Common Sense Cigar Pairing Part II

some pairing options
A few non-rum related pairing options. Some of these I haven’t touched in years.

In part I I covered a few general principles. Here I’ll get into the effect of different drink categories. In part III I cover rums.

Non-Alcoholic Pairings

Cigar and alcohol pairings are legion, but some people can’t drink alcohol, many can’t drink it with every cigar, and others don’t particularly enjoy it in any form. Fear not! Remember, if it works for you, it’s a good pairing. I’ve already mentioned water and carbonated water. For a change up, try a little lemon in the water or even a little lemon and sugar; enough to be detectable, but not to make lemonade.

Coffee: I begin with coffee because everyone who smokes cigars and likes coffee thinks they go well together. Coffee is the closest thing I know to a universal pairing for cigars. Not only does everyone like it, it goes with every cigar! People like their coffee in different ways. Some prefer cream and sugar, some like one or the other but not both, and some like it black. But no matter how you like your coffee, if you do like it, it goes well with cigars. Coffee makes a “good pairing”. I happen to roast my own coffee. If you get into that hobby, you will find yourself sampling coffees from all over the world (another blog at some point). Like every flavor related hobby, the palate becomes more discriminating as you taste a wider variety and grow more sensitive to the flavor differences between them. Some coffee I like black, and others with just a little bit of sugar (and I mean a little like 1/8 teaspoon in an 8 ounce cup). The mild acidity and bitterness of coffee cleans the palate and sets up the contrast needed to taste sweetness, nuttiness, chocolate and roasted flavors in the cigar. I have yet to notice any difference that different coffees make to cigar flavors, but every coffee seems to work. When cigar blenders smell smoldering leaves to get some idea of the flavors they’ll impart to a blend, they use the aroma of roasted coffee beans to cleanse the nasal receptors. Whatever it is about coffee, it seems to work for everyone. What burning tobacco desensitizes in the nose, coffee restores particularly well.

Tea: I like tea even more than coffee. Black or green tea I drink about twice as much of it as coffee in a day. Neither goes as well with cigars as coffee. Like coffee, I think it’s the little bit of acidity and bitterness that makes tea an effective palate cleanser, but its aroma is not as good a nose contrast as coffee. Personally I think a good black tea like an English breakfast blend works better with cigars than green tea but for me neither does the job really well.

Non-carbonated sweet drinks: I’m thinking here of things like lemonade and fruit juices. I like a good glass of lemonade on a hot day as well as the next person, but I haven’t found it to be particularly good with cigars. That said, some non-carbonated sweet drinks, in particular acidic and not too sweet drinks (like some lemonaids) do a great job of palate cleansing.

Sweet Soda: Colas, root beer, and in particular Dr. Pepper (a cola with spices that taste like anise, cardamom, and allspice) have all made good cigar pairings for people who enjoy them. As noted before, the carbonation cleans both the tongue and nose receptors while the sweetness and other flavors provide some contrast that sets up cigar flavors. Usually it’s the darker more fully flavored sodas that work best. Dr. Pepper in particular (if you like it) is flavor rich and has a noticable effect on cigars. I don’t know anyone who prefers blonde sweet soda (like 7-Up) with their cigars, but they should at least make good palate cleaners. I’m not a big soda fan, but I have enjoyed colas and carbonated lemonaid with cigars. I’ve tried things like apple cider with cigars, but it doesn’t do anything for me. Remember though, where there is carbonation there is palate cleansing.

Dairy: I don’t see much dairy like milk or cream (other than as part of mixed drinks, see below) paired with cigars. Fat has a couple of influences on flavor. First it coats the molecules sensed by the taste buds so diminishes their impact. At the same time, it sticks to the tongue holding those same flavor molecules over the taste buds longer (a few seconds or more) than they are without the fat. This has the effect of prolonging contact between a taste molecule and a taste bud enhancing flavor. But while this is a known effect of fat on food flavors (the main reason fatty meats are more flavorful) I’m not sure it works with cigars because cigar smoke, which holds the tobacco’s flavor molecules sticks to the taste buds all by itself.

