We should all have a draw tool or two lying around. Draw tools save cigars otherwise unsmokeable because they are plugged. You cut them right and discover that you either can’t draw any air through it or drawing air is very difficult. We all prefer a certain draw. Some like it a little tighter, some a little looser, but no matter which we prefer there are some cigars that are “too tight”. The draw tool, inserted from the head of the cigar, opens a channel through what ever it is plugging the cigar. It might be a vein in the wrong place or an uneven and too-tight bundling. And there is another, even more common reason cigars get plugged after you light them, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Any dowel-like metal pole a millimeter or so in diameter (about 1/16″) will serve as a draw tool. Put a point on it, and you have a draw tool. But the better ones have some cutting or roughening at their tip as well as a sharp point. The idea here is that opening a channel isn’t enough because when you withdraw the tool, the channel just closes back. What you want is to pull just a little tobacco back out of the channel so when it does close up it can’t close up all the way.
In the center picture, the tool tip on the right is pretty typical. The tip is etched (roughened) by a laser. The rough surface shaves tobacco from the walls of the channel. When you withdraw the tool a little tobacco dust falls out. Sometimes, it isn’t enough and I have to work the tool in and out (yeah it’s like that) to get a channel that stays a channel when the tool comes out.
The tool tip on the left (center picture and center with case on the right on the lower left) is my new PerfecDraw (see perfecdraw.com). Notice the spelling, no ‘t’! If you go to perfectdraw.com you will find, of all things, an interesting cigar site! The PerfecDraw tool has the most aggressive tip I have ever seen. From the tip (very sharp) it slides easily into the cigar, while the bottom edge of the cone that spirals up the last half inch or so is razor sharp. When you pull it out of the cigar it cuts and drags back quite a bit of cut up leaf. The further you push it into the cigar, the more it pulls back of course and the idea is to push it only as far as the plugged part. But as aggressive as it is (I’ve used it a few times now) it never seems to pull out too much. So far, draws have never become “too loose” and the cigars have not gotten squishy (too loosely packed). The tool comes with a nice case. It screws into the case and has a pocket clip, all in all a very nice package.
But PerfecDraw is only 4″ long! What if the plug is more than 4″ from the head? What about pyrolysis plugs where the cigar plugs up after you light it because the tobacco swells as moisture is released behind the hot coal? From my experience this is the most common sort of plug. Once in 50 or more cigars to I experience a pre-light plug. Sometimes a cigar is tighter than I like (and I use my draw tool) but some smokers like their draw that way. Much more often I light a cigar that draws fine, and then, a half dozen draws into it the cigar begins to tighten up sometimes way too much. What to do? Insert your [conventional] draw tool through the cigar all the way to the coal. You can feel the coal because the tool feels like it’s breaking through a crust. Now the cigar smokes properly again, but half dozen puffs later, it’s plugged again! On some cigars (more than I care to count) this happens throughout the smoke down to the last couple inches. You can keep using the tool, and that works, but the problem is you have to keep using it! How would the PerfecDraw work this problem, and how especially if the cigar is bigger than a petit robusto or petit corona?
OK, I was surprised, but it does work. I pushed all 4″ into a 6″ cigar with a pyrolysis plug. The tool didn’t open a channel all the way to the coal of course, but it did open enough channel in the last 4″ of the cigar that I could draw it better anyway. I didn’t need to go all the way to the coal. Better still, when the cigar burned down to the channel, its tendency to plug behind the coal disappeared!
At $40 the PerfecDraw is twice the price of my other draw tools, but truth be told it works twice as good too! I recommend it highly.
Also in the picture above (upper right) is a little bottle with a black cap. This is PerfecRepair, and like PerfecDraw, it works as advertised. It seems to be a colloidal suspension. The cap has a little brush attached to it, and in the bottle is a little BB that helps to break up and distribute the colloid (probably food grade gelatin) when shaken vigorously. Who hasn’t experienced a wrapper unraveling? Starting from a little corner at the foot, head, or middle of the cigar, the unraveling keeps getting worse as you smoke. Lift up that first corner, brush a thin coat of PerfecRepair under it, seal it back in place, count to 10, and voila, the unraveling stops there! But it gets better. How many of us have had a cigar crack and split (sometimes the wrapper and binder) at the foot when you light it? How about a cracked cap when you cut or punch the cigar? When that happens, dab a little blob of PerfecRepair on the crack and it stops right there! For $7 there’s enough goop in the bottle for 30 or more cigars (I’m guessing). Again well worth the price.
I get asked this question a lot, of course by people who do not smoke cigars. Even cigarette smokers do not “get it”, though pipe smokers mostly do. In trying to answer this question here, that is where I live on the once flower-powered central California coast, I find the answer that elicits the most comprehension is one that compares cigars to wines. They have a lot in common.
Why to people become wine aficionados (technically known as oenophiles)? Well, of course there is alcohol which makes you high, but people who take their wine seriously are not drinking to get drunk. If they were, there are far cheaper wines and of course beers, than the ones they are getting from specialty liquor stores, tasting rooms, and wine clubs. The same is true for cigars. There are lots and lots of cheap, machine rolled cigars having plenty of nicotine. If a smoker is looking for that, there are easier and less expensive ways to get it than by smoking more expensive, hand made, boutique cigars. In both cases, something more is going on.
Wine comes from grapes, a natural product grown on vines in fields. Cigars are made from tobacco, another natural product grown in fields. Grapes are crushed and filtered. Cigar leaf is hung in airy barns to “cure” which is to dry them a bit. Grape juice is fermented into new wine, more or less of the sugars in the grape juice are converted into alcohol. The new wine is then put into barrels under climate controlled conditions to age. It is in this step that all of the various flavor compounds one tastes in wines are produced as the wood of the barrels, the little bit of air that gets through the wood, and time itself works its magic creating hundreds of different molecules that were never present in the original grape juice. The barrel aging can take from one to several years. After curing, cigar leaf is fermented. This is a different sort of fermentation than for wine. No alcohol is produced, but sugars and many other compounds in the tobacco leaf are turned into many many other compounds, potentially hundreds of them. Wine fermentation is a short process, a few days. Most of wine’s flavor compounds are produced in the aging step. Cigar fermentation takes place in big cubical piles called pilons and takes not days but months. Most of tobacco’s flavor compounds are produced in this step as are, alas, most of its carcinogenic compounds.
After barrel aging some wines are bottled, but just as frequently, aged wine from various barrels is blended with wine from other barrels. These wine in these additional barrels might be of a different age, type of grape, or both. The blends are then further aged in barrels to allow their different components to meld and produce yet more flavor compounds. Cigar leaf is taken from the pilons, sorted, and rolled into cigars by combining leaf types in various blends. Sometimes before this step it is left to age in big bales for months and in rare cases years. Rolled and blended cigars are then left for a few months (again sometimes years) in climate controlled rooms where there various tobaccos further meld their flavors.
