others and the same goes for other distinct flavors you might find in your colas, while I don’t particularly notice any of them. That is the trick here, noticing what differences in the flavors of a particular drink category (colas in this case), or between categories (bourbons compared to rums), do to the flavor of the cigar.
Up to now, I’ve been talking about the drink, but before moving on to particular pairings, I should mention one thing about the cigar: You have to enjoy that too! A bad cigar (unaffectionately known as a “dog rocket”) or a cigar that just doesn’t have any flavors, or good flavors, to your palate isn’t going to be much enhanced by any pairing. For any cigar flavor to be enhanced by a drink, the flavor has to be there in the first place. Sometimes a drink will bring out a cigar flavor that you hadn’t noticed before and that’s good. But there has to be something in the cigar that sets up that flavor (usually aroma) receptor. A flavorless cigar isn’t much enhanced by anything.