Alcoholic pairings

Mixed drinks: With one exception I don’t know of anyone who pairs cigars with mixed drinks other than perhaps rum and cola. If the drink is made with carbonated water (or perhaps champagne) it will have the usual palate cleaning effect. I don’t drink mixed drinks and so (again with one exception) don’t pair them with cigars. I cannot speak to them as cigar compliments. The exception for me and many others is a double pairing of coffee with some alcohol and then cigars. Irish coffee (Irish whiskey & cream) is the classic of course. In this case, it’s possible that the fat (cream) has an enhancing effect on the coffee-whiskey combination and that in turn works with the cigar. I think Irish whiskey in coffee works even without the cream because it doesn’t have a lot of rich flavors of its own and acts to enhance the sharpness and sweetness of the coffee. Lots of coffee-whiskey pairings also work. Combinations like brandy/cognac change the flavor of the coffee more than Irish whiskey, but they enhance the coffee and tobacco flavors present in the cigar with or without the coffee. I’ve also very sweet coffee pairings like Kaluha or chocolate liqueur. I challenge anyone to have a cup of coffee with an ounce of chocolate liqueur mixed in and not taste chocolate in the next cigar puff.

Beer: Beer is carbonated so it works well as a palate cleanser. Besides that I haven’t noticed much about cigar-beer pairings other than that they work out fine if you like the beer. I’m very particular about beer. I don’t like the Buds, Millers, Coors, or any of the other common and less expensive beers. My taste runs to richer micro-brewery beers, especially the darker ones, but I’ve enjoyed cigars with good India Pale Ales too. The thing about beer, for me, is that I like them when I’m outside and it’s hot, or with rich foods like pizza. I think beers go better with food than with cigars, but that’s just me. I’ve smoked many cigars with both good and bad (because there wasn’t anything else) beers but I haven’t come across a particularly strinking combination. For my palate, a good beer is great as a palate cleaner, but doesn’t seem to affect the flavor of a cigar very much otherwise. That being said, I have yet to try cigars with more extreme dark and thick beers.

Wine: Made dominantly from grapes (and sometimes other sweet fruits) wine is a generic term for some fermented fruit juice. Fermentations can go two ways. When you ferment a juice in the presence of oxygen (aerobic fermentation), you get vinegar. Vinegar is made from grapes and other fruits but is to acidic to drink. When sweet juice is fermented in the absence of oxygen (anerobic fermentation) you get alcohol. A fermentation step is common to every kind of drinkable alcohol. In the case of beer, the end result is (often after filtering) what comes out of the fermentation tank itself. In wine’s case, the fermentation product is aged in different kinds of wood barrels most commonly oak. The aging process produces all the magical chemical compounds (combinations of acid and alcohol called esthers) that, besides the grape used, give wine its flavor. The barrel wood contributes some of these flavors including flavors from other wines or alcoholic products previously aged in those same barrels! Using barrels from one product in the aging of another is one of the ways vintners infuse different flavors into the wine. These changes are allowed to occur over a few and sometimes many years. There is much more of course to the variety of wine flavors. Wine from different grapes can be mixed either before or after they age barrels of one age are sometimes mixed with others of different ages. Every choice in this process produces a different sort of wine.

People enjoy wine-cigar pairings with many kinds of wine and here as much as anything else what’s good depends on you. I don’t much like dry wine (the sort one has with main courses) and cigar pairings even though I like dry wines with my food. Rich dry reds are very acidic and seem to overwhelm cigar flavors. Dry whites do a good palate cleansing job but I haven’t found them particularly good at melding with the medium and strong cigars I like to smoke. Sweet wines, ports and sherries are another story. For me, ports pose the same problem as dry reds, their flavors go over the top of the cigar. But sherries work very well for me. Sherries have a strong wood and sweet smokey component to their flavor and these seem perfectly suited to complimenting the same flavors in the cigar. I’ve tried various sherries with cigars and in general the oakier the sherry the better it works.

Whiskeys: Here we enter into a gigantic world. Whiskies are different because their alcohol content is much higher (40% or more alcohol-by-volume [ABV]) than beers (8%-12% ABV) or wines (12% ABV). This has much more effect on the tongue and nose. Whiskey pairing cigar smokers learn that they can ready the nose for the cigar just by inhaling the alcohol and other molecules coming of the whiskey in the glass. Wine and beer flavors come mostly from the nose-tongue combination, but with whiskey, thanks to the evaporating alcohol lifting the aromatic molecules, there is often as much cigar-enhancing flavor in the scent alone.