Lots of parallels here. Vintners decide how to blend their wines to achieve various flavor profiles. Much of the time they do not know exactly how they will come out, but as long as the results are complex and taste good they succeed. The cigar world has its own version of the vintner, the blend designer who decides what proportion of what sort of leaf goes into a finished cigar. Like the vintner, they do not always know exactly how things will come out, but as long as they achieve a good tasting product with a complex flavor profile, they have succeeded. So both wines and cigars have many things in parallel, and enjoying a finely crafted cigar is much like enjoying a well made wine and the parallels do not end there, for of course besides flavors there are the aromas of both. Wine flavors are described in terms of fruits, sweetness, tannins, and flavor products of the barrel, oak, other wines, even sometimes “tobacco flavors”. Cigar flavors can range in many directions from sweet nuttiness, to vegetal, leathers, chocolate, coffee, fruit and many more. As with the wines, these are not full on flavors. A wine doesn’t taste like cherry juice, but rather might carry hints of cherry. Similarly, a cigar doesn’t taste like a mouth full of roasted mushroom or pecan, but only suggest hints of such flavors.
Besides the creation of cigars and wine there are a other parallels. Cigar smokers often buy boxes of cigars. Some are smoked soon after purchase and some are put away in humidors for months or even years. As cigars age in appropriate conditions (see my humidification articles) their flavors continue to evolve and enjoying those changes is very much a part of the cigar smoking hobby. Oenophiles buy cases of a favorite wine and store bottles in climate controlled conditions opening a bottle every few months to see how they are coming along. Like cigars in a good humidor, wines continue to evolve in their closed bottles. There is some luck and judgement involved in this. Not every wine ages well for years and the same is true for cigars. But this is much less the case for whiskeys and rums. A sealed bottle of whiskey sitting in reasonable conditions (mostly not too hot or cold) will taste pretty much the same when opened a year or even 5 years down the line. I suppose there is some evolution of flavor over many years, but I do not know of any whiskey/rum drinkers who put cases of their favorites away for decades.
Of course there are also aspects of cigar smoking that have no parallel in wine drinking and those would have mostly to do with construction. After all pouring one wine into a glass is pretty much like pouring any other wine into a glass, but cigars have to be elaborately and (one hopes) expertly constructed so that they deliver their flavors without being clogged or burning unevenly. An ounce of wine is an ounce of wine, but two different cigars of exactly the same size and shape can deliver the goods over widely varying times. I have some 4″ cigars that smoke as long as some 5″ cigars and that doesn’t mean either is bad, only that how the cigar is constructed and the types of tobacco used make for those differences. Similarly, most wines are blended to finish up in the bottle at 12% alcohol by volume. By contrast, depending on the tobacco used the amount of nicotine delivered by a cigar can vary greatly.
So no, the parallels between wine and cigar appreciation are not exact, but there are enough of them so that any wine aficionado should be well able to understand why it is that people who know, enjoy cigars! Once the parallels are understood, the reasons for smoking cigars are as similar and varied as reasons for enjoying wine. One builds up an expertise in the subject from pure experience. It is a hobby and as such relaxing. Then of course there are the pleasures of the aromas and flavors. It’s all in what you like, and what you like grows with experience. The Next time someone asks why you smoke cigars, tell them about wine!
Cigars are normally stored at a relative humidity (RH) between 63% and 70%. Sometimes they rest in an environment at the higher end of this range. Sometimes they arrive to us a little to moist to burn correctly, and many of us like to smoke them a little drier anyway because they burn better. Simply put, a “dry box” is a container into which you put one or a few cigars to dry out a bit from their normal storage RH. Depending on the RH in the box and the external temperature the process of drying can take hours or days, but it doesn’t work at all if the RH in your environment is already at or higher than your target humidity for the cigar.
I find people tend to think of dry boxes as any container without a humidifier in it. But if you live in a place where the humidity is high or about the same as your storage RH anyway, merely putting the cigar into an empty box isn’t going to do the job. To get the job done right, you need some way of sucking moisture out of the container. You could use a very low-RH Boveda packet. I think the lowest they produce is 62% and that will do the trick if you normally store your cigars at around 70%, but even that will days, possibly a week to dry the cigar even a little bit. Much better is a product like DampRid which I reviewed over here in my second article about humidification.
I rarely dry box my cigars. I normally store them at around 65% and that seems fine, but a recent purchase of a 5 pack of Cinco Maduros did not smoke very well. A decent and very dense cigar, it went out twice on me while smoking (and I was not smoking particularly slowly). It also plugged up behind the coal, a phenomenon I’m sure you have all experienced. As the coal burns it evaporates moisture from a region just behind it (called the “pyrolisis zone”). This moisture, if there is two much of it, will cause the tobacco to expand and plug the cigar. A cigar that keeps going out and also plugs from evaporation behind the coal is probably a little too moist.
Above is a picture of my dry box. Nothing but a simple cigar box with a ramekin containing a teaspoon or so of DampRid. I put a hygrometer in there so you can see just how low the moisture goes. I had to snap the picture quickly after opening the box before the value on the display changed. This box is not air tight. If I had put the box in a plastic bag and sucked most of the air out, the RH would have been pulled much lower. I might try that next time.
Because this was a particularly dense and heavy cigar, I left it in the dry box for 72 hours at that low RH. I would have smoked it after that but I haven’t had the time in the last few days, these are almost 2-hour cigars! The stick is back in one of my humidors (~65%) and I’ll smoke it as soon as I can. Will let you all know if 3 days made a difference.
UPDATE: Experiment number 2
My second experiment. I selected another of the Cinco Maduro cigars and weighed it at 18.1 grams. I put the cigar in the dry box and put the box in a plastic bag. I didn’t vacuum the bag but sealed it. 48 hours later I opened the box. You can see the RH came down to 52%. Then I weighed the cigar again, this time 17.9 grams. So the cigar lost 0.2g of water in 48 hours, that’s 4 drops from a standard eye-dropper! The cigar did smoke a little better. It only plugged up behind the coal once about half-way through, and it never went out. It also smoked a little faster but only by a few minutes. The bottom line here is that even with a true de-humidifier product in your dry box it takes a couple of days, to dry a cigar even a little bit. Unless you live in a very dry climate, a desert, dry boxing takes some days, not hours.
A quick applause to Alec Bradley for this delightful table top lighter. This is the coolest lighter I have ever owned. It looks cool and works great!
Look at the picture! The gas tank is the base of the lighter and it is a whopper holding several ounces of propane. I use it every day and fill it once a month. The burner head looks like a mushroom sprouting from the base, with slanted sides and a small flat top. From one side comes the handle with an easily accessed button you push in to light. Coming off the handle is the spark wire, nice and thick, very rugged it hangs over the burner head sparking between its point and the head to light the gas. Opposite the handle is the gas valve. One full turn is usually good to light. As the lighter burns the head warms up and the flame grows in size. You merely adjust the valve a bit to get the flame you want. All in all it has a great techie look 3.5 inches tall and 6 inches from end to end it doesn’t take up much room on the table. It’s pretty rugged too. I dropped it on a wood floor once. Landed on the burner but no damage occurred.