Let me quickly review the whiskey making process. Like wine, the process begins with fermentaion into alcohol of the juice of some plant. If the plant juice isn’t particularly sweet, sugar is added (or plant starches are converted to sugars in a pre-fermentation process) because it’s the sugar that turns into alcohol. After fermentation the alcohol-juice mixture is distilled. The alcohol is driven off (by heating) along with the volitile aromatic and flavor molecules and concentrated. The amount of concentration and which concentrates (there are early/light, middle, and late/heavy distillates) are used in the blend explains some of the great variety of flavors in whiskeys. Other flavors are imparted by the kind of still used in the process. Each type of distillation imparts characteristic flavors. After the distillation and re-mixing, the liquid is, like wine, put into barrels and aged sometimes for many years. As with wine, this aging process produces new aromatic molecules. As with wine, barrels previously used to age different products (frequently wines or other whiskeys) impart particular flavors and barrels containing whiskey different ages may be mixed. In whiskey ageing the inside of barrels is sometimes deliberately charred adding smokey components to the flavor. The climate, temperature and humidity of the ageing room also contributes to the flavors of whiskey. These affect the speed of chemical change and the evaporation rate. Barrels breath. Not only to they let in a little air but alcohol and water evaporate through the wood. Most whiskeys are, like wine, aged in cool rooms, but bourbons (sometimes) and rums (most of the time) are aged in warm rooms.

As wine flavors vary with the grape used, the dominant flavor in whiskey comes from the plant fermented. Scotch starts with malted (soaked to convert starch to sugar and then dried in peat-fired kilns) barley. Bourbon begins with corn, rye with rye, vodka with potato (originally, today it’s mostly artificial), and tequilia from agave. Wine (grape) distills into brandy (or cognac if from a certain region of France). Sugar and sugar derivatives like molasses distills into rum and there are many more. At least to me growing up in the U.S. the term ‘whiskey’ has usually meant one of the trio scotch, rye, bourbon. These days rum, vodka, gin (juniper), and distillates of rice wine are usually classed with the whiskeys so for my purposes all the distilled products of some fermentation will be whiskeys.

Liqueurs are related to the whiskeys. Usually liqueurs are made from some whiskey mixed with more sweetner and other flavors. They are heavily adulterated, very sweet, whiskeys. Lots of folks like to pair liqueurs with cigars. My first cigar pairing drink was a liqueur called Irish Mist, a combination of Irish Whiskey, honey, and a few other unspecified spices. Irish Mist is sweet, but not as sweet as other liqueurs. I found it struck just the right combination of sweetness and vegetal whiskey (like scotch, Irish Whiskey starts with barley) for my palate and I enjoyed a glass once in a while long before I began smoking cigars.

Aside from mixed drinks not much used for cigar pairing, the whiskeys quaffed in combination with cigars tend to be those that can be sipped, like cognac, rather than shot like tequila. Some prefer their sipping whiskey neat, that is un-diluted by water or ice. Scotch, bourbon, rye, and rum (neat or otherwise) account for most cigar pairings I’ve seen on social media. Each of these types is sold in a wide variety of qualities and price, and within the scotch, rye, and bourbons there several dozen offerings that are arguably among the best examples of their category. Typically these cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 and up. The cognacs and brandies are also a somewhat narrow and expensive group. By contrast, there are probably more kinds of rum, even good rums, than all the good scotches, bourbons, ryes, and maybe even brandies put together. The rums are so varied that I will put off discussion of them to part III.

Since I don’t drink scotch, rye, or bourbon I can’t speak to their cigar pairing qualities from personal experience. Scotch drinkers have told me that strong vegetal and earthy flavors in that category enhance similar flavors often found in cigars. I haven’t heard even that much from rye and bourbon drinking cigar smokers, but I hope some of them will contribute comments to this thread. I have paired my cigars with a few different cognacs and brandies. The effect there, for me, comes from coffee, dried dark fruit, and tobacco flavors of the cognac. These reinforce similar flavors in cigars while the strong alcohol component sets up the tongue and nose for the next puff.

In part III I’ll talk about rums.

Common Sense Cigar Pairing

group photo at Drew Estate
That’s me on the far right at Drew Estate in January 2015

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.

In part II I begin exploring many drinks people like pairing with cigars. In part III I cover rums.