Notice the large soft flame, one of the best things about this lighter. A soft blue gas flame (like an old fashioned gas stove) is hotter than the yellow flame of most soft-flame style propane lighters and the flame’s area toasts and lights any cigar very quickly. Its advantages are many, but it does have a few disadvantages..
If you are like me and like to make small corrections to a cigar’s burn line it’s a bit difficult to do with this lighter. All the other disadvantages have to do with using the lighter outdoors. I smoke on a porch so I use it outside. First it is very sensitive to wind. It resists being blown out pretty well, but even a small breeze will cause the flame to dance all over the place making it difficult to find the heat. Second, the flame is pretty much invisible in daylight. Not just direct sun, but any normal daylight. Dim light before dawn or just after sunset is ok, but the lighter is at its best in the dark.
Price around $50 retail “the Burner” is available from most of the online shops that sell Alec Bradley cigars. I’ve had mine for a couple of years now. I enjoy using it very much!
When talking to people about aging cigars, and for that matter smoking cigars, I often find it useful to relate the process and experience to wine. There are a lot of parallels. Grapes and tobacco are agriculture products. From one year to the next grapes grown from the same vines have different qualities and so do tobacco leaves coming from the same field and seed-stock. This all makes sense right? Each year the amount of sun, shade, rain, average temperature, and other daily variations affects how the plant grows.
Once harvested, grapes are crushed and put into tanks where, adding a little yeast, sugar is fermented into alcohol. Tobacco leaves are dried (cured) by hanging in warm airy barns, then fermented by being pressed together into “pilons” roughly 8’x8′ pallets stacked from a few inches off the floor to about 5′ in height. The pressure, heat (135F) and reduced oxygen environments in these dense stacks causes chemical changes in the tobacco that produce all the different molecules (and the carcinogens by the way) that we sense as aromas and flavors in the tobacco when we smoke it. These include esters, aldehydes, alcohols, ketones, lactones, and so many others I’ll just call them “aromatic molecules”. The process also produces huge amounts of ammonia, something you notice immediately when you step into a tobacco fermentation room. Grape fermentation takes a few days. Tobacco fermentation takes some (sometimes many) months while each pilon is regularly rotated (inner leaves going to the outside and outer leaves to the middle) to insure that all the tobacco gets an equal amount of pressure and heat during the whole process.
After fermentation, alcoholic grape juice is typically put into oak barrels and left in a controlled temperature and moisture environment for one to two years, sometimes more. Here the parallel between wine and cigars breaks down a bit. Few cigar manufacturers age their fermented tobacco before sorting the leaves and rolling cigars. Padron is the only manufacturer I know (there are perhaps others) who age their fermented tobacco for two or more years prior to rolling from it.
Once wine has aged for a few years it is bottled. Often bottles are made from a single type of grape. Such wines are called varietals. In California (for example) a wine must be at least 75% from one grape type and one year (it might be a blend of the same grape variety from different parts of the field) to be called a varietal, sirrah for example. But many wines are also blends of several different grapes quite possibly from barrels of different ages. Cigars are almost always like these blended wines. Any number of leaves from different tobacco plants are used in the manufacture of cigars, and the presence of some leaf from long-aged tobacco is common in limited-release blends. Usually the limitation is the amount of aged leaf available to the manufacturer!
Once wine is bottled it is shipped. When cigars are rolled they are rested for two to three months (and sometimes more) in slightly drying conditions. This allows them to shed any remaining ammonia and let the hundreds of different flavor and aroma molecules meld. At the end of this process, the cigar should smoke (burn, draw, smoke-output) and taste more or less as the blender intended. Following this rest, cigars are boxed, shrink-wrapped, and shipped. It’s at this point that we pick up the wine parallel again.
Some time is consumed shipping wine and cigars from manufacturer through distributor to retailer and finally to our hands. Wine is very vulnerable at this stage. Heat a bottle of good wine to 100F in a hot warehouse or truck for a day and the wine will most likely be ruined. The whole wine supply chain normally stays climate controlled. Cigars are a bit more rugged. A few days too hot, cold, moist, or dry doesn’t seem to bother them much. I do not know if cigars are climate controlled in the journey from factory to retailer (for economic reasons I would tend to doubt it) where we hope they are kept properly! I routinely have cigars ground shipped from the U.S. East to West coast in all seasons, a 5-7 day trip. I doubt they are climate controlled anywhere in this journey, although many retailers do put little Bovida packets in their shipments for just this reason. Out of hundreds of boxes a few arrive a little dry or moist, but most are just fine.
So open a bottle of new (say 2 year aged) wine and a cigar ROTT (that’s “right off the truck” if you don’t know that one yet). The wine tastes good, and the cigar likewise. Of course we don’t know how long the wine or the cigar has been with the retailer. With wine this can be a big problem and many aficionados buy their wine directly from the winery — wine clubs are hugely popular in California for this reason. This can be a problem with cigars too, but we rely on our retailers to hold the cigars in a reasonable environment. I’ve received boxes of cigars with two year-old dates stamped into them. All of these cigars were fine, and delicious, but of course I don’t know what they would have tasted like two years prior.
Let’s make believe that our bottle of wine left is barrel and our cigar its factory a few months ago for the sake of comparison. What happens when we leave the bottle and the cigar to sit for a while in conditions appropriate to each? Sometimes some magic happens.
After say a month the wine should not have changed much at all. Wine flavors evolve because hundreds of flavor molecules interact within the wine. The water and alcohol make chemical reactions possible between these molecules and new molecules are produced. This process happens more quickly in the barrel but it continues in the bottle although of course without the barrel’s influence. Cigars are a different story. The cigar’s environment isn’t liquid. Chemical reactions (and molecule formation) in fermentation are a product of heat, pressure and reduced oxygen. Although different tobacco leaves (and combinations of flavor molecules) are brought into contact when a cigar is rolled, there isn’t any heat or pressure to induce further chemical changes that form new molecules except by the break-down of existing molecules.
Cigars flavors don’t evolve so much because molecules are being combined, but because existing molecules break down and/or evaporate! Some of the break-down products of aromatic molecules are also aromatic with completely different contributions to the overall flavor of the smoke. Most importantly, these volatile molecules break down and evaporate at different rates. Resting the cigar causes a slight re-adjustment of proportions in its flavor molecules. In some cases (although this shouldn’t happen) a manufacturer releases a cigar a little too early and there is still some ammonia evaporating from its leaves. It might also arrive a little dry or moist. A few weeks to a month in our humidors will acclimate the cigar to our preferred smoking environment. Often the most pungent and sharp (ammonia being a serious offender here) molecules evaporate the fastest leaving a cigar noticeably more balanced after a few months rest, perhaps something the blender intended.
As rest extends from a few months to a year and more it becomes aging. Wines age slowly protected as they are by thick glass bottles and corks that let, at most, a few air molecules in or out of the bottle. Cigars continue their evaporation/break-down progression. As cigars age over a few years, the proportions of aromatic molecules remaining in them change dramatically and as one would expect this has a great impact on their flavor. Relatively speaking, a wine changes as much in ten years as a cigar does in two. In the wine’s case, some molecules have broken down, while various new ones might be built up but none of these molecules gets out of the bottle! In the cigar’s case, everything is about molecular proportions changing as volatile molecules break-down or evaporate from the cigar.
After two years, a cigar having relatively few aromatic molecules when it was young has almost nothing of them even if the cigar is kept in good condition. The leaf might be perfectly smoke-able, it just won’t have much flavor in it. By contrast a full flavored cigar with relatively many volatile molecules in its youth might still have quite a few left after two years but their proportions will have changed dramatically. Molecules that contributed little to the cigar’s flavor years before might now dominate. After a while most of what is left in old cigar leaf is sugar and amino acids that are too big to evaporate. When burned together they form pyridines and pyrazines which are responsible for the dominant note in cigar smoke (fresh or aged), but do not by themselves have much nuance in aroma or flavor. It’s all the other extras, if any, that add the flavors and aromas we look for in cigar smoke.
Here’s where things get interesting and the cigar-wine parallel comes back full force. Sometimes a good young wine is even better in five years, and sometimes not. If good after five years it might be bad (or even better) after ten. There are wines that are characteristically better or worse aging performers, but that is only broadly true and bottling (different years) of the same grape blend can vary here. In the end, when sampling a ten or twenty year old wine (even kept in perfect conditions) you just have to see how it comes out. The same thing happens to cigars. As the proportions of flavorful molecules change the cigar’s taste profile changes and much of the time for the better up to a point. Most smokers agree that cigar flavors are a bit less sharp, more rounded, balanced, and even a little sweeter after a few months rest. This seems even to happen with cigars whose tobaccos are considerably aged prior to rolling. Sometimes (and much here depends on the individual palate) this improvement continues up to a few years, but sometimes it doesn’t and the cigar becomes hot, flat, and uninteresting.
As with wine there are characteristic tobaccos that age well as compared to those that do not, and at the same time there is a lot of individual variation from year to year and manufacturer to manufacturer. I mentioned palate above. Wine experts tend to agree about a given wine. Most will agree about flavor improvement or lack of improvement and in what way the flavor changes with age. There is much less agreement among cigar smokers. There are cigars I believe taste better fresh and are less flavorful after a year or more. Others will feel just the opposite about the same cigars made about the same time from the same crop! I’ve also had cigars that were, to me, mediocre when fresh (other smokers loved them) that were far tastier after two years forgotten at the bottom of my humidor.
Do I age my cigars? Well I buy cigars by the box and I have many different cigars so even when I’m smoking through a box “quickly” it takes about six months. A box of more expensive cigars goes more slowly and I will always have one or two cigars remaining after a year or more. Finally I have deliberately set cigars aside for two years just to see how they evolved. In some cases the results were excellent, in others, not so much. What about the plastic wrapper on many cigars; on or off for aging? I happen to like the plastic, it protects the cigar, but I often cut the foot off of it to let the cigar breath a little more. I do this when transferring cigars from box to humidor so it just remains that way if the cigar ends up aging. I have however also aged cigars that had no plastic wrap to begin with. If your humidor is properly maintained you shouldn’t have any problem with or without the plastic.
I do urge you to give cigar aging a try if you can, another dimension to the hobby. At the same time I don’t sweat it too much. Most of the time my cigars taste fine ROTT and a couple months rest never hurts them. As I’m smoking mostly less expensive cigars these days the more expensive sticks I yet have are going slowly, but I still smoke them now and then. I probably have a dozen cigars over two years old, but that seems to be the limit to improvement for most and some are past their peak at that point. I recently had a four year old cigar and it was delicious with a rich brown sugar flavor. But it was a one-of-a-kind gift and so I have no idea what it might have tasted like when younger.
This link will take you to a good technical paper on the chemistry of cigar tobacco in particular with comparison to cigarette tobacco preparation. It is heavy on the anti-cancer angle concerning tobacco, but the list of chemicals and other components of fermented tobacco is really good.
Here is a link to another aging essay by RobustoJoe who gets the credit for the pilon picture. On the whole he and I agree, but he claims that fermentation continues as cigars age, something I think is not correct.
So this was interesting. This rum dropped off my favorites list some time back, but I found a bottle at 20% discount so I thought I would try it again and see why. I also chose, more or less randomly from my collection, this Blanco 9 lancero to smoke. I reviewed the cigar some time ago. Let me quickly describe the rum and then I’ll get to the pairing.
Santa Teresa 1796 is a Venezuelan rum and was the third rum I began to drink after my local retailer ran out of Mocambo 20 and Pampero Anniversario R.E. Upon first trying it, I loved it and drank it almost exclusively for most of a year until I began to try and buy a greater variety of rums. Soon it became too expensive at my retailer. I had a few bottles so I still returned to it frequently, but as my experience with other rums grew I found I favored it less and less. This really became apparent to me when my retailer restocked Mocambo and Pampero and I found those to be every bit as interesting as they were before I ever tried Santa Teresa.
A medium yellow amber in the glass with medium legs and light on the nose. There is little alcohol, some bright apricot and perhaps banana along with a darker prune background and a little brown sugar and caramel. Tasting the rum first it is smooth, only moderately sweet (sugar tests show at most 7g/liter which isn’t much). It is a little creamy, and one gets a sense of mixed bright and dark fruit along with brown sugar, caramel, and warm baking spices. But the whole profile is flat, sort of combined together into one flavor with no layering. The rum is very smooth with a nice creaminess and no young alcohol or varnish notes, just a little warming going down. The finish is short though not at all bitter with quickly vanishing fruit-flavored caramel notes. The rum certainly isn’t bad, just not as complex, rich, and layered as I’ve come to enjoy in many other rums I’m drinking these days.
But you just never know what a drink’s flavor profile will do to a particular cigar until you try them together. Now as you can see from my review of the Blanco 9 sometime back, I thought the cigar was good but not great. So it took me by great surprise when, having smoked a half inch or so of the cigar I took a nice swallow of the rum and then turned immediately to the cigar. Wow! Brown sugar sweetness, the aroma of balsa wood (very sweet smelling wood when fresh), and something like cinnamon popped out of the cigar. I got a similar effect each time I sipped the rum at least through the first half of the cigar. After that the effect faded, but perhaps my own palate was becoming a little desensitized. Hard to say with these subjective experiences, but throughout I noticed that when I took a good pull on the cigar and then tried the rum, the rum seemed even flatter that I first thought.
In any case, another example of a pretty good pairing, at least how the rum enhances flavors in the cigar even when neither the drink nor the cigar are top-of-the-line items.
There are two kinds of humidification devices, passive and active. I’ll cover the active ones first because I do not have any to show you. The link just below will take you to a few.
Active humidifiers are for big humidors, stand-up cabinets, walk-ins, and such that have the room to hold them. I do not have a humidor large enough for even a small active system. These should have a fan that circulates the air in the humidor so the rh is the same throughout. The fan might not be on all the time, but it should cycle on and off.
I didn’t mention this in part I, but it happens that moist air is lighter than dry air so if you have a big humidor (doesn’t matter for the desktop or even end-table furniture types) and you don’t circulate the air, the water vapor it the box will float towards the top and the rh (remember “relative humidity” from Part I) near the top will be higher than near the bottom.
Active systems use (we hope) accurate and stable rh detection to determine the moisture level in the humidor and when it drops too low, the humidor begins to blow tiny water droplets into the air. These tiny droplets evaporate almost instantly (at least that’s the idea) and become water vapor raising the rh. Once in a while, depending on how often they must be on, you fill the water tank.
From what I can see all of these devices rely on the fact that in most homes, the rh of the air is lower than where we want it for our cigars. Active humidifiers do not have any means of lowering the rh in the humidor if it is too high. If you have to do this, an active de-humidifier is even larger than a small humidifier. Here’s a link to the smallest one I could find. I don’t think that these are generally good for cigars. Most operate by refrigerating hollow coils of metal (the one pictured in the link above says it doesn’t do this, but it doesn’t say how it works either). When air passes over the cold coils, its moisture condenses on them (remember carrying capacity and temperature from Part I) and then drips into a little container. The problem is that chilling the coils (or anything) takes energy and that produces heat. Along with water, heat is also extracted from the air passing over the coils. That means these devices pump out heat somewhere. Unless you have modified your humidor with a port and can connect it up to the de-humidifier to dump the heat outside the box, you will be warming your cigars perhaps more than you want. Of course if your place is both cold and damp all the time (perhaps you live in an Scottish castle?) and you have a walk-in big enough for one of these things, then the heat gives you a double bonus! Lucky there are passive-dehumidifiers that work pretty well for large-ish spaces like cabinets and even closet sized walk-ins. Here is one de-humidifier that might work for larger cabinets. Not exactly active, it uses silicon beads (see below) but also tells you when they have become damp enough to need drying. You plug this in to dry the beads out.
Passive systems include those picutred above. On the lower left of the first picture are all the variations I use. The stocking is filled with scent-free silicon kitty litter crystals. A bag of these is shown on the lower right. This stuff costs about $15 for 7 pounds at a pet store. ALL my use together comes to about 4 pounds, and since they never needs replacing (sometimes drying) I’ve got lots… This litter is just small silicon beads pictured in the glass ramekin in the middle of the picture. Notice how some of the beads in the picture are translucent. These are moistened beads and so this bottle (the bottles are always full but I spilled beads out to show them to you) is one of my “wet” or “breath out” bottles. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Now silicon beads happen to breath water-vapor in and out at about 65-70% rh. They weren’t designed to do this, they just happen to be that way. When the rh goes up, they absorb a little vapor, when it goes down, they release it. I put about 3 pounds of these beads into stockings (my girl friend is very generous with her old stockings) and then into my 40 quart coolidor (which holds about 20 boxes of cigars). Big stockings are stabilizers. I never wet or dry those, and they were all dry to start. I use the bottles (pill bottles with small holes drilled all over them and filled with beads) to bring the rh in the coolidor up or down. If the rh in my home is on the low side I put bottles (4-6) with moist (not soaking wet) beads into the coolidor. If it is high, I put bottles of dry beads in there. I keep separate bottles of moist/dry beads so I can just swap them out. To dry the beads, I dump them into a shallow pan and put them in an oven at about 250F for an hour or so until all the beads are solid white in color. I do this maybe twice a winter if the weather is really wet. I also use the smaller bottles in my smaller tabletop humidors. Same idea. Wet when the rh is low outside, dry when its high with a small sock of dry beads in the lid for a stabilizer. This isn’t a lot of work by the way. I only have to “do anything” about the beads every few months if even that.
Also in the picture are a couple of “DryMistat” sticks. These use ethelyne glycol and water (you fill them once in a while) and the mixture is also supposed to breath at about 70%. But the ethelyne glycol also evaporates (slowly) and so once a year or so I have to put more in the tube. To do this I buy a few once in a while and use them to fill the others. Evaporating ethlyene glycol is odorless and colorless so it doesn’t affect the cigars. I use some velcro to stick these to the inside of the lids of my humidors (second picture). Finally, I also use Boveda packs sometimes especially when traveling. I have a small travel humidor, but it only holds 4 cigars. Easier to take a quart sized ziplock that holds 10 cigars or more and throw a Bovida pack into it.
What I do not have to show you are Heartfelt beads. These are made from modified silicon beads with other mineral salts (like lithium chloride) bound up with them. The salt plus silicon combination does a better job of breathing and can take in, store, and let out more water vapor than the silicon alone. Because they are more efficient, you don’t need as much of it to do the job, but I do not know if they can be fully dried out for de-humidification purposes. I don’t see why not.
In summary here, silicon beads are cheap but you need a lot of them to get the job done. Heartfelt are more efficient, but I don’t know how much more and they are somewhat expensive. DryMistat sticks work but are also expensive. Bovida is supposed to be two way, but I don’t see it doing as good a job at pulling moisture out of the air as putting it in. Most cigar smokers are familiar with these devices. They all work pretty well to put water vapor into the air and most of the time this is mostly what we need because the inside of our homes, especially when we use any heat, usually has a lower rh than the outside. If you live in a place where the windows are open all the time, then the inside pretty much is the same rh as the outside. The odd thing happens if you cool your house. Cooling should raise the rh very high, but air conditioners are also de-humidifiers and pull water out of the air dumping it outside with their waste heat. Air conditioned air is often very dry!
So mostly we want to humidify. But sometimes we do want to de-humidify. We want to take [some] water vapor out of the air in our humidors. None of the two-way products above do this as well as they put water in. I have found this one product that does do that job (pictured). DampRid is sort of a flaky powder, anhydrous calcium chloride. ‘Anhydrous’ means it has no water in it. This stuff really sucks down moisture. I put a tablespoon in a bowl (why the bowl in a minute) and put that in a small tupperware container along with one of my digital hygrometers reading 68%. In about 6 hours the rh in the container was lower than the hygrometer would measure — my cheap hygrometers only go down to about 32%. According to the DampRid site it won’t pull the humidity down to zero but they don’t say where it stops. I know that in a small container (like a humidor) it would probably go pretty low.
DampRid is fantastic for dry boxing! Many smokers like to store their cigars near 70% rh, but smoke them closer to 60% because they burn better. The problem is that merely putting a cigar in an empty box (no humidifiers) won’t do anything if the rh in the air is higher than you want the cigar to be when you smoke it. A cigar can’t get drier than the air around it. The process can also take a while. Take a cigar in a 70% humidor and put it in a box where the air is 60% and the cigar can take a couple of days (depending on the temperature) to reach the lower humidity. A tupperware or small humidor with a little DampRid in a small cup and nothing else will dry a cigar for smoking in a few hours.
The reason you put DampRid in a little bowl or cup or something is that when the product pulls enough water from the air it liquifies (all the calcium chloride dissolves) and stops working. This dissolving process takes a while though unless your air is really wet. I see that a tablespoon of the stuff will regulate my humidor air for a few weeks at least maybe longer. If it ever goes completely liquid (it hasn’t come close in a week so far) I’ll try boiling off the water and see if I can reconstitute the stuff. Meanwhile, even if I can’t this is not an expensive product. $5 buys about a pound which should be enough for 6 months.
Meanwhile, what I’m doing is putting 2 tablespoons in a small ramekin and putting that in the corner of my humidors. I put 6 tablespoons (in a small mug) in my coolidor too. I left all the humidification devices in the humidors and coolidor because I want them to balance out the DampRid. The DampRid seems to pull the rh in all my boxes down about 5-7% (remember all my humidification stuff is in them too). Between the humidifiers and the DampRid, the environment balances out pretty well so far. It never seems to be “too high” any more, but it can sometimes be “too low”! If a few “very dry days” come along I’ll take the DampRid out of the boxes. Meanwhile I’ll keep monitoring them all and let you know what happens.
I’ve been playing with different passive humidifiers for years, but I’ve only had the DampRid in the last few weeks. It certainly works but I don’t yet know how convenient it will be in the long term. But none of this stuff, even all of it together, does a perfect job. Luckily, our cigars are pretty rugged. If the rh in your humidors floats around between 62% and 72% every day the cigars are doing fine.
My humidors are inexpensive Chinese made boxes. My 150 count humidor (for example) cost me about $100. They do OK, but a $2000 hand-made box (like this one) would probably do much better. Be that as it may, I’m not going to afford one any time soon. I’ll keep playing around with all of these products and let you know how it is going from time to time.
The need for humidification or dehumidification is familiar to all cigar smokers who keep any cigars (perhaps in plastic bags) longer than a few weeks. Cigars smoke and taste best when they have just the right amount of moisture in their leaves. If cigars are too moist they don’t burn right and they can split at the foot when moisture expands in the leaves behind the burning coal. The expanding water swells the tobacco and often splits the wrapper. If cigars are too dry, they smoke too quickly and have little taste other than burning ash.
In part I I’m going to talk about what “relative humidity” (from now on “rh”) is and why we measure it. I’m also going to talk a bit about hygrometers, the tool we use to measure rh.
We live in an ocean of air, and this air can carry in it dissolved water. Water dissolved in air is “water vapor” and is invisible except when we look a long way out to the horizon. Air that is saturated or nearly saturated with water becomes like a very thin fog and obscures objects and colors. When there is little or no water in air we can see detail and vibrant colors to much greater distances.
Air can hold different amounts of water at different temperatures. This chart illustrates the water carrying capacity of air. The chart shows what’s called “absolute humidity”, the actual amount of water in a cubic meter (or foot or yard or inch) of air. As temperature drops, the carrying capacity of air drops too. Air pressure also matters, but the air pressure over the surface of the Earth is so uniform that for most earth-bound purposes it makes a very small difference.
Rh is the percentage of water actually in the air compared to what it could carry. Look at the third chart down. If the temperature is 80F, the chart shows that a thousand cubic feet of air (that would be a 10’x10’x10′ box) can hold 1.6 pounds of water. If that much water were actually dissolved in air of that temperature, that would be 100% relative humidity. The air is carrying as much water as it can possibly dissolve at that temperature. At 60F air can hold only 0.8 pounds of water in a thousand cubic feet. That means that 0.8 pounds of water is 100% relative humidity at 60F.
Now suppose we have some actual air in our thousand cubic foot box at 80F. Somehow we learn that this air only has 0.8 pounds of water in it. That’s half (1.6/2) as much water as it could hold at that temperature. That air has an rh of 50%, half its water carrying capacity. The same would be true of our 60F air if it contained 0.4 pounds of water. At 60F 0.4 pounds of water per thousand cubic feet is half that (temperature) air’s carrying capacity, also 50%.
Cigars have some water mixed up with all the other things within them. There is still water in the cells of the leaf and bound up with all the oils and other things that give the leaf its flavor. Our cigars are best smoked when there is a certain amount of water in them, not too little, and not too much. We can measure the actual content of water in a cigar but it turns out this is a very expensive (costly instrument) thing to do. There is another way. We can take a cigar and weigh it on a very delicate and accurate scale. Then we put the cigar in an oven and dry it until there is no water left. We weigh it again, and the difference between the first and second weighing is the amount of water that was in the cigar. Of course, now the cigar is a dried out unsmokable shadow of its former self, so this technique is out, it destroys our cigars!
But we are lucky. Rh is easy and less expensive to measure and it happens to give a very good indication of cigar conditions. Here’s why. Suppose we take two cigars and put them into two boxes containing air with no water in it. In one box we raise the temperature to 80F and the other to 60F. The water in the cigar in the hotter box will evaporate much faster than will the water in the cigar in the cooler box. To keep the cigars at their optimum moisture will require more water (in pounds or grams) in the hotter box than in the cooler one. It turns out that the water we need in each box happens to be the amount in air holding about 65% of the water it could carry! This works at temperatures from about 60F to 80F. If we find some way of keeping the air in our humidors at around 65% rh there is the right amount of water in the humidor air to keep our cigars healthy at reasonable temperatures.
Hygrometers (pictured above) are what we use to measure rh. We keep them inside our humidors and we can see the rh inside the box when we look at those with outside mounted display or lift the lid to look inside. Of course once you lift the lid the rh in your humidor changes in a few seconds to match the air in your room, but the analog hygrometers change slowly and the digital ones are made to respond slowly and change only every ten seconds giving you time to look at the numbers when you open your humidor. There are two common types of hygrometer, analog (the dial) and digital (the numbers). Cheap analog hygrometers often come with small humidors, either showing on the front or magnetically attached to the inside of the lid. They do work, but they aren’t very accurate. A reading of 65% might be anything between 60% and 70%. There are ways to check these devices and I will get into that in a bit. The only real advantage to analog hygrometers is the “analog look”. They can be art.
The other common type of hygrometer is an inexpensive digital like the one pictured (about $20 on Amazon), and while they may look more accurate, the one in the picture says 65% after all, they are really not much more accurate than the cheap analog ones. That 65% reading tells me the real rh is somewhere between 60% and 70% the same as the analog! You can buy more accurate hygrometers of either type but they are more expensive. For $50 or $60 I believe you can buy digital hygrometers accurate to +/-2%. The most accurate analog hygrometers use boar’s hair as the element that stretches (more humid) or shrinks (drier) to move the dial. They typically cost hundreds of dollars but they are nice works of mechanical art! There are better analog devices in the $100 range. For that price you can get a really good digital, though the “analog look” is really nice!
There is a bright side to the inaccuracy story. Even a cheap hygrometer, although inaccurate, is pretty consistently inaccurate. That means if it reads too low it will read too low all the time. Although the consistency varies with the temperature, within the small range we like to keep our cigars, say 65F to 75F or so, the hygrometers are pretty consistent. So if you know that your hygrometer reads low or high, you can know to about +/-2% what the real rh is. Some hygrometers, digital and analog, have a little set button or wheel that lets you program the rh when you actually know what it is. If the real rh is 75% and the hygrometer reads 71% you can change the hygrometer. But not all hygrometers have this feature, and certainly not the most inexpensive ones. So what do you do?
Take a small bowl (a ramekin is great) and put a few tablespoons of salt in it. Add some water to the salt, just enough to wet it but not dissolve it. If you put your little bowl of wet salt and your hygrometer into a ziplock bag or small air tight tupperware container. In a little while (24 hours is more than enough) the salt/water mix will bring the rh in the container to 75% at any reasonable cigar temperature. Look at the hygrometer (preferably while the bag/container is still sealed). If it reads 72% you know it is always going to be about 3% low. If it says 79%, it’s 4% high. Now you can know, with a little more confidence, the real rh in the humidor. If your hygrometer reads 4% high, a reading of 68% means the real rh is 64%, etc.
I’m surprised by how many people tell me they cannot retro-hale. Not only that they don’t quite know how to do it, but that they have tried and are incapable of it. Unless you come from another planet, or your sinuses are completely and permanently blocked so that you cannot, ever, breath through your nose, not being able to retro-hale is plainly impossible.
There is, in human beings (and in fact most all of the air-breathing vertebrate animals) a connection between the nose and the mouth. It is this connection that enables you to breath with your mouth closed. Air enters (or leaves) your nose, goes into (or out of) your mouth, and from there into (or out of) your trachea, the tube that goes from the back of your mouth to your lungs. Here is a diagram of the connection.
Retro-haling is something that, as cigar smokers, we want to be able to do. By pushing smoke out through your nose the aromatic molecules in the smoke are more fully sensed and appreciated. You don’t need to retro-hale to smell your cigar of course. First there is smoke in the air around the cigar that we can smell, and some of the smoke in your mouth will drift into your nose (though the holes in the roof of your mouth) whether you retro-hale or not. Retro-haling can be harsh on the nose especially with a peppery cigar. As a consequence most people who do retro-hale don’t do it on every puff, and they also learn to control the process so that only some of the smoke is pushed out through the nose.
Why many cigar smokers cannot retro-hale
Now it turns out that many people exhale, that is empty their lungs of air, before or during the act of taking a puff of a cigar. It is that habit, and nothing more, that makes retro-haling impossible. To retro-hale you need some air in your lungs. If your lungs are empty and your mouth is filled with smoke, you must take some air into your lungs before you can blow anything out through your nose. This is problematic with cigars because once there is smoke in your mouth, taking in air forces that smoke (at least some of it) into your lungs, something that most cigar smokers do not (for many good reasons) want to do. So the big secret to retro-haling is having some air in your lungs (and keeping it there) before you take a puff of the cigar.
Here are the simple steps to retro-haling
1. Take a breath. Get some air in your lungs.
2. Take a good puff of your cigar without exhaling while you do it.
3. Close your mouth.
4. Exhale with your mouth closed.
If there is any smoke in your mouth, it can only get out one way, through your nose! Congratulations! You have just retro-haled!
Controlling the process
As noted above, cigar smoke can be harsh on the nose. Cigar smokers control the retro-hale process in two ways.
First, take only a little smoke into your mouth.
Second, take a good puff but let some of the smoke out through your mouth before closing it and exhaling the rest through your nose.
The second method is usually preferred because you have more control over what is pushed out through your nose. The process takes a little practice — about 5 minutes worth! Give it a try and enhance your cigar experience!
In part I I discussed some general pairing principles. Part II covered non-alcoholic and some alcoholic pairings.
There is something magical about rum. All the other flavorful spirits begin to degrade when a bottle is opened and one begins to drink from it. The less whiskey in the bottle, the greater the surface to volume ratio and that means the air in the bottle has a more rapid effect on what remains. Mostly that’s bad. Wine degrades most quickly. Once opened, a dry wine will improve for a day as it breaths, but then rapidly spoiles over the next week unless one does something to preserve it. Sweet wines fare a bit better. Perhaps the sugar helps to maintain them for a month or a little longer. Rye, scotch, bourbon and the brandies all degrade but over months, even longer if they are kept fairly cool. Here it is probably the alcohol content that helps to preserve them. Rums are different. Not only do they last for months, possibly even years, but even warm temperatures don’t seem to bother them very much. Some claim that rums get better with age, and the warmer the climate around them the better.
Back in the 18th, 19th, and even into the 20th century the British navy gave every sailor a “rum ration”, I suppose as a pick-me-up and “at-a-boy” morale booster. Before they tried rum, they tried wines (spoiled rapidly) and brandy which lasted longer, but still not for the months a ship might be at sea in varying climates. Not only did rum not spoil, but sailors claimed it got better — or they got less discriminating! I have had open bottles of rum for as much as a year without noticing any degradation in the product.
Another thing about rums is how many there are. As compared to other spirits, there are few laws governing what can or cannot be called a “rum”. The French have more rules than anyone else. Rums carrying the French certification are labled “rhums” and are called “agricoles” or “agricultural rhums”. The rules govern feedstock (sugar cane or cane juice) as well as how they are blended, and aged. There are some sugar cane rums that do not meet the French standards, perhaps because something is added to the final blend, or different distillate generations are mixed together to create a final product.
But rum wasn’t originally made from sugar cane which was too valuable to ferment. Instead it was the by-product of sugar production, molasses, originally considered waste, that was first fermented and turned into rum. The great majority of rums today begin with molasses or a mix of molasses and cane juice. These are called “industrial rums” by the French, but no matter the possibly derrogatory intent of the term, most of the world’s favored rums are molasses-based.
Many of rum’s flavors come from the ageing barrels. The wood is oak, but many (if not most) rums are aged in barrels previously used for other products including wine (especially ports and sherries), bourbon, and even scotch, and there are rums aged in multiple barrels (or blended from different barrels) to add yet more layers of flavor. Sometimes the interior of the barrels is charred or roasted which adds caramel and vanilla notes to the rum. But apart from sugars that come from what the barrels previously contained (or caramelized in the wood charring process) pure rum is not particularly sweet. Despite being made from sugar or molasses, there is no sugar in the distillates that are blended and aged. The really sweet rums are sweet because sugar is added to them as a part of the blending process. Not only sugar (in greater or lesser quantities) but sometimes other flavorings (orange, vanilla), colorings, and possibly products to add creaminess to the texture. The rules do not forbid these additives but they are supposed to be noted on lables. Generally, they are not!
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention dunder pits, a flavor-enhancing technique unique (as far as I know) to rums. Many rum producers do not simply discard the wash (cane or molasses feed-stock) remaining after distillation. Instead, they throw it into a pit where it mixes with many previous wash generations. Inside these pits, the warm climate of most rum producing countries coupled with the yeasts present in all the wash generations continue to produce chemical changes. These changes produce hundreds of aromatic esters not to be found in the fermentation product of a fresh wash. Some portion of this dunder is mixed back with each fresh batch of feed-stock enriching the fermentation and the distillate! Banana and other ripe fruit notes in rums can emerge from this mix.
There has been some interesting discussion about added sugar in rum and a few sites have put up lists of rums and the extra sugar they contain. A few of them are linked here from alcademics, The Rum Project, and a good article (with more links) explaining how the tests are conducted can be found at thefatrumpirate website. To put some perspective on this however a 1 liter bottle of Coca Cola has 108 grams of sugar, 4-5 times the amount in even the most heavily sugared rums. The debate in the rum community is not so much over the presence of sugar (though other additives are more universally frowned upon) but the lack of honest labling of the final product. But good or bad, the enormous variety of rums available at all prices stems partly from the variety (and quantity) of additives added during the final blending steps. In fact, one experiment demonstrates how sugar alone, added in different quantities, completely changes a rum. Of course more sugar makes the rum smoother, but as the sugar content is increased, different flavor notes also emerge. A producer might take the same aged product, add different amounts of sugar, and come up with 4 or 5 different rums!
This variety of flavors and sweetness levels (ranging from fairly dry [Barbancourt, Old Monk] to very sweet [Diplomatico R.E. and many others]) sets the stage for hundreds of possible cigar pairings even with reasonably priced quality rums. Not all rums are inexpensive of course, but there are far more good rums at reasonable prices ($50 or less) than high-quality cognacs, scotches, bourbons, and ryes.
Apart from an occasional beer outside on a hot day, the first alcoholic drinks I paired with cigars were cognac and Irish Mist. I first paired cognac (and brandies) with cigars almost 40 years ago. In those days I wasn’t smoking very often, perhaps three or four machine-made cigars (ever try a Black Watch?) a year. It wasn’t until about 15 years ago that I discovered premium hand rolled cigars, but even then, and until about 5 years ago (it’s 2015 now) I wasn’t smoking very much. It wasn’t that I liked cognac so much by itself and I can remember drinking it without a cigar in my hand on only a few occasions. But cognac does go well with cigars. It pulls out sweetness in cigars as well as black coffee notes and sometimes dark fruits. The cigar seems to make the cognac a little sweeter too, But the whole effect is rather subtle. I have to think about it alot to notice what I’m getting from both the cognac and the cigar.
It was 20 or more years ago that I was introduced to Irish Mist, a liqueur composed of Irish Whiskey, honey, and some other unspecified spices. As such it is a completely artificial product. Before Irish Mist I’d tasted other liqueurs like Drambuie, Grand Marnier, and Bennedictine. They were all way too sweet for me. Irish Mist is different. It is sweet, certainly sweet enough to be a liqueur, but not as sweet as the others. I liked it right away. There is nothing subtle about the effect of Irish Mist on cigars. You can’t help tasting honey in the cigar after a sip. Other cigar flavors complimented by a honey like sweetness are also elevated, dark fruit and coffee notes among them.
After some years of smoking and pairing the two products began to get repetitive. Good cognac was expensive (I like my whiskey smooth), and Irish Mist, while inexpensive, provided no variety. I began to ask around the cigar forums for suggestions. The scotches, ryes, and bourbons came up but I’ve tried a few over the years and never developed a taste for them. Then someone suggested rums reasoning that “they come from the same part of the world as cigars…” That was enough of an idea to try them at least. Pyrat XO was a reputedly decent “premium rum” available from a small retailer nearby. I poured myself a small glass and took a sip while smoking a cigar. The Pyrat is sweet and very orangy. It is one of the “sweeter rums” and has extra sugar (24g/l)and flavoring (orange at least) But it isn’t quite as sweet as Irish Mist. The bright fruit flavors in the Pyrat didn’t do much for the cigar, but the sweetness was just right. Differences from one cigar to another stood out against the rum while the sweetness compensated for woody and earthy cigar flavors but let them come through. I was on my way to exploring rums.
I’ve since tried some 40 or more rums and one thing I’ve learned is to return to old favorites after a while. My rum taste having grown more discriminating, a few of my early favorites now taste artificial and heavily doctored. Angostura (1919 and 1824), Papa’s Pilar (light and dark), and Atlantico Private Cask are now off my list while a 20-year (if rums lables state years, they usually refer to the oldest rum in the blend) Mocambo,(very oaky and smokey) still remains one of my favorite cigar pairing rums as does Santa Teresa 1796 and Pampero Anniversario. I don’t think any of these last are pure (unsugared) but nor are they overly sweet and there doesn’t seem to be anything in them besides a little sugar. One of the more heavily sugared rums (30g/l), El Dorado 15-year (El Dorado is a rare exception listing the youngest rum in the blend on their lables) remains one of my favorites (along with everyone else). This rum has a funky background flavor (more on this below) that perfectly compensates the sweetness. El Dorado 12 year (35g/l) is likewise delicious but lacks this compensating funk. Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva (35g/l) is delicious but liqueur sweet, while the Reserva version (20g/l) is very dry by comparison. Dos Maderas 5×5 (36g/l), with dry coffee and tobacco notes cutting the sugar, remains a great pairing rum for my palate.
I have discovered and enjoy a few of the purer rums, though I’ve yet to try a genuinely official agricole. Barbancourt 5-star, from the French community of Haiti is a cane juice rum but lacks the official French blessing, perhaps because it contains a few grams of sugar. It is only mildly sweet with subtly balanced flavors that well compliment almost any cigar. In fact, this inexpensive rum ($25 for a 750ml bottle in the U.S.) pairs well with everything from mild to strong cigars. Old Monk, an Indian rum once (thanks to the population of India) the largest selling rum in the world, has very little added sugar (3g/l). It is still distinctly sweet and there are warm spice aromas in it that make me wonder if there is anything else there (perhaps an ageing secret, but Indian cuisine has so many spices), but it pairs very nicely bringing out a brown sugar and roasted nut quality in a cigar. Brugall 1888 is a delicious and only slightly sugared “quiet rum”, distinctly more refined than the Barbancourt, but much more expensive at near $80/bottle. Like the Barbancourt, it compliments many cigars.
Pusser’s Navy Rum, 42% ABV and 6g/l sugar deserves its own paragraph. At $25/750ml bottle it is (along with the Barbancourt 5-star) the least expensive rum in my collection. Only lightly sugared (6g/l), it has the strangest flavor of all my rums. The blending formula is supposed to be the same (secret) used by the British Navy for a century and a half. There are supposed to be rums blended together from 7 different sources. Above I mentioned a funky background flavor I find in El Dorado 15. That same flavor (thefatrumpirate suggests I am tasting the product of a wooden pot still) dominates Pusser’s. It strikes me as something of a cross between mold and rotting vegetables. Some have called it “putrid”, but it is a flavor for which one can develop a taste. As for cigar pairing, Pusser’s brings out the vegetal and earthy flavors in a strong cigar, but it washes out everything in a mild one. All of my other rums contrast and compliment cigars with sweetness, coffee, tobacco, dark fruit (bright fruit in the case of Pyrat), and oak. By comparison, the strong vegetal component in Pusser’s highlights those notes in cigars while providing dramatic contrast to any sweetness present.
There are many more rums I want to try. Many of the best are simply not available to me locally or even at all in the U.S., while many that are available are just too expensive. I keep looking though and I will keep reporting as my palate evolves. Experiment! Find rums you like and try them with different cigars. Remember, if a drink and a cigar compliment one another to your palate, then it’s a good pairing!